The main street of Elaine in the rural Arkansas Delta looks less like a thoroughfare and more like a scar. A dozen empty shops in one-story brick buildings, some crumbling, line the desolate street near a well-kept Baptist church. A rusty water tower stands in the distance. On one corner, an empty building with a sign on posterboard reads, “Coming Soon, Elaine Museum & Civil Rights Center.”
This fledgling effort by the Elaine Legacy Center, founded in 2017, is meant to raise awareness of one of the worst, and nearly forgotten, incidents of racial violence in U.S. history, the 1919 Elaine Massacre. More than 100 Black men, women and children were killed over three days, as were five white men. There are no records of any of the Black victims’ burials. Never found, their bodies could remain in the soil around Elaine. The Center has raised half of its $600,000 fundraising goal to launch the museum, among other initiatives.
The ongoing struggle to control the story of the Elaine Massacre, which now includes nascent conversations about reparations, is a microcosm of the U.S.’s struggle to remember, or forget, or deny, or to come to terms with, its history of chattel slavery and the multifaceted racist repercussions that have followed. Many Arkansas historians, writers, researchers and educators have been pushing to reveal the Elaine Massacre story over the past 20 years, as have the descendants, even one whose ancestor was a perpetrator. But those who want to incorporate the Massacre into today’s reality are sometimes met, they say, with quiet and forceful opposition.
Lisa Hicks-Gilbert grew up in Elaine, but only found out about the Massacre while in college, when she picked up Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919 by Grif Stockley, published in 2001. “I thought it was fiction!” she exclaims. Hicks-Gilbert, who now lives in Little Rock, recalls feeling numbed by the revelations because of her community’s silence. “No one ever uttered a word,” says Hicks-Gilbert.
Lately, the struggle over history has entered the statehouse.
On January 19, which happens to be Arkansas’s Day of Racial Healing, three Republican Arkansas Representatives, all white men, introduced a state bill HB 1218 that would prohibit public schools the “… offering of certain types of courses, classes, events, and activities that pertains to race, gender, political affiliation, social class, or particular classes of people…” The bill was sponsored by Rep Mark Lowery, who represents a district near Little Rock.
The Elaine Massacre
The Elaine Massacre began on September 30, 1919. White landowners typically kept Black sharecroppers in perpetual debt. In response, a group of Black sharecroppers, some recent veterans of WWI, met at a church in nearby Hoops Spur to discuss unionizing. Organizing a local chapter of The Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, founded and led by Robert Hill, would likely yield higher prices for their cotton. Having heard about the meeting, some white men from Elaine arrived at the church. Shots were fired, leaving one white man dead.
Enraged, white vigilantes and lynch mobs, and eventually the National Guard under the direction of the governor, arrived in Elaine and other parts of Phillips County. They took part in a three-day massacre. “They were trying to create wealth to build for their families,” reflects Hicks-Gilbert on the sharecroppers. “Because they had those dreams, they were slaughtered and imprisoned.”
It’s thought 100 to 200 Black men, women and children were killed by white mobs—shot, hanged or burned alive; five white men were also killed. Approximately 260 Blacks were arrested, and some were tortured by law enforcement for confessions. The legendary investigative Black journalist Ida B. Wells traveled to Arkansas from Chicago and interviewed witnesses. In her book The Arkansas Race Riot, published in 1920, sharecropper Alfred Banks recalls, “I was whipped three times in jail, also was put in an electric chair in Helena and shocked. I have scars on my body to show now. Now I’m sentenced to death. I did not kill anybody.”
Almost immediately after the massacre, the campaign to control or erase the story began. On Oct. 7, 1919, the sheriff dispersed flyers ordering Elaine’s Black population to “stop talking!” and proclaiming that “no innocent negro has been arrested.” Many stayed quiet out of fear. “There were repercussions for talking about it,” says Dr. Brian Mitchell, a history professor and researcher at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, “the same people who committed the atrocities ran the town. You could lose your job. You can lose your life.”
Dr. Mitchell has created a massive database of Elaine Massacre documents, from Governor Charles Brough’s scrapbook to newspaper articles. Most publications framed the riot as a group of Black insurrectionists on the hunt to kill whites. An all-white jury sentenced 12 Black men to death, including Frank and Ed Hicks, Hicks-Gilbert’s relatives.
