New monument honors victims of 1919 racist massacre

Some say it needs to be elsewhere in Arkansas

By Christina Maxouris, CNN
LAKANA

(CNN) - One hundred years ago, Kyle Miller's great uncles were shot and killed passing through Elaine, Arkansas, on their way home from a hunting trip.

They were among the hundreds of black people murdered in the first days of October 1919 by white mobs and government troops who poured into the small farming community on the Arkansas Delta after false rumors of an uprising by black sharecroppers.

This week, Miller and other members of the Elaine Massacre Memorial board will unveil a monument in Helena, Arkansas, to commemorate the killings.

It will be the first of its kind to honor the victims of the massacre and, its supporters hope, a first step toward acknowledging and healing from the tragedy.

"It was an ugly part of our history and it was something that most people didn't want to remember," Miller said. "I think everybody's realizing that there's more conversations that need to be had."

"This is our contribution to the story."

But as Helena's board moves forward, their new memorial has opened old wounds in the nearby town of Elaine, where the epicenter of the massacre was and where residents -- after decades of watching their story go untold -- say they should dictate how it is now shared.

"The people in Helena who are the cultural, the financial and the political descendants of the white power structure who orchestrated and lied about the massacre will now pretend to commemorate it," one critic of the memorial, Arkansas pastor and judge Wendell Griffen, said.

 

The massacre

 

The Elaine Massacre was one of the bloodiest episodes in a string of similar clashes in which white men targeted black communities across the country in 1919. The events became known as "Red Summer."

The killings in the Arkansas town began after white law enforcement officers discovered a secret September 30 meeting held by black sharecroppers from Phillips County -- where both Helena and Elaine are located -- who planned to unionize.

White men from surrounding communities descended on Elaine, "destroying homes and businesses and attacking anyone in their path," the Equal Justice Initiative says. They were joined by white troops returning from war, according to the Central Arkansas Library System.

"They muster these men up and they send them as a force to crush the union," said Dr. Brian Mitchell, an assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Some of the white mobs came from Helena, Mitchell said.

More than 200 black people were killed and another 200 jailed and tortured in the attacks, according to the Arkansas State Archives.

No white men were arrested for the killings, the professor said.

More than 120 black people were charged with crimes following the Elaine killings and 12 black men were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, the state's archives say. Those sentences were later reversed with the help of the NAACP.

 

A town stuck in the past

 

The Helena monument is a first step toward acknowledging that part of history, Miller said.

"What's incredibly powerful is the fact that you have ... the descendants whose family members were victims and those whose family members potentially had involvement in the posse ... now joining together," he says. "That's the strongest statement you can make about unity and the progress we are making."

But others are hesitant of such claims of progress.

"Helena did nothing over the past 100 years to deal with the trauma of the people of Elaine whose relatives were massacred," pastor and judge Griffen said.

The town of Elaine feels like "you have been put into a time warp," he said, with the racial divide still very much present today.

"You've got the economic center of the community controlled by whites and the black people are very much in a servile worker situation," Griffen said. "Like segregation never ended."

There are still disputes about who owned much of the land in Elaine in 1919. Residents say a big part was owned by black people, but professor Mitchell says there's been virtually no evidence of that. On the contrary, he believes the land was owned by a "handful of white men."

Residents in Elaine believe their land was stolen during the massacre and they're holding on to hope it will be restored, says Rev. Mary Olson, the founder of the Elaine Legacy Center. The center has been collecting oral histories from people living in Elaine, many of whom are descendants of the massacre's survivors.

"The theme of many of the oral histories is 'give it back,'" Olson, who is white, said. "(There are) remnants of land that was once owned by African Americans but it's much smaller," she says.

Today, Elaine is a majority-black town of less than 600 where more than 40% of the residents live below the poverty level. Helena, in comparison, has a few more than 10,000 residents.

"We are here, if not the poorest county in America, very close to it," Olson said. "We need here to really get beyond 1919."

There are no schools in town, she says -- just one preschool. And on Elaine's Main Street, one bank stands along several nonprofits, businesses, a restaurant and a few empty buildings.

Along the highway, Olson says there are tractor and agricultural supply stores -- proof the community is still very much a farming town, just like it used to be.

Olson hopes the Elaine Legacy Center will help spur change. She's set on restoring many of the town's abandoned sites, creating a museum, opening up a welcome center and expanding after-school youth programs. She says she wants to begin sharing the oral histories they've been collecting from descendants who still live in Elaine today.

There is progress already being made, Olson says, and hopes the town will soon become a prosperous community "with the recognition of being the epicenter of the massacre and the tourism and research that go with that."

 

Told to move on

 

Until now, Mitchell and some Elaine residents said, descendants of the victims have had to live as though the massacre never happened.

"It didn't behoove the white community to keep bringing up that they had these injustices," the history professor said. "For them it's a very uneasy thing to know that their grandfathers and great-grandfathers participated in that."

Following the attacks, black people did not bring it up, Mitchell says, for fear of being killed.

"For generations people just suppressed it because they felt there was nothing they could do about it," he says.

When Elaine did finally erect a memorial to its victims in April, the remembrance -- a weeping willow tree -- was chopped down, Olson says. The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, which maintains the public property where the memorial was planted, confirmed to CNN that the tree was chopped down.

It felt like "a slap in the face," said James White, an Elaine resident and director of the Elaine Legacy Center.

"My grandparents, my mother and father were here and they told me how hard they suffered. People were murdered, shot down, had to hide in the swamps. ... People were just gunning them down like dogs," White said.

Griffen, Olson and White want the chopping down of the tree investigated as a hate crime.

CNN reached out to Elaine Police Department Chief Alvin Scaife, but he said he was not aware of an investigation.

With their own stories stifled for exactly 100 years and Elaine's attempt at a memorial decimated, the Helena monument feels like another testimony of "the ability of white supremacists to command a narrative," Griffen, the pastor and judge, said.

 

'Let them see what the truth is'

 

But many are in support of the structure, which will stand across from the courthouse where black men were prosecuted for the massacre.

It doesn't matter what town the memorial is in, said veteran Rev. Anthony Davis Sr., whose family has owned land in Phillips County and who now lives in Pine Bluff, about 100 miles west of Elaine. His grandfather was put on house arrest by white men who came from Helena during the 1919 episode and his guns were taken away, Davis said.

"They kill a good idea like that when they start arguing on where it should be," he said. "The real issue is that everybody needs to know what happened."

If anything, Davis said, the Helena monument should be expanded to tell a more complete story.

They should build another statue, a monument, Davis says, "on the other end of the street, of the people that they beat. Let them face each other."

"Let them see what the truth is," Davis says.

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