By Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins
It was 100 years ago that the worst massacre in the state of Arkansas, and arguably the worst racial massacre in United States history, took place in the small, rural town of Elaine. More than 230 African Americans were brutally killed during that bloody summer of 1919 simply because they dared to stand up to white supremacy and against oppressive wage bondage.
In the aftermath, many who survived pulled up stakes and emigrated to fates unknown in other parts of the country. Some stayed in and around Elaine, barely eking out a living in Phillips County, where scavengers stole their land, their livelihood and, ultimately, even their ability to memorialize the actual place where the massacre took place.
But finally this year, on the 100th anniversary, attention has been drawn to the horrific events of that bloody summer with a memorial erected in nearby Helena. Judge and Pastor Wendell Griffen called the weekend an opportunity to honor the slain, remember the survivors and condemn the scavengers.
It was with this backdrop that Hannah McMahan King and I were able to make our way to Elaine to remember and to participate in the dedication of a youth center with our Covenant of Action partners, Rev. George Andrew Gibson of Divine Deliverance Christian Ministries and Patricia Kienzle of Rolling Hills Baptist Church of Fayetteville.
Like millions of Americans, I lived in a state of amnesia about Elaine, Ark. Up until a few months before the commemoration, I was totally ignorant of what had happened there or its larger connection to the Blood Summer of 1919, where throughout predominantly Northern and Midwestern cities whites reacted violently to the presence of African Americans who were now competing for employment in the aftermath of World War I.
As Hannah and I drove from Little Rock to Elaine, about a two-hour drive, I pondered the reasons for my lack of knowledge about Elaine. I was aghast about my personal ignorance of what happened, especially since I have family connections to the region in which the massacre occurred.
My maternal grandfather, Malachi Stokes, was born and raised in Arkansas in 1892. Just before 1910, Grandpa Malachi and his parents, Mary Francis Ragsdale Stokes and Lewis E. Stokes, moved to Muskogee, Okla., only 275 miles as the bird flies from Elaine. My mother, Elva Stokes, was born just two years after the massacre, in 1921, and I was born just 31 years after Elaine and that Red Summer.
My family did not shy away from talking about race and racial issues. So, I am surprised that I did not hear about Elaine until I became a senior adult myself. By my 7th birthday, I was cognitively aware and conversant about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. By my 10th birthday, my parents had taught me to memorize and recite by heart Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the last line which reads, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
I remember June 12, 1963, when Medgar Evers was killed. I did not need to read about his murder in a history book. My parents told me about his death in the same way, and with as much poignancy, as a relative’s death would be relayed.
So how is that I had never heard about Elaine? I have come to believe that there are some things that are just so horrendous and appalling to the human psyche that we refuse to bring it to full conscious awareness. There are some things that we simply don’t want to remember or to recall. So, we don’t speak about it in polite company. We refuse to discuss it around our children for fear of traumatizing them. We don’t record this in our textbooks. We don’t lament these occasions in our churches or places of worship. We choose to live in the United States of Amnesia.
Yet, Elaine refuses to allow us to forget. As soon as we turned onto Main Street that Saturday morning, we encountered a row of vacant storefronts, dilapidated buildings and a small public library that is now closed. It almost felt like we had driven onto a movie set for a 1940’s movie about a broken town.
At the end of the block, we saw a dozen or so black children folding programs and placing homemade fans on metal chairs in preparation for the service at Turning Point Park, a park founded by our Covenant of Action Partners. The cornerstone of Turning Point Park reads, “Recognizing the Past – With Hope for the Future — 1919-2019 and Beyond.”
Elaine challenges us to come to grips with the past. We must recognize it because those who refuse to remember the past are destined to repeat many of its same shameful acts.
The keynote speakers at the dedication addressed this in a meaningful way. Speaker Sheila Walker is the niece of two men who were shot during the massacre. The other speaker, J. Chester Johnson, is the grandson of a member of the Ku Klux Klan who traveled from Helena to Elaine to participate in these murderous acts on blacks daring to organize for higher wages for black farmers and sharecroppers in Elaine. They shared explicit stories of the slain and the slayers. Stories I will always remember.
It was the acts of the children, however, that gave me hope for the future. The children related to the Lee Street Community Center want Elaine to be known as a place of promise. They have built and decorated this small town of just 636 residents with more than 1,200 birdhouses. In the same week that I learned that the bird population in the United States is only two thirds of what it was in 1970 (bird population is a lagging indicator of ecological health), these children are fighting for a brighter future with their hands and hearts by building and displaying birdhouses. You can learn more about this wonderful project at https://www.birdhousesforelainear.com
I like to think that what we are doing through New Baptist Covenant is in this same tradition. We recognize that race still matters in these yet to be United States of America. Our act of resistance is not in wallowing in a pool of despair or becoming weighed down in resentment, though we fully understand despair and resentment. Our act of resistance is the ministry of reconciliation. We, in our own unique way, are also building birdhouses in places where the birds appear to be disappearing.