HELENA-WEST HELENA -- At 2 p.m. today, a memorial to those slain in what has been called the deadliest racial conflict in the state's history will be dedicated here.
The Elaine Massacre Memorial at Court Square Park, 350 Perry St., has been built as a place to honor those killed in violence that began with a shootout on the evening of Sept. 30, 1919, at a meeting of black sharecroppers in a church in Hoop Spur, about 20 miles to the south.
Elaine Massacre Memorial Dedication
2-3 p.m. today, Court Square Park, 350 Perry St., Helena-West Helena. A reception will follow at the Phillips County Courthouse, 622 Cherry St.
Elaine Area Churches and Friends Worship
2 p.m. today, Elaine Legacy Center, 313 College Ave., Elaine
Guest preacher: Judge Wendell Griffen
Just how many black people were killed in the rampage that resulted in the days after is unclear, but most historians agree it numbers in the hundreds. Five white men were killed.
The centerpiece of the memorial is a 14,000-pound, 3-feet, 6-inch-tall altar-like cenotaph. On it is engraved: "Dedicated to those known and unknown who lost their lives in the Elaine Massacre." A map of Phillips County in 1919 is etched into the floor of the site, and a wall of marble-smooth concrete that rises up to 7 feet tall curves around the cenotaph.
The memorial, designed and built by Amoz Eckerson of Helena-West Helena, is privately funded and will be maintained with private funds paid by the Elaine Massacre Memorial Committee.
"The design is kind of a modern interpretation of a church, specifically the chancel of a church where the altar is," Eckerson says on a hot, sunny Friday morning earlier this month at the memorial. "The cenotaph is the focus of the whole thing ... it is the monument."
Following an interfaith prayer service, speakers at the dedication will be Catherine Meeks, executive director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta, and Brian Miller, district judge of the Eastern District U.S. District Courts. Poet and Arkansas native J. Chester Johnson will read a poem and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro will offer words of remembrance.
David Solomon and his brother, Rayman, are fourth-generation Helena natives. David is retired from a career in information technology and lives in New York. Rayman, a professor and dean emeritus of Rutgers Law School in Camden, N.J., lives near Philadelphia.
They both return to their hometown often to tend to family business, and helped start the memorial committee, which includes descendants of massacre victims. The Solomon family has deep roots in Helena and owned land in south Phillips County during the massacre. Their grandfather tried to join the posse that formed after the Hoop Spur confrontation but was turned away because he had young children at home.
There has been opposition, in Phillips County and beyond, from people who think the memorial belongs in Elaine, that the money used to build it could have been used for something else in one of the state's poorest counties or that it will just stir up bad memories in an area historically divided along racial lines.
"The memorial doesn't alleviate the terrible poverty, we acknowledge that," committee chairman David Solomon said in Little Rock earlier this month. "There's nothing we can do about those problems, but we can do something about memorializing this terrible event. It seems like the honest, decent thing to do."
The 1919 Hoop Spur church gathering, which included women and children, was a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union. The sharecroppers, who worked for wealthy, white landowners, were attempting to organize to obtain fair payments for their cotton crops.
The meeting was interrupted when three men -- Charles Pratt, a white Phillips County sheriff's deputy; W.A. Adkins, a white security officer with the Missouri-Pacific Railroad; and Kid Collins, a black trusty from the Phillips County Jail -- parked their car outside.
For decades, the story was told that their car had simply broken down, and they were looking for help.
In fact, they were probably sent by businessmen in Helena.
"We have evidence that they had been watching [union members] for some time," says Brian Mitchell, assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who has researched the massacre with his students and contributed to the 2018 book The Elaine Massacre and Arkansas, a Century of Atrocity and Resistance, 1819-1919. "It appears that they were initially going there to intimidate. Shots were fired, and people ended up dead."
Accounts differ on who fired first, but Adkins was killed and Pratt was injured.
Armed white posses descended on south Phillips County the day after the confrontation. Black people were being killed "like they wont nothen But dogs," according to a Nov. 12, 1919, letter quoted in Robert Whitaker's 2008 book, On the Laps of Gods, The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation. The Hoop Spur church, which was a few miles north of Elaine, was burned down.
Whitaker refers to the area just north of Elaine as the Killing Fields.
Helena officials, fearing an insurrection by black people, requested Gov. Charles Hillman Brough send troops to Elaine. Brough sent more than 500 soldiers from Camp Pike in North Little Rock and accompanied them to Phillips County.
