The 12 men who, after sham trials and torture of witnesses, were sentenced to death for the killings of five men in the aftermath of the 1919 Elaine Massacre, are now memorialized on President Bill Clinton Avenue as part of the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail.
Descendants and others spoke today at UA Little Rock Downtown’s ceremony to unveil the markers. The 12, tried in two separate trials of six defendants each, were spared execution thanks to a team of Arkansas lawyers, including black lawyer Scipio Africanus Jones, that took their cases and appealed the sentences. The 12 brass discs, placed in the sidewalk on the north side of Clinton across from UA Little Rock, are inscribed with the names of Frank Moore, Ed Hicks, Frank Hicks, Frank Moore, J.C. Knox, Ed Coleman, Paul Hill, Alfred Banks, Ed Ware, William Wordlaw, Albert Giles, Joe Fox and John Martin.
The Elaine Massacre began Sept. 30, 1919, when a sheriff’s deputy and a Missouri Pacific Railroad agent drove in the night to a church north of Elaine where black sharecroppers were discussing whether to sue for better wages. Shots were fired; the deputy was killed and the agent wounded. A third, a black prisoner from Helena, ran to Elaine to report the shooting. In the several days that followed, an estimated 200 African-American men, women and children were slaughtered by white posses who characterized the sharecroppers’ actions as an uprising. The terrible event was cast as a riot by white sympathizers until author Grif Stockley of Little Rock and other academicians righted the historical record with documents and interviews.
UALR history professor Dr. Brian Mitchell and his public history classes have worked to bring the Elaine story into the 21st century with their research into what happened after. They have tracked down where the Elaine 12 went after they were freed from prison to complete their stories. Mitchell was able to right another wrong: He worked with Congressman French Hill to get a Purple Heart posthumously awarded to Leroy Johnston, one of the victims of the massacre and a veteran of WWII who’d fought with the Harlem Hellfighters. Johnston was wounded on the battlefield in France. Mitchell thanked Hill at today’s ceremony for his help making Johnston’s medal possible. His great-nephew, Dr. Kyle Miller, was in attendance at today’s event.
Medallions were given to the four descendants of the Elaine 12 attending. One of them, Pastor Steven Bradley of Memphis, a descendant of Ed Coleman, told the audience that “the best thing we can do is to tell the truth, pull the blindfold off the atrocities that America’s lamocracy and white supremacy and now white nationalism cause every day.” He exhorted the crowd to “stand up to tyranny.” Mayor Frank Scott Jr. also noted the “new injustices” of today, saying that to fight against racism “we have to commit to equity: Equity in education, equity in housing, equity in health care and more importantly, equity in economic opportunity.”
Other descendants in attendance were Sheila Walker, the great-niece of Albert Giles; Dorothy Neal, granddaughter of Joseph Knox, along with Knox’s grandchildren; and Lisa Hicks-Gilbert, from the Hicks family. Hicks-Gilbert, of Little Rock, still has family in Elaine, she said. Leonore Marshall, a member of the Phillips County Quorum Court and a resident of Elaine, represented the town at the event.