2pm this Sunday is the dedication of the Elaine Massacre Memorial in Helena, AR. We’ll be there. There's a lot going on, but this feels important, to recognize history and honor its victims – and to stand in community against ugliness that persists today.
Here’s what happened:
“Elaine, with a population of about 500, made national headlines when a tree commemorating the death of more than 200 black people in 1919 at the hands of a white mob was chopped down.”
Last month. August, 2019.
“There is a 'black side' and a 'white side' of the story,” so we’re quoting the Washington Post article here. Do read it in full, or Google News search “Elaine massacre” to find other sources:
“Getting the ‘real story’ out about what happened that year is challenging in a town where descendants from both sides live… Dredging up the past can feel burdensome and blame-inducing to a community that is relatively low on crime and where good manners are appreciated.”
This is a story about Elaine. But it’s a dynamic that resonates across so many small towns still grappling with our history – in the South and beyond.
In 1919, black sharecroppers organized. They joined the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. They pooled resources, hoping to hire a lawyer to fight for a fair share of cotton’s profits in a system that trapped them in debt.
After many sharecroppers returned from WWI, they “started meeting in churches to collect fees and dues for a lawyer and to organize. Word spread, and a group of white men, some believed to be part of law enforcement, gathered at a church on Sept. 30, 1919. While there are different versions of whether the black sharecroppers or the white men outside the church fired the first shot, gunfire broke out, chaos followed and a white man ended up dead. News of the death swirled around the area, stoking fears of a black uprising.”
Estimates and oral histories vary, but over the next several days in this small town, mobs of white people killed 200-800 black people. With the assistance of 500 troops called in by the Governor of Arkansas. The Helena armory opened its doors to anyone white who wanted a weapon. Investigative journalist Ida B. Wells wrote in her 1920 pamphlet “The Arkansas Race Riot" that hundreds of white men were "chasing down and murdering every Negro they could find, driving them from their homes and stalking them in the woods and fields as men hunt wild beasts."
WaPo continues: “In the aftermath of the riot, 285 black people were arrested, and the Phillips County grand jury charged 122 black people with crimes ranging from night riding to murder. The first 12 men tried were convicted of murder and sentenced to death by electric chair. Their case, Moore v. Dempsey, would limit how much local governments could deny federal constitutional rights.
If it were not for the NAACP intervening in the case, what happened in Elaine might not have seen the light of day by the greater public, Madyun [Dir. of the Florida A&M Southeastern Regional Black Archives and Research Center] said.
The post-massacre media was effective in communicating the message of black insurrection, Madyun said, which is why the Elaine riots are not part of the public consciousness as much as other well-known uprisings, such as 1921 Tulsa race riot.”
Fast forward to today:
There will now be a memorial to the people who died, 100 years later.
Sunday at 2pm, the ceremony will begin with an interfaith prayer service dedicated to those known and unknown who lost their lives in the Elaine Massacre. Then Judge Brian Miller, an Elaine Massacre descendant, will share his perspective, as will Arkansas State Representative Chris Richey and Dr. Catherine Meeks, Exec. Director of the Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta.
We don’t know who chopped down the tree. We don’t know if they’ll be there. But we will.
Elaine Massacre Memorial construction | July, 2019 | (c) Shared Experiences USA