Note: The following is an excerpt from Chapter 8, “In Memoriam”, from the book, Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and A Story of Reconciliation by J. Chester Johnson. Damaged Heritage is being published in May, 2020 by Pegasus Books. The Elaine Race Massacre of 1919, which occurred one county removed from where the author grew up white in southeast Arkansas, serves as a backdrop for much of the book’s commentary. As an excerpt, the following article also contains certain clarifications, modest in size, to provide context and linkages that do not appear in Chapter 8 of the original work.
In October, 2010, I was in Fayetteville, Arkansas, located in the extreme northwest corner of the state and home of the University of Arkansas, to receive the University’s Distinguished Alumnus Award. As part of this campus visit, which lasted several days, the Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, an entity of the University, interviewed me through Scott Lunsford, associate director of the Center, for upwards of ten hours. At some point during the extensive interview, we began to explore the issue of race and its impact on my life, and as the discussion progressed, I veered toward the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 that occurred among the rich cotton fields of Phillips County, Arkansas, in the Mississippi River Delta: more than a hundred and possibly hundreds of black sharecroppers and members of their families were killed. By this time, the Massacre had already begun to occupy a good deal of my intellectual attention, as well as my time, including a considerable amount dedicated to research on the particulars of the conflagration and its legally significant aftermath.
When I asked Scott whether he had ever heard of the Elaine Race Massacre, or maybe of the “Arkansas Race Riot,” as the American historian and anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells had called it in 1920, he replied that he wasn’t aware of it and didn’t believe anyone at the Center knew anything about it either. So, I proceeded to discuss the causes, the roles of the local white posses and white federal troops, the approximate magnitude of African-American deaths that resulted from the onslaughts, and the associated ramifications, including the precedent-setting case, Moore v. Dempsey, which evolved out of the local and state litigation from the Massacre and which would, based on the favorable U. S. Supreme Court decision in 1923 on behalf of certain of the sharecroppers, impact measurably and nationally the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the ability of African-Americans to achieve equal rights and equal protection under the law.
Learning about the Elaine Race Massacre transfixed Scott, who expressed a strong desire to learn more: books, articles, videos, whatever he could acquire and devour on the subject, for Scott was now deeply engaged with this moment of Arkansas and national history. Less than two years later, in August of 2012, he and I would together visit Phillips County and explore the Massacre’s killing fields, the town of Elaine, and the nearby county seat of Helena.
After the Fayetteville interview, Scott’s next stop on the Elaine Race Massacre trail resided in Phillips County where he scheduled an interview with David P. Solomon’s father, also named David, who was a patriarch for eastern Arkansas. At that interview held in Helena, both Davids were present and added much color and commentary to my former introduction of the Massacre to Scott. During his conversation with the two Davids, Scott recounted my comments from the earlier interview, at which point the younger David responded that he knew me. After all, we had been classmates at Harvard College, although we hadn’t known each other very well then.
Soon thereafter, David P. Solomon and I coincidentally met at a party in Manhattan (New York City) and began to discuss the Elaine Race Massacre. Both being residents of New York City, we then started to meet regularly for lunch, principally to discuss the particulars of the Massacre, and shared our family connections to the event. David explained how one member of the broader Solomon family was refused participation in the local white posse because he had two young children, and how another Solomon imprinted a role on the conflagration by signing a telegram in January, 1920 to the Governor of Kansas asking for the return to Arkansas of the African-American union organizer, who was seen by Phillips County whites as a precipitator of the Massacre. I described how my maternal grandfather, Lonnie Birch, came to participate in the Massacre while in the employment of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, which, through individual employees, exhibited a considerable role in the event and afterwards. I explained that I lived my earliest years with my maternal grandparents, Hattie and Lonnie, after my father died when I was one and my mother didn’t do especially well for a few years, during which time my grandfather, who had retired by then and moved to Little Rock from southeast Arkansas, became my principal caregiver. We discussed the importance that the Massacre and its consequences held locally and nationally, including the remarkable impacts of Moore v. Dempsey.
We agreed on the need for a memorial and deliberated over the reasonable options for location, including the grounds of the State Capitol or near the Phillips County Courthouse where so much torture and judicial malice and skullduggery took place after the killings in the Massacre stopped. Early on, David asserted his preference for the Memorial to be placed in Phillips County near the Courthouse; the politics of getting the State to agree to a memorial on the campus of the Capitol would be virtually insurmountable, and though the role of the State had arguably been decisive (i.e., calling in the federal troops to suppress a “phantom” black insurrection and the State’s noteworthy involvement in the litigation phase), the Massacre had been local, and the need for racial reconciliation was distinctly felt in Phillips County, a need which the Memorial would hopefully help to address.
