An architect had come over from Little Rock, the Rev. Mary Olson said, to assess what it would take to turn a busted-up building into a museum about the slaughtered, the men who killed them and how so great a sin can never be washed clean.
She bought that old storefront with her own money, she said, determined to help Elaine — population 510 — generate jobs and become a destination for those curious to know how a historic act of terror can teach some essential life lessons. It will one day house the Elaine Legacy Center, where Olson is president.
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The building sits on the northwest corner of Main Street, where it intersects Quarles Road, forming a gateway into what an outsider might easily dismiss as a near-ghost town. Olson’s building is cater-corner across Main from the old Crumrod store. A sibling duo who graduated from Elaine High School and who, as kindergarteners helped their sharecropper parents work the fields, acquired the unoccupied Crumrod building in August 2018 for $3,500 in back taxes. They’re strategizing on what type of business to open there.
“My father is buried in Elaine, behind First Baptist Church, and his mom [is buried] in the graveyard at Morning Star, just before you cross the railroad track,” said Charlie McClain, 57, a Florida fitness company executive who bought the Crumrod building with his sister. “Elaine was a special place to me growing up. It was special to a lot of people. We don’t want Elaine to not exist someday.”
Whoever last occupied the storefront that Olson purchased, aiming to partner with McClain and others in revitalizing Elaine, left a hodgepodge of stuff inside: A cash register. Shelving. Jars of pickle juice. Folger’s coffee cans. A vintage, industrial-sized refrigerator. There’s a whopping hole where part of the floor fell in. Standing outside her building that midday in June, she said she’d heard rumors that the floor cratered during a botched effort to set up a liquor bar. Someone before her, she added, considered that the building and, thereby, Elaine, held some promise.
“We’re really an epicenter of race relations and economic need,” Olson, 80, said. “And Elaine has so much potential. We’re just beginning to recognize that.”
Chicago-born, Wisconsin-reared Olson, a white woman, has been navigating these parts since the United Methodist Church dispatched her here in 1999, she said. Methodist leaders had ordained her in 1984, yes, to preach. But, more urgently, they charged her with working to bridge divisions along race, class and other fault lines. The 1919 race massacre, and its residue, give Elaine a singularly rarefied place along that fraught trajectory.
Elaine’s potential remains to be fully proven, at least in terms of dollars and cents. Still, a new and improved Elaine, Olson and other locals contend, would mean much for the men, women and children living there amid the ghosts of an infamous 1919 white-on-black massacre, with their accumulated grievances. For one, sewer drainage is so bad on the black side of town, some folks can’t flush their toilets when it rains. But, also, some said, they must hold on to hope. How do we, some ask, disrupt Elaine’s freefall into wherever it is that seemingly forgotten, neglected, out-of-sight people and places descend?
“We can walk around free, we got nature, we ain’t got no gang-bangers or no whole lot of violence in Elaine. We don’t get judged by our color,” said Kamariah Daniels, 13, launching into her viewpoints on Elaine by first noting what she likes about her hometown. She was inside the legacy center’s current headquarters, an old school building on College Avenue, in June.
Then, she gave a counterpoint: “We really need stores, we really need jobs, we need a swimming pool … ” she said.
Other kids interjected.
“We need a Walmart,” said Adrianna Esters, 10.
“We need to open back up our schools so kids don’t have to drive 30 minutes to Marvell every day to go to school,” said Zia Green, 11.
A caravan of vehicles was about to ferry those children and their adult chaperones for a summer afternoon at a public pool in Helena-West Helena, roughly 35 minutes away, up state Highway 44. The group was departing from the Elaine Legacy Center, led by James White, 58, an Elaine native, father of 12 and legacy center director. Among other duties, White oversees the center’s food pantry and clothes closet for the poor and its youth programs.
White owns a now weekends-only convenience store, The Spot, on the same side of Main Street as Olson’s dreamt-of museum to commemorate 1919, and, thereby, spur dialogue and action that builds bridges among different races and classes of people.
“We have a filling station in town that sells some stuff but not enough of what people need. So, I’m hoping this fall to run my convenience store full time,” said White, who bought his storefront two years ago. “I also want to put in a barber shop for the community. We don’t have one. We are looking for ways to send some people to barber college. In Elaine, we need so much of so many things.”
Back in February, White was among those testifying at the “Elaine, Arkansas Race Massacre Truth Seeking Conference,” hosted by the Chicago-based Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, a United Nations-sanctioned nonprofit that has been investigating, among other things, unadjudicated race crimes. Proctor, the conference’s namesake, was a pastor of Harlem’s vaunted Abyssinian Baptist Church, university president and friend and mentor to Martin Luther King Jr.
The February testifiers included, as they were listed on that day’s agenda, “heirs of 1919,” black people with handed-down tales of how whites stole land from blacks in Elaine and adjacent farming communities, then killed hundreds of black people. Who, those sometimes weeping, sometimes matter-of-fact testifiers asked, is going to pay for that?
