James White stands in front of what he says will be the site of a small museum memorializing the state’s largest massacre of blacks in 1919.
It’s a boarded up storefront — a brick corner building on the main drag of downtown Elaine, Arkansas, a town of just over 600 people in the Arkansas Delta.
His group, the Elaine Legacy Center, is seeking donated objects from the era for the museum.
“We would be looking for old artifacts. Old stuff — clothing… most definitely pictures,” said White.
Members of White’s family lived through Arkansas’s largest race massacre. It began in 1919 after area black farmers organized to demand higher pay for their crops. According to historical accounts, over a hundred or more mostly black farmers were killed for their fledgling labor movement.
Interest in the history of the massacre has renewed because of the coming centennial, as well as a controversy between residents of Elaine and neighboring Helena-West Helena, both declining in population, both hoping to memorialize the tragedy and attract civil rights tourism.
Now U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Jonesboro) is also planning to propose legislation for a new national civil rights park but the question of where has not yet been resolved.
White hopes that any memorials to the killings will be built in Elaine to help initiate conversations that could heal the racial divide and end the discrimination that remains.
“You've got the black side of town. They call it the quarters. When I was a kid, they called it the quarters. And then there’s the white side of town,” said White.
Mary Olson is a Methodist pastor in Elaine who helped found the legacy center, which sits about a mile away from its to-be museum. She says she hopes the center’s civil rights library will attract people who want to study the history of the state’s largest race massacre.
“Civil rights is a non-ending, ever-vigilant responsibility of every American to see that it stays intact or becomes intact for every person,” said Olson.
Olson says the story she reads in history books is different than the oral histories in town. And she and James White are bothered that outsiders are telling the story of the massacre. In particular, neighboring Helena-West Helena is putting up its own memorial to the massacre. The town’s population is ten times that of Elaine.
“If they are going to represent Elaine, they should bring it to the citizens of Elaine and let them decide. I really don’t think it’s right," said White.
The memorial to the massacre victims in Helena-West Helena will be in the town’s Court Square Park.
Former Rutgers School of Law at Camden Dean Rayman Solomon’s family is from Helena-West Helena, and they have given money to support the effort.
“One has to confront one’s history in order to get past it. By not acknowledging the past, it just continues to fester,” said Solomon.
He says the memorial isn’t an either-or matter for Elaine and Helena. He would like to see the National Park Service create a Jim Crow Era park site that focuses on the massacre and has locations in both towns. He hopes it can be a revitalizing force for the area’s dwindling economy.
“The name is the Elaine Massacre, but it was the entire south Phillips County that was involved in this,” Solomon said.
He points out, it was courts in Helena that tried the cases of 12 black men from Elaine sentenced to death for “racial disturbance” during the massacre. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and strengthened national civil rights law.
William Quinney III, who is with the Elaine Legacy Center, says he’s afraid Elaine is dying. He thinks that while the town has no hotel and few restaurants, civil rights tourism could bring a resurgence.
“There’s no telling how much we will profit. Our town needs it. Our town has all but laid a cornerstone … I mean a tombstone,” he said. “We need some rebirth in Elaine,” Quinney said.
For now, Representative Crawford’s office says it will write draft legislation for an Elaine memorial National Park site after considering possible locations in the region.