Three Descendants of the 1919 Elaine, Arkansas Massacre Speak on the Lasting Impact of an Overlooked History
I recently spoke with Elaine massacre descendants, James White, Lenora Marshall and Anthony Davis about the racial terror in the small town over a century ago and its lasting effects.
There is no such thing as a definitive narrative of America. Depending on who you ask the American story is one that is emblematic of an oasis of opportunity, rife with possibilities and a shining example for the rest of the world to look upon as a model of freedom, democracy and favor for those who work hard and dare to dream. The other side of that narrative tells the story of America as a land characterized by hypocrisy, injustice and the subjugation of citizens not identified in the majority.
These conflicting stories are the dichotomy of the immigrant and the native-born. The enslaved and the enslaver. The wealthy and the impoverished. The celebrated and the scorned.
The great American novelist, Richard Wright, grew up in the dawn of the 20th century in the small town of Elaine, Arkansas. As a very young Black boy in the post-Emancipation South, Wright was keenly aware of what it meant to exist on the unfavorable end of the spectrum in this country. Before Wright would go on to become one of the most revered authors in the canon of American writers and craft classics such as Native Son, he would live through his uncle being murdered in the town of Elaine for the crime of not selling his tavern to white businessmen.
The beginnings of the 20th century were filled with stories of Black Americans dying at the hands of white men who sought to extend dominion over Black bodies after the ending of chattel slavery had legally taken it from them. The characters in these events were not the same as antebellum enslavers but followed a similar plot of oppression and violence in the name of keeping Black folks in a subservient position. In the Deep South, white Americans were determined to build a narrative that either wrote Blackness out of existence or background Black humanity with the hopes that Black folks would voluntarily cast themselves in the shadows.
And when Black southerners decided to assert their humanity and write new chapters after enslavement, white folks called for bloodier scripts.
The Story of the 1919 Elaine, Arkansas Race Massacre
The story of the massacre that took place on September 30, 1919, in Elaine, Arkansas, like all American stories, varies with respect to whose interest is being served when repeating it. It should first be noted that the Elaine Massacre, much like the Tulsa Race Massacre, was once referred to as a “riot.” The term riot gives the indication of an uproar where the loss of life might be a consequence of disruption. A massacre refers to the killing of the multitude, specifically when the multitude does not have the wherewithal to prevent a mass-scale slaughtering.
What took place in Elaine, Arkansas on September 30, 1919, was a massacre, 1 of 5 that involved a massive loss of Black life within a 5-year span. The summary of the incident is as follows: a large gathering of Black families met at the Hoop Spur Church in Elaine to come up with a plan for Black farmers and sharecroppers to receive adequate compensation for their labor and the cotton they were growing. When white local authorities got word of the meeting, they went to Hope Spur and began shooting into the church. The shooting was the start of a reign of terror that would claim hundreds of Black lives, as many others were also lynched. The longstanding narrative was that the massacre only claimed the lives of field hands and those who worked in agriculture, however, similar to the Tulsa massacre that would occur two years later, the Elaine massacre destroyed Black businesses and claimed the lives of other Black professionals.
To date, Elaine is a town with a population of fewer than 700 citizens, divided like many rural American municipalities, along racial lines. I recently was honored with the opportunity to speak with three descendants of the Elaine massacre who spoke very passionately about the lasting impact of the carnage that took place over a century ago, the importance of the story of 1919 Elaine being told with accuracy and what keeps them rooted in an area that has yet to atone for the generational trauma it caused its people.
The Descendants Speak…
“There's no jobs. We live in poverty. We were stripped in 1919, all our wealth from 1919 to the present no wealth generated,” James White, Director of the Elaine Legacy Center, told me when I asked him to describe present-day Elaine. “They stripped all our wealth and until this day for a Black person here in Elaine, Arkansas, you have nothing, you know, it's just like you almost just [left] with the clothes on your back because they won't let you get nothing.”