Brian Mitchell, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock history professor, has followed the Elaine story. He’s urging that graves where those slain blacks were dumped be located and excavated so that, forensically, certain questions can be answered.
Some parts of this — no matter what Mitchell might unearth — may never be satisfactorily settled.
“Oral traditions are really big in the black community. Inside of all those stories, there are some things that are true and some things that are embellished … . As yet, we’ve not found any proof, no evidence whatsoever of black land ownership,” Mitchell said.
Making a case for paying reparations to descendants of a white-on-black land theft is a huge task, said Margaret Burnham, a Northeastern University Law School professor who heads the school’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project and who sat on that Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference panel gathering testimony in Elaine. “You need a legal accounting, records,” said Burnham, a former state judge in Massachusetts. It’s well documented that Tulsa’s Greenwood community, including its “Black Wall Street” business district, was 36 blocks long before whites burned it to the ground in 1921 and murdered an estimated 300 blacks. (Today, mainly white-owned restaurants, clubs, boutiques and hotels are in spaces that, before the massacre, housed black-owned businesses.) Also, well documented was the all-black Rosewood community in Florida, Burnham said. That state’s lawmakers in 1994 approved $2 million in reparations to descendants of those who lost property in 1923, when whites incinerated Rosewood. Nine living survivors also received reparations checks. Before that payment, Florida lawmakers had hired experts to develop a special report on Rosewood.
“This is not the kind of work one community group can do successfully, on its own,” Burnham said. Thus far, nationwide, Northeastern’s restorative justice project has archived 500 cases of land once owned by but stolen from or otherwise lost by blacks, from 1930 through 1970. “We explore these cases,” she said, “investigate them and bring them back home.”
Testimony gleaned at last February’s Proctor Conference hearing on the Elaine massacre is being compiled and contextualized. There are no specific plans about what to do with the coming report based on that testimony, said Olson, who helped spearhead the event, hosted at her center.
Whatever happens with it, said the Rev. Anthony Davis, 63, a retired Pine Bluff schoolteacher and sometimes preacher whose family is among the black landowners in Phillips County, the hearing allowed a needed airing of the issues, pent-up anger and angst.
“There is so much doom and gloom in Elaine,” said Davis, who’d testified in February about what elders of his own family had told him about the massacre. “It’s a shame that a landscape so beautiful has been stained so badly. The people still walk around like zombies, tip-toeing around these ghosts that just won’t lay down and die.”
It’s no wonder, he said, that so much of Elaine today is so hollowed out.
More storefronts than not on Elaine’s three-block-long, dusty, cob-webbed Main Street are vacant. Even so, the strip’s occupied buildings include the post office; Southern Bancorp, a partly rural-development-focused bank that replaced Delta State Bank; Elaine Baptist Church, which covers almost a whole block; and Delta Grill, with outdoor flower boxes hanging from its windows. One of the area’s big-time farming families owns the grill.
The spanking new thing on those three blocks is a house with a slate-black and charcoal-gray façade and a front door colored in coral. It’s cutting-edge, could be on a magazine cover. Gary Carpenter, 67, owner of Delta Hardware & Lumber, designed and built it and lives there.
“We had the best year ever in 2018,” Carpenter said of sales at the store, which his father established and passed on to the son. His grandfather owned a general store.
“There’s no question in my mind,” Carpenter added. “Elaine has bottomed out. I think it’s got a future, even if some farmers won’t survive.”
It’s true that some wealthy out-of-towners own big swaths of farmland in Elaine and Phillips County; one of those who owns large stretches of acreage is one of Carpenter’s most reliable customers.
It’s also a fact of farming that more and more machines are doing the work that used to be done by field hands. That aside, Carpenter’s betting that better things are ahead for Elaine: “We are not totally forsaken.”
Yet, it takes a certain steeliness and optimism to live and venture to do business in Elaine, said Rickey Lee McCraney Jr., 29, a trucker who returned to his hometown in May 2018. After his father died, he wanted to keep closer watch on his mom. In addition to trucking, he owns and operates R&L Pit Stop, a combination auto repair-and-detailing business and community events space.
“I serve people in this community who can’t afford to pay the usual hourly rates to get their vehicle fixed,” McCraney said. “The building I’m in was one that had been used by the school system. It had sat empty for 13 years. It symbolizes what happened when the schools closed, and the town sort of dried up.
“This lot was a mess, a totally overgrown field of grass and weeds. It ain’t much to look at it now, but it’s way better than what it was. I can see the potential, that this could be a pot of gold for me and a way of giving back to Elaine.”
It bears noting, added McCraney, who is black, that Gary Carpenter, who is white, was the first in Elaine to extend him a line of credit to get his business off the ground. “This place is still really segregated. But people are coming together more and more. We’re realizing we cannot do this without each other.”
In 2010, the U.S. Census counted 636 people in Elaine, where the population peaked in 1970 at 1,210 and, according to the Census’s 2018 estimates, dropped to 510. In 2010, blacks accounted for 61 percent of those individuals and whites for 37 percent. By latest count, in 2017, Elaine’s average household income was $16,547 annually, down from $24,808 in 2010. In 2017, 26 percent of households earned less than $10,000 yearly and 3 percent of them earned more than $200,000 yearly.
