ELAINE, Ark. – In an isolated part of the Arkansas Delta, the sun shines on fertile farmland for as far as the eye can see. Exactly what took root in the cotton field, still haunts this Phillips County community.
Pastor George Andrew Gibson is one of the few who still lives in Elaine.
“None of my classmates stayed. They all left. When you look around you can kind of see why,” Pastor Gibson explains.
Elaine storefronts sit empty and the town’s schools closed in 2006. You’ll find a worn and weathered water tower and a downtown where times seems to stand still.
“This whole town you have an eerie feeling of why it’s like it is,” Pastor Gibson says.
University of Arkansas at Little Rock history professor Dr. Brian Mitchell is part of a team of researchers and scholars investigating what happened in the early fall of 1919.
“As a historian what you have to do is keep digging, just keep digging,” Dr. Mitchell says.
He’s is traveling the country trying to piece together the town’s dark past.
“We’ve done Kansas. We’ve had people go up to Wisconsin, I came back from D.C. in July,” Dr. Mitchell says.
World War I had ended, the price of cotton shot up and African American sharecroppers believed they would be paid fairly.
“Well, the plantation owners robbed them blind,” Dr. Mitchell says.
On Sept. 30, white land owners got wind that black farmers were attending a Progressive Farmers and Household Union meeting in Hoop Spur, just outside of Elaine.
“The blacks inside the church say the whites started shooting. The surviving whites that were there say the blacks started shooting first. But what we know is that one of the officers is killed.”
Word spread quickly and so did fear of a black revolt.
“The Sheriff’s arsenal is passed out and they bring their personal weapons, telegraphs went out to neighboring towns. “
Armed white men arrived in Phillips County by the hundreds. Dr. Mitchell says the mob violence went on for days.
“Not men bearing arms but women and children working out in the fields…gunned down.”
The call for help went to Governor Charles Brough, who rode in with 500 federal troops from Camp Pike to restore order. It was too late.
How the Massacre Molded Lives
Few families have suffered more than the Millers.
“That’s the bodies of my four uncles in that picture,” Kyle T. Miller says.
The Delta Cultural Center Director has always heard stories about D.E.A Johnston.
“I always think that it’s okay and it doesn’t bother me. But then today as I was looking through the pictures, that emotion started coming up again,” says Miller.
The prominent Helena physician and his brothers were on a hunting trip when they were stopped in Elaine.
“They’re told, look don’t go through Elaine. Get on the train. Go to Helena and you’ll be safe. The train is stopped. The men are taken off the train in the custody of a posse. They are put in the back of a car,” explains Dr. Mitchell.
“Because of hatred and evil, they were just wrongly snatched off a train and brutally murdered,” Miller says.
The brothers’ bodies were found a day later.
“Later they are discovered by their mother, who went to see what was going on and discovered them on the side of a road. All of them butchered,” says Dr. Mitchell.
Miller’s family has never been able to verify where his ancestors bodies were sent after they were identified, but new artifacts show the brothers were likely buried in Pine Bluff.
“So when Dr. Mitchell says ‘hey Brian, I think that your great uncles bodies are between this and that cemetery. That brought closure for us,” he says.
The Big Question Mark
“There’s nothing that commemorates the deaths of blacks. In fact we don’t know where any of them are buried,” Mitchell says.
He estimates anywhere from 22 to a high of more than 500 black citizens were killed in the massacre. However, a 2015 investigation by the Equal Justice Initiative puts the number of victims at 237.
“We believe it’s the largest race riot in American History,” he adds.
Five white men also died in Elaine.
“They were seen as heroes who protected status quo and white supremacy in the region. So they’re remembered,” Mitchell says.
But there’s a missing piece to an ugly hole in Arkansas history.
“There’s nothing that commemorates the deaths of blacks. In fact we don’t know where any of them are buried,” says Mitchell.
Many scholars believe there is a mass grave.
“We do have some ideas and we have run across clues,” he continues.
Accountability would never be achieved. Hundreds of blacks were detained and 78 were arrested. An all-white jury swiftly convicted the first dozen defendants, who became known as the Elaine 12. A judge sentenced them all to death. The men were freed years later, thanks to a landmark Supreme Court ruling.
“Not a single white individual was called to answer to what was done. No one was arrested,” Mitchell says.
West Hornor of Helena says he heard all kinds of stories growing up. Hornor’s great grandfather E.C.
Hornor owned the church in Hoop Spur where the original shoot out happened. He told KARK over the phone his family regrets what happened and called it a blight on history.
He also told KARK, he wishes there was more firm data.
Educating the Innocent
But many, both black and white would rather keep the past in the past.
“It was embedded in them not to say anything and not to talk about it,” he adds.
“They’d rather just leave it alone. Just leave that alone. That’s what they’ll tell you,” says Gibson.
Both Gibson and Miller agree that to rebound, Arkansans must reflect.
“There are still ones here who don’t know about it,” Gibson says.
He hopes Turning Point Park, a civil rights park in downtown, teaches the innocent about the injustices that happened some 98 years ago.
“It’s an easy way of getting in and being able to open conversation up,” Gibson says.
It’s a first step to a more peaceful tune in town.
“If we don’t tell stories, than those things, even the dark things, we’re doomed to repeat it,” says Kyle Miller, whose ancestors were killed in Elaine.
Miller and his brother, U.S. District Judge Brian Miller serve on the newly formed Elaine Massacre Foundation, along with businessmen and Elaine natives, David and Raymond Solomon. The four are working alongside other descendants, both black and white to build a memorial to the victims in Phillips County.
“The money has been raised, so we’re ready to build. Right now we’re just confirming a location. We’ve been promised a location. It hasn’t been solidified in writing,” Miller says.
One of the proposed locations is near the Phillips County Courthouse in Helena, about 20 miles north of Elaine.
“We’ve been working together as a committee, as a board to choose the perfect design to tell the story we want to tell. Once that design is confirmed and put together and architect blue prints, we’re going to share with everybody. There will be a public unveiling. It’s going to be grand. It’s going to be something beautiful,” he explains.
Several community groups and artists have committed to sponsoring events ahead of the 2019 centennial.
According to its (http://www.remember2019.org) website, the first will be a Storysharing Instate in February of 2018. It will essential mobilize cultural workers and community members to gather stories from Phillips County. To learn more about the storytelling program email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The second event will happen the first week of October, called Remember Phillips County Blues. According to Remember2019, Artist Carlos Sirah will spend September collaborating with local musicians culminating with a performance will intertwine word and the blues.
Other groups participating in the project include Waves of Prayer Ministries (https://www.facebook.com/Waves-of-Prayer-668341559905513/) and the Delta Cultural Center (http://www.deltaculturalcenter.com).
Many of the photos above are from Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough’s personal scrapbook. He has an extensive collection, including one dedicated to the 2019 event in Elaine. Governor Brough was an avid scrap booker, according to historians. They are now housed at the Arkansas State Archives in Little Rock.