For many people, family means everything. In Arkansas politics, it has often been an important springboard for careers. One particular family duo, Ben and Fadjo Cravens of Fort Smith, ended up serving a combined eleven terms in Congress in the early twentieth century. The father-son team had a great impact on developing southern and western Arkansas.
William Ben Cravens was born in Fort Smith in 1872. His father, William Murphy Cravens, had served as a Confederate cavalry officer during the Civil War and had established a respected law practice in Fort Smith after the war. It was known to be a close and loving family.
Cravens came from a family of good means. He was cousin to Jordan Cravens, a Clarksville attorney and Confederate veteran who served three terms in Congress from 1877 to 1883. He attended Louisville Military Academy in Kentucky as well as the prestigious Staunton Military Academy in Virginia. He then earned a degree from the University of Missouri.
William Cravens became an attorney in 1893 and joined his father’s practice in Fort Smith. He was an ambitious man and won election as city attorney in 1898. Four years after that, he was elected prosecuting attorney for the Twelfth Judicial District, which included Sebastian County.
In 1906, he was elected to represent the Fourth District in Congress, which took up most of Southwest Arkansas at the time. He won re-election by a wide margin in 1908, and he was re-elected without opposition in 1910. He served on the Military Affairs committee and the Indian Affairs Committee as well as the Congressional Red River Improvement Association, hoping river improvements would help the regional economy. Distractions, however, kept him from attending many votes, and his attendance record was much lower than average. In 1912, he was defeated for re-nomination. With a growing family in Fort Smith, he contented himself with a relatively quiet life as an attorney.
His successor, Otis Wingo, a DeQueen attorney, died in office in 1930. His wife, Effigenie Wingo, was elected to replace him, the first woman elected to Congress from Arkansas. In 1932, she declined to seek re-election. With his family grown and the Great Depression devastating millions of Americans, Cravens decided to re-enter politics. He jumped into the race to reclaim his seat in Congress.
Cravens won the Democratic nomination easily and faced no opposition in the general election. He was unopposed in each general election in his second round in Congress, winning without opposition in 1932, 1934, and 1936. Now 60 years old, he energetically served in Congress, actively supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s package of New Deal reforms, from farm subsidies to rural electricity to Social Security. He served on committees overseeing mining, elections, and flood abatement. He was elected to his seventh term in November 1938, but tragedy intervened. Cravens died suddenly in January 1939 in Washington, DC, at the age of 66.
William Fadjo Cravens, usually just referred to as “Fadjo,” was crushed by his father’s death, but he jumped into the race to succeed him. He had enlisted in the navy in World War I. After his honorable discharge, he returned to study law at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and became an attorney by 1920. He returned to Fort Smith to practice law, serving at his father’s side just like his father before him. Similarly, he became Fort Smith city attorney, running the office for ten years. He won the special election to Congress in 1939. Most of his time in Congress dealt with World War II. He actively supported the war effort and made sure that defense contracts came to the district, most notably to Camden, Pine Bluff, El Dorado, and Fort Smith as well as expansion of Fort Chaffee.
Fadjo Cravens was unopposed in each general election afterward. He was more moderate in his views than his father overall but was a popular and effective representative overall. He declined to run for re-election in 1948.
The younger Cravens returned to Fort Smith and served as an attorney for many more years. He died in 1974 at his home in Fort Smith. Though his own children did not become members of Congress themselves, his son, William Fadjo Cravens II, became a noted businessman in Fort Smith and served as a delegate to the state’s ill-fated constitutional convention in 1969.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at kbridges@ southark.edu.