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Descendants of Arkansas' Elaine Massacre victims push for restorative
By Olivia Paschal
October 7, 2020
Six of the 12 Black sharecroppers sentenced to death following the Elaine
Massacre pose with their lawyer Scipio A. Jones, left. Known as the Moore
defendants, these six men — Ed Hicks, Frank Hicks, Ed Moore, J. C. Knox, Ed
Coleman, and Paul Hall — appealed their case to the U.S. Supreme Court,
resulting in a precedent-setting decision. Lisa Hicks-Gilbert, the founder of
the Descendants of the Elaine Massacre of 1919 Facebook page, is a descendant
of Frank and Ed Hicks. (Photo courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas
Studies, Central Arkansas Library System.)
Late last September, hundreds of people flocked to Phillips County,
Arkansas, for events held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Elaine
Massacre, when mobs of white planters and their allies killed hundreds of Black
sharecroppers in retaliation for their attempt to unionize. Hundreds gathered
in Helena-West Helena, where a large, privately built memorial was dedicated in
the town square. In Elaine, the rural namesake of the massacre and the epicenter
of the violence, people gathered at the Elaine Legacy Center for a service and
healing event of their own. There were panels, sermons, and songs, the
beginning of what residents hoped would be a first step towards real reckoning
with how the murder of hundreds of Black residents of a small county in the
Arkansas Delta has impacted the generations that came after.
Then the outsiders left. And the attention to Elaine's past did not
translate into care for the town's present.
"The centennial last year left a lot of emotions up in the air. It was
like a wound had been opened, a bandage had been removed from a wound, and the
wound was just left open," said Ora Scaife-Truitt, a "descendant of
the massacre," as Black people whose families were in Elaine and the
surrounding rural townships at the time of the massacre often refer to
themselves. Because there has never been a full accounting of the Black people
murdered, imprisoned, and dispossessed of crops and property during the
massacre, every Black family whose ancestors were in the region when it
happened must assume that their family was impacted by the violence.
Scaife-Truitt was born in Elaine and still lives there, volunteering with the
town's children at the Lee Street Community Center.
"The documentaries have been done, the articles have been written, the
books have been written," she said. "They talked to the individuals
here in Elaine, talked to the elderly that would talk. But once everybody left,
what were we left with?"
Scaife-Truitt and other descendants feel that the voices of those who have
been most tangibly impacted are being left out of the broader conversation
about the Elaine Massacre, which took place during 1919's "Red
Summer" when incidents of white supremacist violence and riots took place
in more than three dozen communities across the U.S. As academics continue to
uncover new information about the Elaine Massacre, descendants are learning the
details of the mob violence, torture, and theft used against their ancestors at
the same time as the rest of the country. It has been a painful, traumatic
experience for many Black families with roots in the region.
* * *
Lisa Hicks-Gilbert grew up in Elaine and attended its public schools, which
have since been closed following a 2006 consolidation with a neighboring
district. She first heard about the massacre 12 years ago in a Facebook post.
"I thought it was fiction at first," she recalled. On her next visit
with her grandmother, who lived at the time in an assisted living facility in
Elaine, she asked whether she knew about it. Her grandmother closed the
always-open screen door, Hicks-Gilbert remembers, and told her not to speak too
loudly, worried that white residents of the living facility would overhear.
As she coaxed the story out of her grandmother over five years,
Hicks-Gilbert learned that she is related to Frank and Ed Hicks, two of the
dozen Black men who were convicted and sentenced to death after the massacre in
sham trials. They are known collectively as the Elaine 12. Hicks-Gilbert's
grandmother, who passed away late last year, made Hicks-Gilbert promise not to
speak publicly about the massacre until after her grandmother's death. Like
other Black Elaine residents who grew up just years removed from the massacre,
she was afraid talking about it would trigger more white violence.
That silence has only recently started to break. Black people in Elaine
still live and work on white-owned land. The families there now are the same
ones there a century ago. The social and economic power structures of the town
have not noticeably changed: Elaine and the surrounding rural townships still
face continued segregation, poverty, and massive wealth disparities between
their Black and white residents. In Phillips County, which is 63% Black, the
poverty rate for Black people is 45% compared to just 12% for white people.
According to the most recent Census estimates, 85% of those who live below the
poverty line in Phillips County are Black.
Some descendants within and outside of Elaine and the surrounding townships
now worry that their history and their families' trauma have become pawns for
outside voices. Among those they have criticized is Mary Olson, a white
Methodist minister who grew up in Wisconsin and has lived in Phillips County
for two decades. She is the president of the Elaine Legacy Center, which until
now has been the primary voice of the massacre victims' descendants in Elaine.