Hundreds of black men and some women were jailed in Helena, the county seat that became Helena-West Helena when the two cities consolidated in 2006. According to two posse members, some of the prisoners were beaten and tortured. On Oct. 31, 1919, the Phillips County grand jury charged 122 black people with crimes ranging from murder to nightriding, an activity often associated with the Ku Klux Klan.
The first 12 black men tried -- Frank Moore, Frank Hicks, Ed Hicks, Joe Knox, Paul Hall, Ed Coleman, Alfred Banks, Ed Ware, William Wordlaw, Albert Giles, Joe Fox and John Martin -- were represented by indifferent white attorneys from Helena and sentenced to death in hastily conducted trials. Fearing the same fate, 65 others quickly entered plea bargains and were sentenced to prison.
Little Rock attorney Scipio Africanus Jones, a black man, with help from the NAACP, began the long battle to have the death sentences overturned for what became known as the Elaine Twelve, who were eventually freed.
For years, the story of the 1919 violence in Phillips County was mostly told through a white narrative as a revolt by black people who were out to kill whites during what became known as the Red Summer, when racial violence broke out in Georgia; South Carolina; Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Omaha; Knoxville, Tenn.; and other locations. In this version, only a handful of black people were killed and order was quickly restored.
Black journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who secretly interviewed members of the Elaine Twelve in jail, first wrote a more detailed account in her 1920 pamphlet Arkansas Race Riot.
Lee County native and Little Rock lawyer Grif Stockley's 2001 book Blood in Their Eyes, The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919, shed more light on what happened, and Whitaker's book went even deeper into the events. The Central Arkansas Library System Encyclopedia of Arkansas also has an overview, written by Stockley, of the massacre and the legal battle that followed.
Judge Brian Miller and his brother, Delta Cultural Center Director Kyle Miller, grew up in Helena and still live there. Their father, the late Dr. Robert Miller, was the city's first black mayor. The Miller brothers are part of the memorial committee and are descendants of massacre victims.
Four of their great uncles -- David Augustine Elihue Johnston, Gibson Allen Johnston, Louis Harrison Johnston and Leroy Johnston -- were killed during the 1919 violence while trying to return to Helena from pheasant hunting in south Phillips County.
David Johnston was a successful dentist and real estate investor in Helena; Leroy and Gibson had just been discharged from the Army after serving in World War I; and Louis Johnston, the eldest, was a doctor in Oklahoma visiting his brothers in Helena.
Sometime in the 1980s, when Brian Miller was in junior high school, he remembers his father reading a story about the Elaine Riot in the Arkansas Gazette.
"He looked a little disgusted and I asked him what was wrong," Brian says in his chambers at the Richard Sheppard Arnold United States Courthouse in Little Rock. "He said, 'My uncles died. There's more to it than just this.'"
His father told him a little bit about what happened, and Brian learned more later from his aunts.
"We didn't talk about it a whole lot," says Kyle in his second-floor office at the cultural center on Cherry Street a few blocks from the memorial. "It was just the infamous Elaine Riot. It wasn't until I read Grif's book in 2001 and I asked Dad about it that he began to fill in the gaps."
The subject of a memorial to the massacre came up when Brian Miller worked with David Solomon and others on a committee in 2015 to rename the United States Post Office and federal courthouse on Walnut Street in Helena-West Helena for Jacob Trieber, a Helena native who became the first Jew to serve as a federal judge in the United States. Trieber played a minor role in the massacre trials by staying the executions of Moore, Ed Hicks, Frank Hicks, Knox, Coleman and Hall before recusing from the case.
At first, there was an idea to place a plaque on an already-proposed clock tower, but something more substantial was soon planned.
Court Square Park is owned by the county and sits between the Phillips County Courthouse on Cherry Street, where the sham trials were held in 1919, and the Jacob Trieber Federal Building on Walnut Street.
Brian Miller says the group approached Phillips County Judge Clark Hall about the location and their idea for the monument, which also includes solar panels that will help supply electricity to part of downtown.
Hall says he told the quorum court about the matter at its March 2018 regular meeting.
"There were no objections to it," Hall says, adding that a vote was not required and no county money will be spent. The committee will pay an annual fee for upkeep of the memorial, he says.
Elaine is about 25 miles south of Helena-West Helena on Arkansas 44. It is a farming community, whose population, like Helena-West Helena's, has been in decline. There were 865 residents in 2000, by 2017 that number had dropped to 527.
While the dedication of the memorial is taking place in Helena-West Helena, another service, also at 2 p.m. will start in Elaine. That's when Sixth Judicial Circuit Judge and pastor Wendell Griffen of Little Rock will speak at the Elaine Legacy Center, 313 College Ave.
