Twelve African-American men wrongly accused of murder during the 1919 Elaine Massacre and later exonerated were inducted into the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail. Each man has a trail marker dedicated in his honor. U.S. Rep. French Hill, the Chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Dr. Christina Drale, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, Jr., along with community members and family members of the Elaine 12 spoke at an induction ceremony for the trail Tuesday.
"While our brothers were able to eventually become free, we understand that they had lost treatment, lost income, lost relationships and even lost their identity," Scott said about the Elaine 12.
The trail markers were unveiled outside of UA Little Rock’s Downtown Center Tuesday. The markers will be placed along the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail between the Old Statehouse Convention Center and the Clinton Presidential Center. Family members of the Elaine 12 showed strong emotions while seeing the markers for the first time.
The mayor encouraged people to learn from the experience of 1919 so they can avoid past mistakes. He said Arkansans can also commit to equity in education, healthcare and economic opportunities. He believes equity will bring the state together.
"Those that fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. As we acknowledge our past, we also anticipate our future. When we understand that the Arkansas Civil Rights Trail acknowledges the past, it commemorates trail blazers, trend setters. It honors our past, but it also acknowledges the travesties that we’ve endured," Scott said.
During 1919, there were attacks by white mobs in over three dozen cities, resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 African-Americans. Kwami Abdul-Bey, co-convenor of the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement, shared historical accounts of what historians call the Red Summer as part of the induction ceremony. He said the attacks and murders of over 200 Black sharecroppers in or near Elaine was part of Red Summer.
"Many hid in the swamps and thickets, others were said to have been gunned down in the fields as they worked, and crowds of others surrendered themselves to the authorities for arrest," said Abdul-Bey. "Held in a concentration camp, hundreds of the black sharecroppers were detained until their participation in the union could be verified."
Abdul-Bey said the Elaine 12 were charged with capital murder and sentenced to death in trials that lasted shorter than 20 minutes per person. The death sentences drew the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP raised money for the Elaine 12’s legal council, securing Scipio Jones as a defense attorney. On February 19, 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of six members of the Elaine 12 in a 6-2 decision. Despite the favorable decision, the defendants remained in jail until there was a re-trial in district court. The defendants received a 12 year prison sentence but were immediately eligible for parole and released on January 13, 1925.
New trail markers are added every year in a ceremony that recognizes civil rights activities and people who work for racial equality. Rep. Hill said the acts against African-Americans during the Elaine Massacre are "shameful and distressing." He also urged Arkansans to learn from the past to build a better society.
"Today with this ceremony, we have an opportunity to add a new chapter to Arkansas history," Hill said. "A chapter that recognizes the legacy of this tragedy, honors its victims, seeks to heal the long-standing wounds and looks to our future with hope and optimism."
Sheila Walker, the great niece of Elaine 12 Albert Giles, said she was disturbed by the violent choices Giles made after his exoneration. She reasoned his choices reflected previous mistreatment.
"My reflection on it was that here’s a man who was probably beaten, [with people] putting formaldehyde under their nose, who was shocked in the electric chair, who saw this violence and he was an innocent person," said Walker.
Walker’s grandmother was left traumatized after the Elaine Massacre, Walker said, causing her trouble connecting with her own children and grandchildren.
"I would like to say the massacre did have an effect on my family," Walker said tearfully during the ceremony, "and the effect still carries on a generation later."
This year marks the 100 year anniversary of the Elaine Massacre. Dr. Drale said the events commemorating this tragedy are significant to understanding Arkansas history.
"It is important because by telling the stories of those that lived through the incredible violence of the summer of 1919, we learn from what is now all of our story," Drale said.
The Elaine 12 members were: Alfred Banks, Ed Coleman, Joe Fox, Albert Giles, Paul Hall, Ed Hicks, Frank Hicks, Joe Knox, John Martin, Frank Moore, Ed Ware, and William Wordlaw.