At our lunches, David reflected from time to time on his mother’s progressive views about civil rights and her desire for racial equality and unbiased treatment of African-Americans. He indicated that throughout her life as a mother, she tried to instill those qualities and attitudes in her three sons. While his father’s beliefs had been no different, they were less vocally expressed, resulting mainly from the confidential nature of his father’s legal practice serving both blacks and whites as a prominent attorney. Toward the end of the father’s career, he received a citation from a regional legal organization in the State commending his services for “improving the condition of the poor in Eastern Arkansas.” I found it quite special that the Solomon family, which assisted in the establishment of Helena’s synagogue, enjoyed abiding and far-reaching roots in and commitment to the local community, spanning several generations. In fact, I concluded early that it was this family’s lengthy and vigorous association with Phillips County, consisting of governmental, economic, legal, and social prominence, combined with the vicinal relevance and criticality of the Massacre, that drove David P. Solomon to take on the initiative – with valuable facilitation and input from his law dean brother, Rayman – to support, organize for, and fund the Memorial, which they wished would be remembered as a family legacy to the County.
From the outset, he made it abundantly clear that his father, then nearly 100 years old, would be an integral part of the family’s decision to proceed or not to proceed with the Memorial. In September, 2014, during a symposium on the Elaine Race Massacre held at the iconic St. Paul’s Chapel in downtown Manhattan in New York City, he announced publicly, with both of his brothers in attendance, the commitment of the Solomon family to the Memorial. Thus, the father had commended the management of the Elaine Massacre Memorial to the next generation.
According to numerous members of the Phillips County community, little of useful import about the Elaine Race Massacre had been voiced among white citizens for the better part of the hundred years since the conflagration. It was often a topic deliberately eschewed, even in casual conversations. For some whites to feel more comfortable about this part of the County’s history, the gravitas of the event had been consciously downplayed – from a massacre to a skirmish and from at least over a hundred dead African-Americans to twenty-five or fewer. For several generations, the County never came to terms with an appropriate way of dealing with the event. To hide the Massacre had been a suitable method for many, those who wished the historical recall just to disappear altogether. And yet, ultimately the size and broad relevance of the Elaine Race Massacre would not be denied, as one credible and comprehensive treatise after another – Cortner’s A Mob Intent On Death, Shockley’s Blood In Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919, Woodruff’s American Congo, Whitaker’s On The Laps of Gods, and Francis’ Civil Rights And The Making Of The Modern American State – disembodied the logic and reality of misrepresentation and silence about the white onslaughts and the judicial outcomes.
It is understandable why the white community would not wish to confront the dark, probably the darkest, episode from Phillips County’s past. Undeniably, history is a mirror – a merciless, accurate in its detail, mirror – and the truthful acknowledgment that a racial massacre happened sets in motion a series of terrifying prospects challenging both previous and current, local behavior. Indeed, to admit that a race massacre transpired – in the degree that it actually occurred – means to assign responsibility, reasons, lessons, and incentives, which, in the face of a damaged heritage, bring a white legatee face-to-face with the limitless, most heinous aspects of his or her racism. Further, the employment of terrorism, as manifested in Phillips County during the fall of 1919, to achieve racist goals illustrates the extremes to which racism will go to achieve its ends for economic and filiopietistic reasons.
Others, who have written about the Elaine Race Massacre, and still others, black and white, residing for years in Phillips County as witnesses to behavior there, have explained that most African-Americans in the County were also reluctant to talk at length about the Massacre and its aftermath. Perhaps, since I am white, I could better understand the basis for whites to shun a concentration on the Massacre in order to keep reality and a direct allusion to their damaged heritage as far away as possible, but I initially found the historical hesitancy of African-Americans to explicate the event somewhat baffling, until I acknowledged for myself the local world that blacks still confronted in places like Phillips County, Arkansas. For instance, when I have walked alone the streets of Helena in the very early morning hours before daybreak with the realization of the Massacre descending like a consumptive spell upon me – and then imagine I too were black, I have perhaps been able to imagine in some measure the demonology striding alongside each one of my steps. For indeed, how far away are those whites who came to raid African-Americans at Hoop Spur the morning of October 1, 1919? How can blacks stop today’s prototype of those whites who would not be satisfied until they vanquished blacks that first dreadful morning of the conflagration? Is that appetite barely below the surface, ready to surge again in another shape or medium? Will raising the former moment of a hundred years ago be of help in obviating a repetition of those horrid events? Will an honest revisiting of the Massacre invoke, adjure the beast once more?
In 2017, a video documentary about the Massacre appeared on a Little Rock television channel, and I’m told that someone – today’s analogue to a member of the white posses of October 1, 1919 – posted a response to the documentary, saying that the main problem with the Elaine Race Massacre was that it only happened in Phillips County; rather, the post was reported to have suggested that the Massacre should have been conducted statewide. With this kind of proposal being offered a hundred years after the conflagration, it is no wonder that many local African-Americans in Phillips County, Arkansas, remain concerned about raising an event that conceivably can elicit another call to arms against blacks. Could it happen again?
J. Chester Johnson
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- In Memoriam - February 9, 2020