Those are race-riven economics. Elaine’s major landowners, a minority of people, have always been white. Elaine’s black majority has provided the bulk of farm labor.
“The last time I worked on a farm, doing a favor for the brother of a white friend of mine, I made $10 an hour because I demanded that. I wouldn’t work for less,” said the legacy center’s White. “Most of the people were making less, $7.50, $6. At that point, I knew I would never work on a farm again.”
“Elaine is a typical Mississippi Delta town,” said Lucien Webster, a former school superintendent and mayor of Elaine. “It’s dying — like all these towns up and down the river are dying. There’s not a big demand for labor here, which is a bad deal. A lot of people are in a bad situation. They have nowhere to go. People are not happy. They’re depressed, they give up. Having jobs changes the attitude of people. I believe that. I’ve always believed that.”
The current mayor, Michael Cravens, did not respond to repeated Arkansas Times requests to be interviewed about his views on Elaine.
In the town where Cravens is the latest in a white-only succession of mayors, Main Street is a demarcation. Residents with addresses south of Main are mostly, but not exclusively, white. Those with addresses north of main are mostly black.
William Quiney III, 81, is a black man who lives on the north side. His wife Willie Mae’s grandfather told her about the massacre; he said his people owned land that whites took from them.
Roughly four years ago, Quiney said, the city for the first time paved the street in front of his brick home, which is as pretty and pristinely maintained as many in town. Making him and his neighbors on Nelson Street wait for asphalt — a big step up from gravel they used to get — was a punishment for speaking out on Elaine’s festering inequalities, said Quiney, who is retired from the Phillips County Developmental Center in Helena-West Helena, where he was an adult coordinator. He’s now the board president for the Helena-West Helena-Phillips County Port Authority and is active at the Elaine Legacy Center as its honorary chairman.
He remains one of a handful of residents — black, white or other — who regularly attend city council meetings. “The last time I was at a city council meeting,” he said, in mid-summer 2019, “it was about the problem we have with drainage. When it rains, we can’t flush our toilets. It infuriates and perplexes me … . Though I do sometimes think the city council and mayor deliberately won’t do anything about it because some of our people, black people, keep throwing trash in the ditches.”
Inside City Hall, photos of most in that lineage of white mayors line one wall. On the opposite wall is a years-old photograph of the then-15-member Elaine Fire Department. One of the 15 was black.
One of the white firefighters is the now-40-year-old son of Tricia Caery, a City Hall secretary. Her son is no longer with the fire department; he took a better-paying job in a different Delta town. “A lot of people left here,” said Caery, born and reared in Elaine. “Especially after the schools shut down, it seems like a lot of people moved away. My husband said when his parents died, we’d move. But they died and we stayed put, I guess, because this is home.”
One of Caery’s key City Hall colleagues, Police Chief Alvin Scaife, is a black man, who supplements his law-enforcement salary with a side gig on a farm he does not own. Two police officers, one black, one white, comprise the rest of Elaine’s police force. In July, a storm was brewing over the firing of the first black, a woman, to ever work for the city as something other than a firefighter or cop. She’s filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, depending upon how that’s settled, may sue to have her case heard in court.
Hard, decisive action on several fronts is what’s required if Elaine has any prospect of forging a path forward. The massacre should be rightly positioned in history. But there also needs to be a pivot, something more than mere memorials, some residents said.
“We need better drainage, jobs, better streets throughout the city — better, better, better … ” said Quiney, who also testified back in February. “In some ways, I’m tired of talking about this massacre — though I cannot possibly stop talking about it. I’m tired of people asking, of journalists asking, of the student doing her thesis who wanted to know, well, everything. What do the people of Elaine get in exchange for giving all that away? Where is our compensation?”
What’s next? That’s what’s being asked by Quiney and others who want a revival in Elaine, who know Elaine is on the brink.
“A lot of people who live in Elaine have never been anywhere, they don’t know any other way,” said McClain, new co-owner of the old Crumrod store. “I have friends who, literally, died on the vine, way too young, working on those farms but never earning much of anything. If someone who cared saw this shell of a town and really, truly wanted to make it a place that people would be attracted to … .” That would be a marvelous thing, McClain said. The idea of what Elaine could be compels him.
It also fires octogenarian Olson. Elaine’s century-old terrors are instructive right now, she said, on an afternoon when two fiftysomething-year-old sisters from Helena-West Helena, Julia Meritt and Rebecca Meritt, who’d gotten lost during a day’s road trip to anywhere, landed at Olson’s legacy center. They knew a bit about the massacre. Olson gave them an impromptu primer and talked about what — in addition to upcoming bike trails along Elaine’s Mississippi River edges and the planned Dollar General on Elaine’s Main Street and that dreamt-of museum — she hoped would be made real.
“They’re tourists,” she said, of those women. That they got lost, ending up in her audience of two, was no accident. “You see, if we just tell the story, people will come.”