In the small town of Elaine, roughly 35 percent overall of its residents lives below the poverty rate. But Black residents of Elaine account for a staggering 61.75 percent of impoverished residents while accounting for just over half of the town’s overall population (50.38 percent).
“It’s plenty money here. These farmers make millions and millions of dollars every year, but they don't share none of it. Even now, they rather go get South Africans and Mexicans and bring them in here and work [with] them than [work with] people that live there all their life, and work this land that they stole from them.”
Lenora Marshall, Vice President of the Elaine Legacy Center, echoes a similar sentiment to White.
“Here in Elaine, we have a lack of job opportunities,” Marshall informed me. “We have a lack of businesses, not very many people own their own homes, and not very many people own their own land, which is contrary to times past when many people owned their own land. And they had their own business, they had lucrative businesses that thrive greatly. And it's totally the opposite now.”
Both White and Marshall explained the income and opportunity gap that plagues Black residents of Elaine as a byproduct of the 1919 massacre when a violent white mob destroyed the infrastructure that Black folks were building. I spoke with them as they sat inside the Legacy Center on a day that a severe storm knocked out the power around town, and they were just able to join on Zoom with a mildly distorted connection.
The other descendant, Rev. Anthony Davis, was called on the phone to join our Zoom conversation, where most of my questions had to be filtered through Marshall or White to be able to properly communicate.
“Modern-day Elaine looks like a ghost town or some old Western movie,” Davis emphatically told me. “All they need is some tumbleweeds and stuff going down through there. It is looking like what it's supposed to look like as a result of what they've done.
They cursed a beautiful land. The landscape is beautiful. And like the young man [White] was saying they have a lot of money being made, but they're not sharing the wealth and making money off of our land.”
The pain and betrayal Davis emotes is evident even through our shotty connection. He is one of the most passionate advocates for the truth of what happened in Elaine in 1919 to seared into America’s conscience. He tells about his grandfather who was directly involved on that fateful day.
“My granddaddy was one of the main figures in that riot. They put him under house arrest and took his guns away from him. And my grandmother witnessed hauling bodies stacked up on trucks. The Elaine riot was as bad as the Tulsa riot, if not worse. But Elaine [the] riot was round two. The first set of massacres started right after the Reconstruction Era.”
I asked the three descendants about their earliest memories of hearing about the Elaine massacre from their elders, and as they each reflected on the story that had been passed down to them, the significance of how a moment in history is told and retold shapes how one sees themselves in the larger narrative of what that history symbolizes.
“I spent a lot of time with my grandfather and grandmother ‘cause they lived through the massacre,” White began. “I can remember when we was kids, they just told you enough stuff to keep you safe. And as time went on, they would tell you more. They'll tell you a little bit at a time ‘you can't do this, you can't do that.’ And you know, just little stuff, just molding you to, what was on the outside, what could get you in a lot of trouble, what could get you hurt. Where you don't need to be at a certain time. Always be respectful toward white people. You know, they just told you. And at the time when I was a kid, I didn't really understand all that.”
“You know, I had questions, but I really didn't understand it because they didn't give you the whole story, they gave you just what you needed to be safe because you could get, you could get killed here.”
Marshall recalled eavesdropping on her parents and other elders occasionally discussing the story of the massacre, but not being old enough to be privy to being in “grown folks business.”
“During that time, they did not allow the young children to be in adults’ conversation,” she said. They would just kinda have that conversation. We would always try to see what we could hear without them knowing that we were listening.”
“We had quite a few relatives lost during this 1919 massacre,” Marshall continued, “so that was early on. And in later years my aunt talked to me about how terrible things were and what they went through. And some of their relatives went through back [then]. As far as parents just sitting down and telling you, my mother would kind of hint out a few things and just like Mr. White said, they would tell you enough to get safe. You know, to be safe. Now don't, don't do this. Or you should behave in this way. If you are confronted with this for survival skills. So that's basically what I heard.”
