Elaine Massacre Memorial diagram
MEMORIALIZED: The Elaine Massacre Memorial will be dedicated in downtown Helena-West Helena on Sept. 29. Courtesy Amoz Eckerson

The fact that the Elaine Massacre Memorial is being built in Helena-West Helena rather than Elaine has been a point of contention with some residents of Elaine.

After the publication of the Arkansas Times’ cover stories on the 100th anniversary of the Elaine massacre, Wendell Griffen, a Little Rock circuit judge and pastor, issued a statement of protest. In response to Griffen, Kwami Abdul-Bey of the Arkansas Peace & Justice Memorial Movement distributed his own statement. Both follow.

Noted Social Justice Activist Wendell Griffen Denounces the Helena Memorial of Elaine Massacre

Is anyone else offended — if not outraged — that a memorial to the black people from Elaine and South Phillips County is to be “dedicated” in Helena, 25 miles away from Elaine, on ground that also includes a monument to Confederate soldiers. Would anyone seriously propose placing a memorial to the people recently massacred in El Paso in Dallas or Allen, TX (home of the man who planned and carried out the massacre)? Helena is where the white people who instigated and led the 1919 massacre lived, ran their businesses, and plotted the worse massacre of black people in the history of Arkansas. I denounce the “Helena memorial” as a blatant and shameless demonstration of white supremacy, an insult to the massacred, and an affront to the black people of Elaine whose kinfolk were murdered, robbed, unjustly tried as criminals a century ago. Helena is where the Elaine 12 were given sham trials by a white judge and jury and were prosecuted by a white prosecutor. Helena is where NO white person was arrested, charged, or tried for planning and carrying mass murder. Jesus reserved his most scathing criticism for hypocrites who made a show of piety while “neglecting … justice” in Matthew 23. I join Jesus in condemning the upcoming “dedication” in Helena as a despicable affront to decency. In the name of Jesus, I curse the upcoming “dedication” for what it is, an idolatrous demonstration of ongoing white supremacy and arrogance.

Wendell Griffen
New Millennium Church
Little Rock, AR

The statement was emailed with only a typed signature, so the Times verified with Griffen that he was the author. It was also posted on social media sites after it was apparently distributed on paper, also only with a typed signature.

In response, Abdul-Bey posted the following on behalf of the Arkansas Peace & Justice Memorial Movement:

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When this letter was posted in one of the groups of supposedly progressive-thinking Arkansans of which I am a member, I was annoyed with the quick responses of support for it. So, I posted the following response:

“I agree with Matthew Wayne Blum concerning the lack of official letterhead and a signature. This “protest letter” seems very suspect. Being one of the co-convenors of the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement (APJMM), and having dealt and interacted with the persons and organizations that are distributing this unsigned “protest letter,” particularly the Dr. Mary Olson’s Elaine Legacy Center and the Jj Gibson’s Arkansas Delta Truth and Justice organization, I advise you to listen to what Mary Melekian Richardson has said.*

“There is a lot of personal greed and historical ignorance fueling this unsigned “protest letter” that has nothing to do with the Elaine Massacre Memorial in Helena, but more to do with a ridiculous one-sided pissing contest. Let’s let logic and reason control how we view this. Helena is the county seat, and the more easily accessible city in Phillips County. If we as Arkansans wish to use the 100th anniversary of the so-called “Elaine Massacre” to begin to show the world that we as a state repent for the 100+ years of racial injustice and extra-legal violence that have been inflicted on segments of our citizenry, this memorial is a good place to begin to tell that story.

“What happened in September-October 1919 in Phillips County engulfed the entire county and even spilled into adjoining counties. The only reason that it is commonly referred to as the so-called “Elaine Massacre” is because the area surrounding the group of lumber company towns (all owned by Gerard Lambert, the founder of the Listerine Company) in the southern part of the county, where Elaine was the most prominent, was the epicenter of the beginning of the three days of violence. But, if we were to be historically accurate, we would call it the Hoop Spur Massacre in honor of the church where everything popped off. Interestingly enough, federal government records refer to the incident as the ‘Phillips County War of 1919.’

“The memorial is in Helena because that is the county seat and is the most appropriate city in the county to accommodate thousands of weekly visitors from around the world. The Elaine Legacy Center has an opportunity to participate in this endeavor by working with the memorial committee to create something like a bus tour that will take visitors to actual sites throughout the county, including Elaine, to tell the story of this tragic event. Instead, Dr. Mary Olson and her enablers, including Judge Wendell Griffen (the supposed author of this unsigned “protest letter”), have instead chosen to create an extremely toxic environment in Phillips County, and I know this because APJMM has been targeted by these puppets, and their puppeteers, numerous times while we have been working to create memorials for the 500+ victims of lynchings, expulsions, and other racialized terrorism in Arkansas’s first 100 years of existence.

“It is APJMM’s position that placing a memorial to the victims of racialized terrorism next to each and every Civil War monument throughout that State of Arkansas is a most brilliant idea on several different levels. First, it is a more meaningful direct response to the campaign that erected those monuments in the first place. Tearing them down is too easy and too divisive and actually fuels the white supremacist ideologies. But, putting a memorial next to every monument is a guerrilla warfare of ideas tactic. It says: when you come see your monument, you will also see the other side of the story that you refuse to acknowledge. Now, you have the whole story.

“The time is now for ALL Arkansans to seek unity and create a present and a future that benefits us all. We do not have to agree with each other on every issue. But, we must be honest with ourselves, and each other, in choosing the course that produces the best quality and quantity of common good. And, also look for opportunity to improve upon today’s ideas and ideals tomorrow. This is what the Elaine Massacre Memorial represents.”

Arkansas Peace & Justice Memorial Movement (a project of the Washitaw Foothills Youth Media Arts & Literacy Collective and Just Communities of Arkansas)
2513 McCain Boulevard #2-221
North Little Rock, AR 72116 USA
Ozarks Office: (479) 966-9019
Central Office: (501) 725-1337
Delta Office: (870) 587-6667
www.APJMM.org
F/T/I: @APJMM2019

The Elaine Massacre Memorial, which is being built with a donation from the Solomon family of Helena-West Helena, is located in a park across from the Phillips County Courthouse. A memorial to Civil War officers from the area who fought for the South stands on one corner. The memorial is on an opposite corner.

The memorial committee, which includes among others U.S. District Judge Brian Miller and his brother, Kyle Miller, of Helena-West Helena, whose great uncles were slain during the massacre, believes the site is better placed in Helena-West Helena because of its accessibility, amenities to travelers and a desire to have it be part of the Civil Rights Trail, between Central High School in Little Rock and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

UPDATE: In an email to the Times, David P. Solomon, who heads the memorial committee, says the plaque, erected by the Arkansas Sesquicentennial Commission, writes to take issue with the word memorial. He makes a distinction between memorial and historical marker.

I would also point out the immediately to the east of the plaque is an informational plaque about prominent black and white musicians from Phillips County. With the WWI statue adjacent to the Park, the historical marker at the northwest corner of the Courthouse, and with the inlaid text about various Phillips County communities in the Park across from the Courthouse, the area is meant to be a sort of history of the County.