Hicks-Gilbert believes that Olson — who was featured in much of the media
coverage of last year's centennial commemorations and has been one of the main
representatives of the Legacy Center in regional and statewide conversations
about the massacre — has overstepped her position and claimed to speak for
people she does not represent.
Before this year's anniversary, Hicks-Gilbert sent Olson an email asking her
to reconsider her position in the community. "Many powers that be have
swooped in on Elaine and taken advantage of and exploited the fact that people
in Elaine are reluctant and afraid to speak out. Then there are those who come
to Elaine to be the savior they think Elaine needs, instead of empowering the
community to put in the work to help itself," she wrote in the email,
which she shared with Facing South. "You and others need to recognize the
privilege you have to use your voice without repercussion. I challenge each of
you to use your voice to help address true reconciliation in healing in Elaine
instead of being in constant conflict with each other to control the
Olson did not provide an on-the-record response to Hicks-Gilbert's critique
of her work. The legacy center's board and staff includes Olson and several
Black descendants of the massacre's victims, who have been working to gather
oral histories and open a civil rights museum in the town.
"The Elaine community and the descendants do not need someone to lead
us. We need someone to help us learn how to lead," Hicks-Gilbert, who
currently lives in Little Rock but whose family is still in Elaine, told Facing
South. To provide a space dedicated solely to empowering descendants’ voices,
she created a group and Facebook page called Descendants of the Elaine Massacre
of 1919. This, she hopes, will create a seat at the table for her community,
for descendants of the massacre's victims.
Last week, in collaboration with the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial
Movement (APJMM), which was co-founded by Clarice Abdul-Bey, another massacre
descendant, the Descendants of Elaine page hosted a week-long commemorative
virtual event for the 101st anniversary. Tracing the historical arc of the
massacre, it featured histories posted to the page in addition to a film
screening, video messages from allies, and Zoom events.
Through the page, Hicks-Gilbert has begun to build a community of
descendants focused on Elaine, but spread across the country. After the
massacre, some Black families fled the Delta; some, like union leader Robert
Hill, headed to Topeka, Kansas, while others went further north to cities like
Chicago. Hicks-Gilbert has already met cousins whose ancestors left the state
soon after the massacre; they're planning to hold a family reunion when the
COVID-19 pandemic allows. She estimates that there are already more than 100
descendants actively engaged with the page.
She envisions the community she's facilitating as a way to heal and empower
descendants. In the last year, Hicks-Gilbert and Scaife-Truitt have been in
counseling that has helped them grapple with their own emotions of anger and
fear related to the massacre. Soon, they plan to help provide that same
counseling to others in Elaine experiencing similar trauma. Controversial
though speaking out about the massacre and its impacts can still be, both hope
they're leading by example.
"All I need to show my people [is] an example of what is
possible," Hicks-Gilbert said. "Let me be your mountain until I can
convince you to go over it or go around it."
* * *
It is evident to descendants of the massacre's victims that healing,
restoration, and even restitution are necessary. The Elaine Legacy Center held
a truth and reconciliation ceremony in 2019, and has since partnered with
nationwide civil rights groups for continued conversation about reparations.
"When the dreamers are martyred and murdered, then the dream has been
destroyed. And it deprives so many future generations of education and other
things," Lenora Marshall, a descendant who sits on the board of the Elaine
Legacy Center, told Facing South.
Over the week-long virtual event hosted by the Descendants of Elaine and
APJMM, descendants came together on multiple webinars to discuss what
restorative justice and healing for their families, their towns, and their
people could look like.
There is mounting historical evidence that in 1919, the federal troops who
were called to Phillips County to restore order in fact participated in the
massacre, killing Black sharecroppers and helping imprison hundreds of innocent
Black people. The oral histories passed down through descendants and their
families recall horrible instances of near-genocidal violence committed by
white mobs: women and children placed in steel drums and thrown into the nearby
lake, mothers jumping out of church windows with their children to escape
gunfire, Black women agreeing to work for white families for free in exchange
for letting their husbands out of prison.
"Restorative justice is basically repairing harm done," Abdul-Bey
said during one of last week's virtual panels on healing and justice. And there
was much harm.
In her 1920 investigative pamphlet "The Arkansas Race Riot," Black
journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett calculated the approximate amount of money lost
in cotton crops by the Elaine 12 and 75 other men convicted and imprisoned in
the aftermath of the massacre while they sat in jail. Records show that 122
Black people were spuriously charged with crimes like accessory to murder or
"night riding." In all, five white people were killed across three
days of violence. But more than 200 Black people are believed to have been
killed; nobody was charged in their murders.
