Here’s the open line. I went to Helena-West Helena today for dedication of a monument to the Elaine Massacre 100 years ago.
Leslie Newell Peacock wrote of the history earlier.
UPDATE: I hope to obtain copies of the keynote speeches at the ceremony today. Federal Judge Brian Miller, a Helena native, spoke of the historic events that occurred on the ground where the memorial was placed and the courthouse across the street — from the murders of hundreds of black tenant farmers to kangaroo courts for those who lived. There couldn’t have been a better refutation to those who said this square was somehow an inappropriate place for a memorial. Dr. Catherine Meeks, who grew up the daughter of an illiterate tenant farmer in Lee County who died penniless, also spoke of history but also of the need for communication today between blacks and whites. Both should speak and listen, but she said whites need to stop trying to tell black people what their story should be. She’s a retired college professor; author of a coming book about Ida Wells, who wrote about the massacre the year after it happened, and now director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta.
A couple of congressmen (Rick Caldwell and French Hill), legislators, local officials and a contingent of federal judges and lawyers from Little Rock were among the racially diverse crowd that filled every seat in a tent set up for the event. The speakers were hopeful that the event could be a sign of a hopeful turning point for racial relations. Let us hope.
PS: My photo was a quick cursory shot pre-ceremony. The meat of the memorial is inside — a cenotaph and a map of Phillips County.
From Meeks’ talk, addressing the repercussions of slavery from 1619, when the first African captives were brought to Virginia, to today:
“It was the beginning of a system that allowed a spirit to be set loose in this country that allowed for the dehumanization and denigration of people of African descent. It was that spirit, that act, that made possible the massacre 300 years later in . It was that same spirit that made it possible to sell little black children, babies, take them out of the arms of their mothers, and sell them into slavery; to take little babies, indigenous children, and cut their hair and beat them until they could speak English to make them white enough to be OK. It is that same spirit that allowed us to take little brown children and put them in cages on our borders. … That spirit hasn’t gone away. So when somebody says, ‘Can’t we get over it, can’t we quit talking about it,’ no, we can’t until we get rid the spirit that undergirds the systems of oppression everywhere on this planet.”
Judge Miller focused on the reason for placing the memorial in Helena and the need not just for reconciliation not just between black and white, but an acknowledgment of the neglect by the well-to-do black population of Helena of 1919 — of which his family was part — and the sharecroppers:
100 years ago, on September 30 of 1919, on this block, Phillips County civic, political and economic leaders settled into one night at the Helena Opera House, which used to stand on this block.
100 years ago, on the same night, three men met at the Phillips County Courthouse and drove down to Hoop Spur church. They went to Hoop Spur church to check on a meeting of black sharecroppers who were attempting to unionize. And those people were unionizing so they could be paid fairly. …
While the black sharecroppers fought for fair pay, the black business class in Helena built move theaters and cathedrals, they owned rental property, they ran small businesses, they practiced medicine on Walnut Street, which runs on the west side of this block.
While the black business class ran their businesses on Walnut Street, the white business class owned banks, movie theaters, restaurants and retail stores on Cherry Street, which is that street that runs on the east side of this block. Two sides of this block.
And although there was a wide divide between the black and white business classes, there was an even greater divide between the black business class and the black sharecroppers meeting in Hoop Spur that night. The 30 miles that separated this block and Walnut Street from Hoop Spur might as well have been a million miles, because there was nothing holding together the black business class and the sharecroppers meeting in Hoop Spur that night except for shared history and black skin.
But what neither group could have imagined happened 100 years ago. The three men who left the courthouse across the street from this block fired shots into the Hoop Spur church, and shots were fired out of the church and a white man was killed.
A posse formed in that courthouse across the street from this block and mob violence ensued. When the dust settled, five white men were killed and more than 100 black people were killed. Estimates have gone as much as 800, but most historians have settled on about 200. And the mob raged on.
More than 100 black people were arrested and brought to the Phillips County Jail across the street from this block. Those men were brutally beaten and tortured in that jail across the street from this block.
And the mob gathered right here on this block, right where you sit, the mob gathered and chanted and screamed for death.
And 12 men were given sham trials in that courthouse across the street from this block and sentenced to die across the street from this block. But Judge Jacob Trieber stayed those executions in the old federal courthouse that once stood on that corner across the street from this block.
Now 100 years we return, and where do we return? We return to this block. We return not to relive 1919. We return to this block to remember those who were killed. We return in hope. We return to this block with an earnest yearning for redemption, we return to this block with an earnest yearning for reconciliation.
Those of us who failed to take up the cause of the sharecropper seek redemption for failing to help those less fortunate than ourselves.
And those of us who joined the mob or contributed to the slaughter of the sharecroppers seek redemption for doing the unthinkable. And all of us, whether descendants of the mob, whether we are descendants of those who were killed by the mob, or whether we are just people of good will, seek reconciliation with one another.
We return to this block on this day and at this time to face the reality that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. We all love our ancestors and we all respect them. But we also accept the reality that they were not perfect. We understand that they were human beings. We understand that they were susceptible to human frailties.
Because of this, we return to this block to announce that we will be vigilant not to repeat their mistakes.
We return to this block to forgive one another and ask for forgiveness. We return to this block to accept this forgiveness and allow ourselves to be redeemed.
And this, the Elaine Massacre Memorial, forever stands as a memorial as to why we have returned to this block. Every time we feel angry, every time we feel embittered, every time we feel slighted, every time we feel divisive, every time we feel guilty, we will see that monument and remember the nightmare that all of those emotions will bring.
And we will remember this day and how we feel at this moment and we will recommit ourselves to loving and respecting one another. Even when we disagree.
Miller’s brother Dr. Kyle T. Miller, director of the Delta Cultural Center, also offered a prayer in which he praised God that the curse of innocent bloodshed “was being lifted off Phillips County.”
“And your angels are being released upon this community like never before. So, Father, we bless you today, we thank you, Lord God, that there’s a shift taking place in Phillips County. … From this day forward, Phillips County will never be the same because a reconciliation took place. Black and white, young and old, rich and poor have come together to say enough is enough. We’re going to acknowledge the past and come together to make a change.”
Today’s events also marked the opening at the Delta Cultural Center of a new exhibition, V.L. Cox’s “Breaking Glass: A Conversation to End Hate.” The exhibit has been on a national tour.
From the show, “Freedom Fighter”: