A groundbreaking is scheduled at noon today in Helena for a memorial to the victims of the Elaine Massacre in 1919, when white mobs killed hundreds of black Arkansans in the Delta, attacking men, women and children in one of the bloodiest racial conflicts in the postbellum history of the United States.
The setting for the memorial, in Court Square Park across from the Phillips County courthouse in Helena, has drawn some questions from local community members, including Mary Olson, the president of the Elaine Legacy Center, which opened last year to remember and honor the area’s civil rights history (its sign proclaims Elaine as the “Motherland of Civil Rights”).
Olson said that the groundbreaking — which will include an unveiling of the new monument’s design — is moving ahead despite no discussion or vote in the Quorum Court, the county’s governing body.
Various objections to the location have surfaced, Olson said: Some residents of Elaine believe that the memorial should be in Elaine rather than Helana, and argue that the larger city is seeking to create a tourist destination rather than helping the small town that suffered the massacre. Activists also object to the memorial being in the same park with a memorial to Confederate generals and another to the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto.
“There is not agreement among Phillips County citizens on placement of the monument,” Olson said. “Some are happy about the placement. Others do not want the Memorial in the Phillips County Park because it is in the same park with memorials for Seven Confederate Generals and de Soto. Still others want it located in Elaine because that is where most of the people were massacred. The feeling is strong about the location because in Elaine, most people have stories of suffering, death, and land loss that are being handed down from generation to generation. Rather than cement the location site, this groundbreaking today leads to controversy and opens up challenges to the decision that has no Quorum Court approval.”
A request was made to Phillips County Judge Clark Hall to postpone the groundbreaking “until the Quorum Court has time to listen to the citizens of the county, fully discuss, and vote.” Hall denied the request.
The concern expressed by the Elaine Legacy Center is notable — various civic leaders, including Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, state Rep. Chris Richey, and state Sen. Stephanie Flowers, have been involved in Center events. “Elaine must be proud of its past,” Griffen said in a speech at the Center’s inaugural event last year. “Proud of its leaders who didn’t give up. Don’t sweep history under the rug. Connect the dots so we know what is happening today.”
Check out the Arkansas Encyclopedia for more on the horrific Elaine massacre, the heroic union organization of black sharecroppers in the Delta, the rounding up of almost 300 innocent black Arkansans by federal troops who put them in makeshift stockades with no due process whatsoever, and the persecution of the “Elaine Twelve.” The white mobs who hunted black men, women and children, wrote the Arkansas Gazette in 1925, “committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes, or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.”
With the 100th anniversary a year away, here’s some further reading on the Elaine massacre and its legacy: Grif Stockley’s highly regarded book “Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919” and Jay Barth’s column last year in the Arkansas Times. A documentary on the events is in production.