"[The] white lynchers of Phillips County made a cool million dollars …
off the cotton crop of the twelve men who are sentenced to death, the
seventy-five who are in the Arkansas penitentiary and the one hundred whom they
lynched outright," Wells-Barnett wrote. "[Not] one of them has ever
been arrested for this wholesale conspiracy of murder, robbery and false
imprisonment of these black men, nor for driving their wives and children out
to suffer in rags and hunger and want!"
There are clear economic and personal losses to recoup. Descendants in
Elaine say there is much to be done to ensure the town has a strong future,
especially for its children. Since Elaine's public schools closed in the 2006
merger, some students travel up to an hour to and from school on back country
roads, said Scaife-Truitt, the descendant who volunteers at the Lee Street
On the panel, Scaife-Truitt said that there needed to be a real, concerted
attempt at telling the truth about the massacre to the children. "Teach
our history. Put it out there as it should be," she said.
"Reparations look like you're going to build this community up for our
youth. This is history that is ongoing, that really meant something." Teaching
the history of the union, the massacre, and the Elaine 12 should be a priority,
said Steven Bradley, whose ancestor Edward Coleman was also a member of the
"Talk about Black truth, Black stories, Black histories, Black
ancestors," said Bradley, who lives in Memphis. "Everything Elaine is
suffering with is the same thing every Black community in America is suffering
with. Everything is systemic."
There is also room for the descendants of white perpetrators and the
descendants of Black victims to come together, Sheila Walker, whose great-uncle
Albert Giles was one of the Elaine 12, told other descendants. She and J.
Chester Johnson, a white poet who grew up in Southern Arkansas and learned as
an adult that his grandfather had taken part in the killing, have spent the
last several years on a path of conversation that has led to forgiveness and
reconciliation. It's a potential model for other restorative conversations
between living white and Black people whose ancestors were on either side of
the massacre, so long as white people are willing to be empathetic and open to
Other descendants want government restitution — starting with an
acknowledgement from the local, state, and federal governments that they were
involved in the massacre. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a
Republican running for governor in 2022, filmed a video for the
Descendants/APJMM commemoration acknowledging the massacre. It marked the first
time an official in Arkansas' executive branch has acknowledged the injustice
and the loss of life that occurred in Elaine. "That helps bring some power
to the descendants," Hicks-Gilbert said.
It's a step in the right direction, Abdul-Bey added, but still not enough.
"If you make an acknowledgement, we need to hear from you that there are
plans in the works that will lead to restorative justice," she said. On
the virtual panels last week, some descendants asked for a written apology from
the city and state. Hicks-Gilbert called on the state, the Elaine mayor, who is
white, and the city council to come to the table and collaborate with them.
One place to start, descendants said, is serious investment in their
hometown – a sustained plan for economic development and wealth-building in the
Black community. "Elaine doesn't have broadband. Our water tower is
rusting," and the library closes before children get back from school,
said Scaife-Truitt. "I would like to see some kind of public
acknowledgement," said Candace Williams, another descendant who lives in
Elaine and is the executive director of the Rural Community Alliance.
"Some kind of investment from our state legislature — investing in us
economically, investing in our youth."
* * *
With the week of virtual events at a close, Hicks-Gilbert and APJMM are
moving forward with efforts to lift up Elaine's history and direct resources
back into the town. During the last state legislative session, Abdul-Bey and
APJMM worked to push Senate Bill 591, which would have created a remembrance
commission, a truth and reconciliation committee, and a history curriculum that
engages with Arkansas' history of racist violence. The bill stalled in
committee. But along with Hicks-Gilbert and the Descendants Facebook page,
they’re preparing to rewrite the bill and mount a second effort.
The Descendants and APJMM are also working together on a petition to
exonerate all 122 Black people who were charged with crimes following the
massacre. Along with the Elaine Alumni Association, Hicks-Gilbert is working on
plans to repurpose the old Elaine High School building, which was gifted to the
association, and use it as a community education center.
"The fact that the descendants are controlling the narrative and taking
it back, that's part of the truth that's going forward," Abdul-Bey said.
ELAINE MASSACRE RED SUMMER ARKANSAS ARKANSAS DELTA ARKANSAS PEACE AND JUSTICE
Olivia Paschal is a contributing writer with Facing South and a doctoral
student in history at the University of Virginia. She was a staff reporter with
Facing South for two years and spearheaded Poultry and Pandemic, Facing South's
year-long investigation into conditions for Southern poultry workers during the
COVID-19 pandemic. Her reporting has appeared in The Atlantic, the Huffington
Post, Southerly, Scalawag, the Arkansas Times, and Civil Eats, among other
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