The anniversary of the Elaine Massacre and subsequent furor over the placement of the Elaine Memorial has brought clarity to the dramatic and continuing class and racial divide that still characterizes the area. The people of Elaine are expressing outrage and alienation over the spectacle generated by an expensive memorial in Helena—home to their historical bosses, landlords, creditors, and those who mustered to attack the Black people of the Elaine area in 1919. As someone who has spent many months in the Delta researching and filming a documentary on the events, I feel compelled to address the issues raised by the controversy. To be clear, I don’t see the uproar in terms of two sides with equally valid positions. I have spoken to the Solomons, the financial backers of the memorial and I don’t find their position at all convincing. They speak of logistical concerns (they claim that Helena is equipped to house visitors while Elaine is not) and tend to diminish the importance of Elaine by pointing out that the massacre took place throughout South Phillips County. And yet, we have inherited the name “Elaine” as a synonym for what may be the bloodiest race or labor battle in U.S. history. The town of Elaine has carried that stigma for 100 years. The town of Elaine was occupied by the U.S. military in 1919 and placed under martial law. The town of Elaine was where hundreds of Black people were incarcerated in a schoolhouse without due process. The town of Elaine was forever transformed into a forbidden place —striking horror in those who know the story and rendering them afraid to visit Elaine or even speak of the massacre. Proffering the notion that Elaine is simply one of many places on the map of the 1919 killing fields is a cynical attempt to again dispossess and suppress the people of the town. The people of Elaine are being told that their memorial would be too difficult to access for significant commercial purposes. The economic and political concerns of the ruling class again work to marginalize and exclude Elaine and the Black people of that area. Not a single representative from Elaine sat on the memorial committee, the leading scholars of the massacre refused to serve on said committee and the site on which it stands also hosts a large Confederate monument to the champions of slavery. As these facts illustrate, the legitimacy of this memorial project is more than dubious.
The people of Elaine lack the resources and connections needed to mount a monument/media campaign like that of the Helena group. Yet, they are often told to ‘build their own monument,’ and so that is precisely what they did this past spring. The willow tree they planted in April was cut down yesterday, their memorial plaque stolen—just another reminder that the racial and economic violence of 1919 has never gone away.
At the very minimum, the people of Elaine—and the Arkansas Delta Black population more generally—deserve to be placed at the center of the discussion surrounding the legacy of the Elaine Massacre and all racial/economic violence perpetrated against them during Jim Crow. But the very dispute about their importance simply demonstrates the continuing legacy of White supremacy and ruling class power in the Delta.