Marking The Centennial Of Arkansas' Elaine Massacre
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we're going to turn to a story that may be disturbing to some listeners. A century ago, white mobs killed hundreds of African American sharecroppers and family members in their homes and on cotton fields surrounding Elaine, Ark. This weekend, residents are gathering around Arkansas to remember one of the deadliest and least-known racial conflicts in U.S. history. Jacqueline Froelich of member station KUAF reports.
JACQUELINE FROELIC, BYLINE: Members of the Divine Deliverance Christian Ministry in the tiny farming town of Elaine sing on a recent Sunday morning.
UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGATION: (Singing) Swing low, sweet chariot.
FROELICH: One hundred years ago, a shoot-out between local white law enforcement and armed African American guards protecting a sharecroppers' union meeting triggered a race massacre here. In the following days, as many as a thousand white civilians and militia, fearing a black insurrection, swarmed the Elaine area, killing black men, women and children. Sheila Walker's grandmother, who survived, was an eyewitness.
FROELICH: She says there were shots fired. There were people dying in front of me. And I just gathered up some children, and we got out through the back and ran into the woods. And she just goes into hysterics.
FROELICH: No white people were arrested. Of 285 African American men and women taken into custody, almost half were charged with murder and night rioting, akin to terrorism. Twelve were sentenced to die. The NAACP intervened, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a precedent-setting decision, justices ruled the defendants were denied due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment and set free. Poet J. Chester Johnson, who's white, says he had no idea growing up that his beloved maternal grandfather participated in the massacre.
J CHESTER JOHNSON: I kept looking for that moment where I could reconcile this person that I adored, and he adored me, with his participation in this massacre. And it never happened
FROELICH: Five white bodies were recovered, but black bodies have long been rumored to be buried in mass graves or sunk into swamps. Brian Mitchell teaches history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
BRIAN MITCHELL: We have lots of sources that maintain that more than 100 individuals were killed. But on the other side of the spectrum, there are numbers as large as 850.
FROELICH: Guy Lancaster, editor of The Encyclopedia Of Arkansas, says the Elaine conflict was the result of pent-up frustration to centuries of black exploitation.
GUY LANCASTER: At the end of slavery throughout the South, African Americans achieved a modicum of political and economic power and self-sufficiency. As reconstruction efforts were withdrawn, African American communities were targeted with legal segregation and legal sanctions. And so by the time of the early 20th century, this violence was reaching an apex.
FROELICH: A somber, interpretive monument's being dedicated today in Helena, as well as memorial events in Elaine, where descendent Clarice Abdul-Bey will be.
CLARICE ABDUL-BEY: We couldn't afford to have nervous breakdowns, and many of us did. But there was a lot of us that had to push on and had to keep going.
FROELICH: She and her husband want a memorial trail to mark where 280 lynchings and more than a dozen other race riots also occurred in Arkansas.
For NPR News, I'm Jacqueline Froelich in Fayetteville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.