Cameron McWhirter, Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2019
The memorial was meant to help a rural Arkansas community heal longstanding wounds from one of the bloodiest episodes of racial violence in U.S. history. Instead, it is fueling tensions among white and black people.
The monument, which is set to be unveiled in late September near a courthouse in downtown Helena, marks the centennial of what has become known as the Elaine Massacre. In late September and early October 1919, white posses who believed black sharecroppers were organizing a revolt killed more than 100 African-Americans — and some historians have said it could have been many hundreds.
Some Arkansas residents are angry about the monument’s location in the Phillips County community where white leaders planned the attacks, rather than about 25 miles southwest in Elaine, near where the violence erupted. Helena, they say, is co-opting a bloody history it long suppressed to promote tourism, harming smaller Elaine a second time.
“This is white folks using white privilege to demonstrate a 21st-century version of polite white supremacy, ” said Arkansas Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, an African-American leader and pastor.
Supporters of the Phillips County monument say it is intended to raise historical awareness and promote racial harmony, while bringing more tourists to a struggling area between Memphis and Little Rock, two leading civil rights sites.
The Rev. Mary Olson, who is white and president of the Elaine Legacy Center, said her group and Elaine residents weren’t consulted and want a memorial there. The group, made up of blacks and whites, is considering possible legal action, she said. Her group plans to hold an event in Elaine at the same time the other group holds its event in Helena, she said.
In the fall of 1919, black sharecroppers and a group of white people opened fire on each other in a remote area near Elaine. Afterward, white people organized posses and brought in groups of soldiers, which committed “helter-skelter killing” throughout the county, according to Robert Whitaker, author of “On the Laps of Gods,” a book about the event. No official investigation ever took place, he said.
White mobs rounded up hundreds of black people, and all-white juries convicted many after brief trials. Lawyers for 12 men sentenced to death argued up to the U.S. Supreme Court that the men weren’t given fair trials. In 1923, the Supreme Court agreed, and the ruling set a precedent for defendants’ rights in state trials.