As I listened and watched them talk, it struck me that I was not talking to incredibly older people. They had all been born many decades into the 20th century but spoke about being shielded from information about the 1919 massacre for their own protection. I appreciated their openness to talk with me about in this day and age but felt a degree of sorrow for them growing up needing to keep a narrative of terror suppressed for their own safety.
A Legacy of False Narratives
“They [are] hiding a lot more than the history of Elaine,” Rev. Davis told me when I asked about how the powers-that-be were benefitting from a suppressed truth about the Elaine massacre. “They'd have to tell the whole history, the truth. These people were citizens. Even during the time, the Reconstruction, when Arkansas became a state. These people were citizens.”
“See all they want now is a dog and pony show so they can get some people down here to spend some money. And if they can get a couple of [us] tap dancing would be nice. They're making deals with other people, with our stuff and leaving us out.”
Rev. Davis spoke to erasure that other residents of cities and towns marred by racial violence have spoken out in frustration about, including most recently for the centennial recognition of the Tulsa massacre. It is an unsettling dynamic where civic leaders and city officials want to capitalize on tragic events as historic landmarks, all the while not owning up to the full truth of what took place nor providing descendants with adequate measures of atonement.
“We came over here and showed them what to do with this land and look at how they treated us and made our children slaves.”
The Actions of the Past and its Impact on the Present
“They stole the land,” White reiterated to make sure there was no confusion as to his perspective. “They took the land, and the land is like gold. That's Black, gold out there. They made millions and millions of dollars here. And they fixed it in a way that you can't even get back in the land because the government made it hard. They stole your land. And to this day, you can’t buy seeds for your crops, you can't get your government loans to plant your crops.”
“So it's like, now, it don't make no difference if you got money. Now, if you Black, they would not sell you land here. Ain't nobody got nothing. And they pass it on from generation to generation.”
“We ain't lazy. Black people ain't lazy. We work. We are working people. But if you live here, you don't have the opportunity. If you come into this town right now and you look on the north side of the town and you look on the south side of town, it's like night and day, because the white people got all the fine rides. They send their kids to Harvard or whatever college they want to send them to. When they get out of here, they send them away. We don't have that kind of opportunity. We don't have that.”
“The farmers that are now are hiring people to work are being paid less than minimum wages,” adds Marshall. “That's one of the problems. And another thing is, are we talking about poor financial support, education and, and the lack of jobs in our community? Also, Black people who once were very successful when they died, when they were killed, when that land was stolen, there were ambitions lost.”
Rev. Davis weighed in with an even more direct example of the longstanding inequity stemming from the imbalance in power that the 1919 massacre exacerbated.
“The [Black] people that's got land when they go to try to get a loan for a farm, they give them money at a different rate than they give the whites money, and then they'll hold that money up.”
The Descendants Keep the Faith, In Spite of Elaine’s Slow Evolution
“If the devil wasn’t so busy here we’d be in paradise, cuz this a beautiful place,” Rev. Davis explained when I asked him what kept him in an area so steeped in inequity.
“They cursed the land, but I ain't no place I'd rather live. I love this place and I will put up a fight about mine.”
Marshall, beamed with pride about the work being done at the Elaine Legacy Center.
“We have a population of about 626 here in Elaine, and free bikes were provided for so many of the children here. We got an accumulation of wealth where we have started bank accounts for each child. And then it has its bylaws and rules, how it is to be used. So we are doing quite a few things here at the Legacy Center and that is the positive side of it. We’re also doing the museum where a lot of facts will be in there, pictures and other things concerning the 1919 massacre.”
And for White, it is a matter of changing the narrative for future generations of Black children growing up in Elaine.
“What really keeps me here is my grandkids. And this story my grandmother and grandfather told me [about] 1919 because I want all the kids to know, all the generations to come to get the real story. That your people owned land. I just want Black kids here to know that they can do it too. You know, they can have power, they can have businesses.”
“This is a nice place to live. If you got something to look forward to.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Donney Rose is a Writer, Educator, Organizer and Chief Content Editor at The North Star