Miraculously, the NAACP lawyer Scipio A. Jones was able to spare the 12 men from death on appeal in 1923. No one was ever charged for the hundreds of Black murders.
Elaine Is Still Unknown
The massacre remains shrouded in silence in Elaine, although it’s been changing. When Hicks-Gilbert asked her grandmother about it, she remembers her grandmother’s back stiffening as she stood at her kitchen sink. Close the door, she told her granddaughter, so the neighbors wouldn’t hear.
The massacre is referenced in Elaine by a series of panels on the raised railroad tracks across from the main street. Installed in 2014, they were produced by the State Parks Exhibit Shop in partnership with the Department of Arkansas Heritage. But the wording, such as “… Many white citizens thought the society was persuading the sharecroppers to create violence…” is vague. A willow tree was planted in 2019 as a living memorial, but was chopped down at its base several months later.
A more formal monument was erected and dedicated in 2019, to mark a century since the massacre. The somber concrete memorial was designed by local artist Amoz Eckerson and is located in Helena, 26 miles away from Elaine. Helena was chosen—amid controversy—over Elaine because it would be easier for visitors to access, as Helena is a more populated city with amenities and museums. But though the memorial, financed by a family with deep roots in Helena, received national attention, it has not become part of Phillips County’s tourism initiatives, which focus on the county’s blues music history.
The Lasting Economic Effects Of Slavery and Trauma
Elaine’s population hovers around 500, according to the latest Census, and nearly 35% live in poverty. Some 62% of the Black population lives in poverty, according to World Population Review. Hicks-Gilbert estimates 90 to 95% of Elaine’s surrounding farmlands are white-owned.
The schools closed in 2006, so Elaine kids attend a neighboring district’s school. While the population is split nearly evenly between Black and white residents, they typically live in separate parts of town, according to Hicks-Gilbert.
Elaine’s stagnant economy, like that of most of the agricultural Delta, is deeply entwined with the history of slavery and reconstruction’s sharecropping system, often referred to as “legal slavery.” Sharecropping kept many Black people in a cycle of poverty and systemic racism.
Blacks were brought to the Delta for the sole purpose of their labor, explains Dr. Mitchell. “And just as you might see a rusting hulk of an old tractor sitting out in the field,” says Dr. Mitchell, “these people were discarded. Unfortunately, the people who made vast fortunes off of their labor, their sweat, their suffering, and exploited the agreements that they had with them, they were able to reinvest their money into other lucrative areas.”
There were some Black professionals living in Elaine at the time of the massacre. “But that was also a predicament in the South in the early 20th century,” notes Dr. Mitchell, “white supremacy maintained that whites should always be in positions above Blacks.”
In addition to the massacre’s killing, sharecroppers’ crops and livestock were taken, homes and shops smashed, land was stolen (some Black farmers owned land), families were separated as many fled to hide from the white mobs; all experienced traumatic terror.
“So much of what happened then,” says Hicks-Gilbert of 1919, “is still is reflective of Elaine today.” She quotes a friend who recently said, “Lisa, you know, we can’t do anything in Elaine unless a white person is running it.” According to Hicks-Gilbert, the first Black-owned store in her memory is The Spot, a general store that opened approximately seven or eight years ago
Hicks-Gilbert created the Descendants of Elaine Massacre Facebook Page last year to reclaim the Elaine narrative. Descendants are those whose relatives lived through the massacre, fled, jailed or killed, but not each of the 1,548 followers is a descendant. It’s a space to communicate concerns, post relevant articles and tell their stories.
Arkansas’s Public Schools and HB 1218
Due to overwhelming pushback from the Arkansas public in opposition to HB 1218, the bill aiming to curb funding for public schools teaching the history of racial violence, among other challenging subjects, was amended and adopted on Jan. 27.
The revised HB 1218 bill now oddly addresses the grouping or isolating of students by race, gender, social class or “other distinctions” while teaching. It also states that public schools could not have a course, class, event or activity that promotes social justice for a particular race, gender or social class.
Clarice Abdul-Bey, a descendant of an Elaine sharecropper, lives in Little Rock and co-founded the non-profit Washitaw Foothills Youth Media Arts & Literacy Collective with her husband Kwami Abdul-Bey. “Talk about the past being present,” remarks Ms. Abdul-Bey of HB 1218, noting that Arkansas hasn’t reckoned with its history, including the Elaine Massacre.