Griffen disagrees with the placement of the monument in Helena-West Helena.
"It didn't happen in Helena," he says. "You don't have a monument to the Alamo in Austin, Texas."
In a statement titled "Standing with Elaine," Griffen writes:
"Like the Elaine Race Massacre, the 2019 Helena 'monument' or 'memorial' shows how white supremacy operates to the detriment of black people in Elaine and throughout Phillips County. Erecting a 'monument' and placing the Elaine name will attract tourist dollars for white merchants. ...
"It will never honor the hundreds of black men, women and children from Elaine and south Phillips County who were massacred with the active cooperation of white supremacist local, state and federal authorities."
Griffen also opposes the location because of a Civil War memorial there.
James White is the director of the legacy center and a descendant of massacre victims.
"I don't think it's supposed to be there," he says. "It represents Elaine, and I think it's a slap in the face to all the people they tried [in 1919] to have it right in front of the courthouse."
The Rev. Mary Olson, a Methodist minister who lives in Helena-West Helena, is president of the legacy center.
"We feel the memorial belongs in Elaine, where the people died," she says.
Olson also takes issue with the origins of the massacre as reported by Stockley, Whitaker and other historians. She says that oral histories she has gathered indicate that the massacre was actually fueled by whites in Helena to steal land from black landowners in south Phillips County.
"The oral histories are very different from the academic histories," she says. "It was an attempt to take the land from African American farmers."
Mitchell, the UALR professor, says research by him and his graduate students hasn't verified those claims.
"We really found no substantiating evidence that this had taken place," he says. "Most of these people were dirt poor. They were tenant farmers on someone else's land."
Brian Miller says feedback he has gotten from some is that there shouldn't even be a memorial.
"What I gather is that they're like, 'Man, we have enough problems here anyway. Why start stirring the pot?' What I try to explain is that is not our purpose. The truth is, 10, 20 years from now, I think everyone will be beyond the idea of people getting stirred up and people will settle on that this is part of our history, we have overcome it and we can move past it."
One of Miller's mentors was David and Rayman Solomon's father, also named David, a well-known Helena-West Helena lawyer who died in 2017. Among Miller's friends, he says, are descendants of the landowners who organized the posses and covered up the story of the massacre.
"All these families are so interwoven and deal with each other every day," he says. "We've come so far. We need some 'oomph' to go a little further -- we have a lot of things to be resolved -- but we're on the way."
In a Sept. 3 speech to Rotary Club 99 of Little Rock, David Solomon addressed the issue of the memorial's location and its name.
"Elaine Massacre is a misnomer ... The massacre occurred over four days all over Phillips County, not simply in Elaine. The 'second massacre' -- torture and kangaroo trials and the resulting legal battles to prevent the Elaine Twelve from being executed -- occupied the next three years in Helena in the Phillips County Courthouse and the adjacent federal courthouse. Helena is thus the appropriate site of an enduring memorial."
Kyle Miller, of the cultural center, says: "I understand the arguments ... but I think the story is bigger than that. The trial is a story in itself, and there's also the story of Scipio Jones ... We had an opportunity to put it across from the actual courthouse that still stands. It just made a lot of sense."
Rayman Solomon points out that there is also a statue in the park dedicated to Southland College, a school for black students founded by Quakers in 1866 that was located in the Southland community about 10 miles northwest of Helena [it was temporarily removed while the massacre memorial was under construction].
And just because there is a memorial in Helena-West Helena doesn't mean there can't be one elsewhere, committee members say.
"It's not either-or," Rayman says. "We didn't say there can only be one memorial and it can only be in Helena. The group that is pushing for it to be [in] Elaine is free to build a memorial there."
A willow tree planted in Elaine as a living memorial to massacre victims was chopped down last month in what Olson calls a hate crime.
A new one will be planted, she says.
For nearly 100 years, there wasn't much talk about the Elaine Massacre, in Phillips County or elsewhere.
But recently, media from across the state and from as far away as England have reported on the anniversary of the massacre, the memorial and the disputes that surround it.
"Memorials matter," Kyle Miller says. "That's why we've had so much discussion about Confederate statues ... If anything, this will cause a conversation. It's going to get people to start communicating about the massacre, what it was, what it represented. That's important."
David Solomon remembers something a friend told him.
"He said that the memorial is like throwing a pebble in a pond. Who knows what the ripple effects will be?"
Style on 09/29/2019
Print Headline: Marking a tragedy