A tiny Arkansas town has made U.S. history by electing the country’s youngest black mayor, Jaylen Smith, 18, who believes he can achieve greatness without leaving his hometown.
Earle, Arkansas, is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town in western Crittenden County just off U.S. Route 64 which leads to Memphis, Tennessee. Its population is just over 1,800 people, according to census data collected in 2020.
Constituents of the small town, where the once lucrative shoe factory has closed and the supermarket pulled out, voted Smith into office early December hopeful his ‘youthful energy’ will boost the city’s fortune.
Smith told the New York Times, he had no plans to leave his hometown, where generations of his family have lived and where he hoped to make a real difference in the lives of his community.
A tiny Arkansas town has made U.S. history by electing the country’s youngest Black mayor, Jaylen Smith, 18, who believes he can achieve greatness without leaving his hometown
‘Why should I have to go somewhere else to be great when I can be great right here in Earle, Arkansas?’ Smith mused a few days after his inauguration last week.
Smith, beat his opponent 235 votes to 183 in a campaign he started while still in high school and promised to focus on transportation, public safety, and reopening a grocery store in the small town.
The 18-year-old who has described himself as a ‘go-getter’ identifies as a Democrat – although the mayoral race itself is nonpartisan.
His much older opponent, Nemi Matthews Sr., who turns 60 this year, and Earle’s street and sanitation superintendent, said their two families knew each other and that ‘everything [had] been cordial,’ during the race for the top job.
His victory made him one of the youngest African American mayors ever elected in the country a point of enormous pride to his family and supporters.
‘It’s an asset because he’s motivated, and he has fresh ideas,’ Tyneshia Bohanon, a city councilwoman who came to know Smith while substitute teaching in Earle’s public schools, said to the New York Times.
‘He’s thinking of others, as he always has. He chose to stay and get his city where he knows it can be.’
Constituents of Earle, where the once lucrative shoe factory has closed and the supermarket pulled out, voted Smith into office early December hopeful his ‘youthful energy’ will boost the city’s fortune
Smith is an active member of his community and is seen here delivering dinners to some of the elderly residents in Earle in July 2022 prior to becoming mayor
The supermarket plan was a pillar of Smith’s campaign, as was building up the Earle Police Department so it can operate 24 hours a day – an issue he told slate.com was personal to him.
‘I knew issues like public safety weren’t getting any better. I’m looking at all the avenues, like grant funding, that I can get to make sure we have the best policy to hire more officers,’ he said.
‘Public safety is very personal to me, because in 2016, my cousin was killed, and my house was robbed, and no one was on duty.
‘It was so crazy, and it’s still happening today – people’s houses are getting broken into, people are burning down houses, people are stealing here and there, and we need that public safety. Not only 24 hours a day, but seven days a week.’
Earle’s population is currently declining at a rate of 3.38 percent annually and has decreased by 23.78 percent since the most recent census, according to worldpopulationreview.com as of Jan 11.
The average household income in Earle is $40,726 with a poverty rate of 42.35 percent, according to the outlet.
While, the median age in Earle is 36.2 years, 35.2 years for males, and 38.1 years for females with a 72.9 percent of residents identifying as black or African American.
Smith said he won over his constituents by talking about patching up streets, tearing down rundown buildings and lifting the community’s morale.
‘I’m young, and I have fresh ideas. And I’m passionate, and I was driven and dedicated to getting things done,’ Smith said of why he ultimately won.
Although he’ll be a busy community leader, he’ll also have to be a student.
Smith said he had no plans to leave his hometown, where generations of his family have lived and where he hoped to make a real difference in the lives of his community
Earle, Arkansas, is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town in western Crittenden County just off U.S. Route 64 which leads to Memphis, Tennessee. Its population is just over 1,800 people, according to census data collected in 2020
Smith recently graduated from Earle High School, in a class of 43 students, and now attends the Arkansas State University Mid-South in West Memphis. Becoming mayor has always been a personal goal of his.
‘It all started in high school with the Student Government Association. We were so passionate about advocating for students to get better opportunities,’ he told the outlet.
‘We also made a difference in the community by advocating for senior citizens who don’t have transportation to the grocery store or to the doctor.
‘We went to the city council meetings, and we advocated for public safety, public transportation, and better housing within the community. That organization drove me to where I am today.’
Not everyone was ready to entrust him with leading the city. One of his biggest obstacles as a candidate was persuading sceptics who cited his age and lack of experience.
But his supporters argued that they were not asking voters to put their city in the hands of any 18-year-old, but a trustworthy and well-known member of the community who had become a fixture at City Council meetings and community events.
‘Sometimes, when the City Council members didn’t show up, Jaylen was there,’ Angela Jones, a councilwoman told the New York Times.
‘He attends the school board meetings, the water commission meetings,’ she added.
‘He was young, and he was doing this — who does that? At a young age, he had purpose.’
Earle, whose population is largely Black, sits about 28 miles from Memphis amid farmland where cotton and beans are grown, Smith describing it as a ‘family town.’
Not everyone was ready to entrust him with leading the city, but his supporters argued that they were not asking voters to put their city in the hands of any 18-year-old, but a trustworthy and well-known member of the community who had become a fixture at City Council meetings
Although Smith’s attention is on Earle, he said he’s hoping to one day see this position as a stepping stone to the White House
He joins a small group of young mayors from over the years.
Michigan town of Hillsdale elected 18-year-old Michael Sessions in 2005.
Sam Juhl, the 20-year-old mayor of Roland, Iowa, caucused for the first time in 2008.
Ben Simons won the race with 148 votes in 2018 in Yoncalla Oregon.
While Brandon Paulin was made the mayor of the town of Indian Head, Maryland at 19 years old.
In 2019, a 7-month-old boy became mayor of a small town in Texas, but the role was purely ceremonial.
There are no comprehensive records collecting the ages of municipal leaders, but the Association of African American Mayors told the New York Times that when Smith officially joins, he will be its youngest member by more than a decade.
During his campaign, Smith door knocked nearly every home in Earle and spent days shadowing mayors in other Arkansas cities, including Little Rock and West Memphis.
He also scheduled video calls with mayors outside the state, eager to learn what the job entailed.
‘You have to have the knowledge,’ Mr. Smith said.
‘You have to have the character. You have to be disciplined.’
On New Year’s Day, in a government building in Marion, about 17 miles away from Earle, judges swore in mayors, council members and incoming law enforcement officers from several towns.
Each received a certificate attesting to the oath they had just taken. But no other municipality had a crowd like Earle’s, with many people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Smith’s face.
Although Smith’s attention is on Earle, he told ABC News he’s hoping to one day see his position as a stepping stone to the White House.
‘I’m praying to become the President of the United States one day,’ he said.