Tree Memorializing Victims of Arkansas' Elaine Massacre Cut Down

Awillow tree in Arkansas that memorialized Black Americans who were killed during one of the biggest race riots in the US was chopped down.

Mary Olson, the president and founder of the Elaine Legacy Center, posted a picture to Facebook on August 21 of the tree that honored over 200 Black Americans who lost their lives during the Elaine Massacre of 1919.

“The Living Memorial, memorializing all those who lost their lives in the Elaine Massacre of 1919 was chopped down at the base today and the Memorial tag stolen. It could not have been easy to get the tag off its branch,” Olson wrote. “Was it vandalism? Was it a threat? Was it a hate crime. It is now blocked off with crime tape until the state investigators come.”

During the summer of 1919 in Elaine, Arkansas, more than 200 Black people, many of whom were Black sharecroppers trying to organize a union in the cotton market, were killed by a white mob, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. The summer of the massacre was known as the Red Summer, where around 25 “anti-Black riots” broke out in major cities across the US, including places like Houston, Texas; East St. Louis and Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Omaha, Nebraska; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charleston, South Carolina.

Elaine Police Department Chief Alvin Scaife told USA Today that the tree “appeared to be cut down,” but state authorities were investigating the incident. The memorial tag attached to the tree was also stolen, according to the publication. Arkansas Circuit Court judge Wendell Griffen, a pastor and civil rights advocate, told WREG-TV the cutting down of the tree may have been a hate crime.

“What I’ve been hearing is, this is called an act of vandalism. Let’s call it what it is — a hate crime,” Griffen said.

“Hacking down a tree is a hateful act. Hacking down a tree in memory of black people who have been massacred is a racially hateful act. This a racial hate crime. Call it the truth.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) urged law enforcement in Elaine, Arkansas, to investigate a possible bias motive for vandalism of the memorial.

“When past evils are forgotten, they are more likely to be repeated. We urge law enforcement authorities to take the possibility of a bias motive for this vandalism seriously and to bring the perpetrators to justice,” CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper said in a statement.

In July, three students from the University of Mississippi were suspended from their fraternity after a photo of them circulated on social media in front of a bullet-riddled historical marker in Glendora, Mississippi that memorialized lynching victim Emmett Till.

The photo was first reported by The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica. Rod Guajardo, the university’s spokesman, previously told The North Star that university officials became aware of the photo in March after it was reported to its Bias Incident Response Team. Guajardo said the photo did not violate the conduct code at the university.

“While the image is offensive, it did not present a violation of [the] university code of conduct,” Guajardo said in a previous statement. “It occurred off campus and was not part of a university-affiliated event.”

US Attorney Chad Lamar previously told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica that the case was being investigated.

In 1955, Emmett Till, a Black teenager from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi, stopped at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market where he encountered a white woman by the name of Carolyn Bryant. It still remains unclear if Till interacted with Bryant, but some claimed he whistled at her. Bryant’s husband and his half brother subsequently beat, shot, and lynched the teen.

Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, held an open casket funeral for her son to show the brutal violence he had endured. The killing of the 14-year-old helped sparked the Civil Rights Movement.

The Emmett Till Memorial Commission told NBC News that it was removing the sign to replace it with a bullet-proof, 500-pound reinforced sign. The new sign is expected to go up on October 19, and it is the fourth replaced memorial on-site, the news station reported.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.