Un­der­stand­ing Elaine

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Se­nior Edi­tor Rex Nel­son’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. He’s also the au­thor of the South­ern Fried blog at rexnel­son­south­ern­fried.com.

Elaine is one of those places that’s out of sight and out of mind for most Arkansans. The small town in Phillips County has seen its pop­u­la­tion de­cline from 1,210 in 1970 to 636 in the 2010 cen­sus. This area once was part of the vast net­work of streams, swamps and bot­tom­land hard­woods that cov­ered the Arkansas Delta. For the past cen­tury, the econ­omy has been driven by row-crop agri­cul­ture.

“When Arkansas be­came a state in 1836, the area of present-day Elaine was still swamp­land,” Steven Teske writes in the En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Arkansas His­tory & Cul­ture. “It was des­ig­nated as such by the Swamp and Over­flow Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1850. Si­las Craig and John Martin pur­chased Phillips County land from the state of Arkansas un­der the pro­vi­sions of that act, and the land passed through sev­eral own­ers—in­clud­ing the state of Arkansas a sec­ond time due to un­paid taxes—but was only slightly de­vel­oped. …

“Around 1892, state ge­ol­o­gist John Casper Bran­ner pre­dicted to Fort Smith in­vestor Harry Kel­ley that the swamp­land of Phillips County would be­come the rich­est part of the state. This pre­dic­tion noted that silt from river flood­ing cre­ated fer­tile farm­land through the area. Bran­ner said that three things were needed to de­velop the land— ef­fec­tive flood con­trol through the build­ing of lev­ees, rail­road trans­porta­tion and clear­ing of the tim­ber. Be­gin­ning in 1892, Kel­ley pur­chased land in the promis­ing area. Even­tu­ally he came to own—alone or through part­ners—about 35,000 acres.” As the tim­ber was har­vested, the Howe Lum­ber Co., Chicago Mill & Lum­ber Co., New Madrid Hoop Co. and Acme Cooper­age Co. be­came ma­jor em­ploy­ers.

In 1919, an event oc­curred that should have put Elaine in the his­tory books for­ever. The Pro­gres­sive Farm­ers & House­hold Union was hold­ing meet­ings across the Delta in an at­tempt to ob­tain bet­ter prices for the cot­ton grown by ten­ant farm­ers. There was a Sept. 30 shoot­ing at a meet­ing in a com­mu­nity three miles north of Elaine known as Hoop Spur. A white se­cu­rity of­fi­cer for the Mis­souri-Pa­cific Rail­road was killed, and a sher­iff’s deputy was injured. Ru­mors spread that blacks were plan­ning a vi­o­lent up­ris­ing against white plan­ta­tion own­ers. Whites from He­lena and even far­ther away (some came from Mis­sis­sippi) took up arms. A num­ber of blacks were killed in the days that fol­lowed. Some ac­counts say the death toll reached into the hun­dreds.

Gov. Charles Brough sent 500 sol­diers to Phillips County from Camp Pike in North Lit­tle Rock. Once the vi­o­lence ended, 77 blacks were tried and sen­tenced for var­i­ous crimes. No whites were sen­tenced. It was the dead­li­est racial con­fronta­tion in Arkansas his­tory and per­haps the blood­i­est racial con­flict in U.S. his­tory.

For decades, how­ever, it wasn’t talked about in Arkansas. Few Arkansans had heard about the car­nage un­til 2001 when the Univer­sity of Arkansas Press pub­lished a book by Grif Stock­ley ti­tled Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Mas­sacres of 1919. Now, 16 years fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of Stock­ley’s well-re­searched book, Arkansans again need to be ed­u­cated about what hap­pened in 1919.

On a Thurs­day last month, those in­ter­ested in learn­ing about what Stock­ley refers to as the Elaine Mas­sacre filled the Ron Robin­son The­ater in down­town Lit­tle Rock to hear about a planned doc­u­men­tary by film­mak­ers Natalie Zim­mer­man and Michael Wil­son to be ti­tled Elaine. The event was pro­moted as a “screen­ing of clips,” though only a short trailer was shown. Most of the hour con­sisted of a panel dis­cus­sion. Wil­son talked about the cur­rent Delta while us­ing pe­jo­ra­tive terms such as “in­dus­trial farm­ing” and made a plea for radical, to­tally un­re­al­is­tic mod­ern ef­forts such as repa­ra­tions.

Therein lies the prob­lem. Peo­ple need to be ed­u­cated about the atroc­i­ties that oc­curred. But if the doc­u­men­tary enters the realm of 21st cen­tury left­ist pol­i­tics, it will turn off those who most need to see it. In an era of deep po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions, such an ap­proach will fur­ther di­vide rather than en­lighten.

The Red Echo Group and Wil­son’s So­cial Sat­is­fac­tion Stu­dio are try­ing to raise $60,000 to fin­ish the film. Their lit­er­a­ture says they want to bring “na­tional and in­ter­na­tional aware­ness to the con­flict in Elaine— it’s [sic] race, class and la­bor di­men­sions, and the true scope and legacy of the sub­se­quent mas­sacre.”

The sum­mer of 1919 was marked by racial con­flicts across the coun­try in cities from Wash­ing­ton to Chicago.

Stock­ley writes: “With la­bor con­flicts es­ca­lat­ing through the coun­try at the end of World War I, gov­ern­ment and busi­ness in­ter­preted the de­mands of la­bor in­creas­ingly as the work of for­eign ide­olo­gies, such as Bol­she­vism, that threat­ened the foun­da­tion of the Amer­i­can econ­omy. Thrown into the highly com­bustible mix was the re­turn to the United States of black sol­diers who often ex­hib­ited a less sub­mis­sive at­ti­tude within the Jim Crow so­ci­ety around then. Unions such as the Pro­gres­sive Farm­ers rep­re­sented a threat not only to the tenet of white supremacy but also to the ba­sic con­cepts of cap­i­tal­ism. Al­though the United States was on the win­ning side of World War I, sup­port­ers of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism found in com­mu­nism a new men­ace to their se­cu­rity.”

Arkansans must know what hap­pened at Elaine in the fall of 1919. If the tone of last month’s com­ments at the Ron Robin­son The­ater are an in­di­ca­tion of where the cur­rent film is headed, though, it will fall short of its ed­u­ca­tional goals. That’s un­for­tu­nate.

Rex Nel­son

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