Like other members of a committee put together to create a memorial to the Elaine massacre, Chris Allen did not know much about the event as she was growing up. With the dedication of Elaine Massacre Memorial just a month away, she said, “Now, the story is being told and is being told truthfully,” she said.
The killing spree in south Phillips County in 1919 had long been portrayed in newspapers and journal articles as a race riot, an uprising by blacks against their white landlords. Recent research and books, however, have changed that narrative: What happened in Elaine was a senseless massacre of men, women and children by fearful white folks steeped in the racism of the Old South and fearful their supremacy was being challenged.
Plans to erect a memorial in Helena-West Helena started some years back when white and black Arkansans from Phillips and Pulaski counties, led by David Solomon Jr. of Helena-West Helena and New York, joined forces to acknowledge the lives lost. Chris Allen and retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Audrey R. Evans — though they have no family relationships to Phillips County — are the committee’s Little Rock members.
Like Allen, Evans had not heard of the incident in Phillips County until some years back, when fellow lawyer Grif Stockley told her he was writing a book about Elaine. The book, “Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Massacre of 1919,” was released in 2001.
“For me, it’s unfathomable that human beings would search down other human beings, decent human beings, unarmed human beings who are hiding,” Evans said.
Books like Stockley’s, Robert Whitaker’s “On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice that Remade a Nation,” and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation’s documentary “The Elaine Riot: Tragedy & Triumph,” narrated by actor Ossie Davis, told the stories of the killing of black men, women and children in a four-day assault and the work of African-American lawyer Scipio Africanus Jones to spare 12 black men arrested during the assault from being executed.
The memorial, in a park across from the Phillips County Courthouse, where the 12 were sentenced to death, will be dedicated Sept. 29, 100 years after the event. Members of the committee hope it serves not only as a tool for healing and reconciliation, but also as a means to educate people about the massacre and what followed. Sybil Jordan Hampton, who was president of the Rockefeller Foundation when it released the Richard Wormser-directed documentary to Little Rock schools, hopes the memorial helps make more widely known the accomplishment of African-American lawyer Scipio Jones.
“That was the thing that jumped out at me … that not only people didn’t know the story of the tragedy, but people did not know how history had been in Arkansas with the way in which the case was resolved and with the person who was the lead attorney,” said Hampton, who first heard of the massacre as a child from her father, who was born in the Delta in 1919. “All of those were things that people needed to also raise up and look at and to realize the significance.”
Hampton said the foundation produced the documentary because it aligned with her goal for the foundation to tell “little-known stories” impacting social justice in Arkansas, such as the Japanese-American internment camps in the state during World War II and the 1955 integration of the Hoxie schools.
Because the documentary, available on YouTube, was Hampton’s project, she was put in touch with Evans earlier this year and began advising Evans on the memorial.
For Allen, it’s key that the telling of the 1919 killings be free of the “riot” narrative.
“It’s interesting how one word can make such a difference. What is a riot? A riot is a rebellion, a riot is unrest,” said Allen, who lived in Helena-West Helena from 1997 to 2011. “There was no riot. There was an attack on people.”
That sense of pride that Hampton finds in the tragedy also exists for Dorothy Roddy Neal of Bryant, but for other reasons. As a child growing up in Cotton Plant, Neal, 65, had heard only that her grandfather Joseph E. Knox had been jailed after something involving a “riot.” What happened to Knox after that? Neal hadn’t been sure. Her grandmother never discussed it — “Let sleeping dogs lie,” she would often say — and relatives who would have known more were deceased before Neal could inquire.
It wasn’t until this past year that Neal discovered that Knox, one of the Elaine 12 who were convicted of first-degree murder in sham trials, had been on death row for about six years until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling led to his release. He lived in Little Rock after his release until his death in 1941. When she reflects on being a descendant of the Elaine 12, Neal said, she’s proud. She also hopes that people of varying racial backgrounds will attend the memorial’s dedication with an open mind.
Knox prayed with his fellow defendants while they were jailed and became a Baptist minister after his release. “He was doing really good things. When I think about it, I want to be like him,” Neal said. “I want to do good things. I want to help people. That’s what he was doing.”
The story of the Elaine 12 and massacre has been omitted from the history students learn in school. Clarice Abdul-Bey of North Little Rock, co-convener of the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement, believes the memorial, which is dedicated to all who died during the massacre “known and unknown,” will confront history by serving as a visual reminder. “It’s saying, ‘This person is valuable. This person’s story deserves to be heard, and this is something that we should never let happen again,’ ” Abdul-Bey said. “The family of those victims should have the community come together to not just remember but to commemorate and respect the life of that person through that memorial. That’s the least we can give to someone, their family and community, to say, ‘We remember this, and this should never happen again.’ ”
The memorial aims to provide healing and reconciliation, but “people bring their own motives to being a part of the project,” Evans said. For Hampton, it’s both an acknowledgement of a tragedy and a reason to celebrate strides in history. For Evans, it’s also an apology.
“I see what we did as a country. I see what we did, and I want us to take responsibility for what we did. Sadness followed by responsibility,” Evans said.
“I try not to think of the dedication as the ending. I like to think of the memorial as the beginning,” Evans said. “Collectively, we face the truth. Collectively, we pray to do better.”