“In the fine print, it’s the same thing,” states Ms. Abdul-Bey of the bill’s rewrite. She points out that public school teachers have not been dividing their students based on race or social class when teaching anyway. “Teachers should be insulted,” she adds.
Ms. Abdul-Bey facilitates educational projects about race and social justice and thinks that teaching lessons around the Elaine Massacre will get squelched if HB 1218 were to pass. Mr. Abdul-Bey, who is related to Arkansas’s last lynching victims in 1927, Frank and Lonnie Dixon, underscores that although HB 1218’s wording has changed, “the intent has not.” If passed, according to Mr. Abdul-Bey, the bill would “legalize selective amnesia.”
Rep, Mark Lowery didn’t return the Times of Entrepreneurship’s request for comment at publishing time, but was questioned in early February about teaching Black history if HB 1218 passed by KAIT’s Monae Stevens. He answered that it would be “committing educational malpractice in Arkansas” to not teach the 1957 Little Rock Central High Crisis or the “Elaine Riots.” It remains unclear what HB 1218 is trying to control or address.
“You have to contend with the notion of white supremacy at some point. We really have to have open discussions about it,” says Dr. Mitchell, who would be impacted, himself, if HB 1218 passed. “People can’t hide behind, ‘This makes me uncomfortable.’”
Coming To Terms With A Legacy Of Violence
One white, former Arkansas Delta resident who’s not afraid to examine the country’s gruesome history, is J. Chester Johnson who published the autobiographical book Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and a Story of Reconciliation, in the spring of 2020. It chronicles coming to terms with his family’s racist past, including his beloved grandfather’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan and participation in the Elaine Massacre.
“I can indeed link the convincing pieces that led to the conclusion Lonnie [Johnson’s grandfather] took part in The Elaine Race Massacre, but I cannot reconcile my love for Lonnie and his apparent views about and contributions to racism, as practiced in the Arkansas Delta by whites during the first part of the twentieth century.”
Johnson has become close friends with Sheila Walker, who he met in 2014. She is one of the Black descendants of the massacre. “We have become extraordinarily good friends, we talk constantly,” says Johnson, who lives in New York City.
Johnson concedes he might not have written Damaged Heritage if Donald Trump hadn’t become president and emboldened white supremacists. “I thought that after Obama was elected,” reflects Johnson, “that we were in this post-racial period—I mean, how wrong was I and how wrong were so many people?”
Dr. Mitchell is often asked about Elaine and reparations for descendants, but says bodies need to be found first. “The governor will have to embrace the idea of having a commission to investigate,” explains Dr. Mitchell, as vast resources are needed. He points to the commission formed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the discovery of a mass grave last year from the 1921 race massacre. “Once we find people, then the argument for reparations for the descendants of those people starts,” says Dr. Mitchell. “There are people still in Elaine today who will tell you it never happened. It’s all a figment of Black peoples’ imagination,” he adds, “Even with documents saying people were killed.”
Ms. Abdul-Bey thinks there are multiple ways to repair damage and make amends to Elaine massacre descendants. “Free education, free healthcare—for all Americans,” says Ms, Abdul-Bey, “I see that as reparations.” She suggests creative projects like painting murals and the water tower; having healthy foods accessible for Elaine residents as it’s a food desert. Ms Abdul-Bey also says that whites who condemn their ancestors’ past could actively help by voicing opposition to legislation like HB 1218.
The Wealth Accumulation Education Program was launched in January 2021 by the Elaine Legacy Center in partnership with the CDFI Southern Bancorp. Led by ELC’s Director of Programs James White (also owner of The Spot), the initiative gives 50 kids in Elaine bank accounts, opportunities to earn stipends, and free education on banking and stocks, which they will receive next year.
“Just someone saying, ‘I recognize that your family was traumatized by these events,’” says Hicks-Gilbert, “that’s what a lot of Black people want, they just want to be recognized and then we go on about our business. We are some of the most forgiving people, we just want to live in peace.”
The Elaine Legacy Center wants to make Elaine a Delta cultural destination. They are halfway through raising funds for the forthcoming Elaine Museum & Civil Rights Center, with $300,000 still to go. They hope it will attract visitors and heritage tourists interested in the region’s rich cultural history that includes slavery, reconstruction and the Elaine Massacre.
This story was produced as part of the Arkansas Reporting Project, focusing on entrepreneurship in Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta. The project was sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation.