September 2019 will be the 100th anniversary of what has come to be known as the Elaine massacre in Eastern Arkansas’s Phillips County. A century ago, white posses and U.S. soldiers shot and killed what may have been hundreds of African Americans, most of them tenant farmers, over a period of four days. The black farmers’ crime: The men were unionizing to obtain fair prices for their cotton, and in some cases trying to buy their own farms. Some were just returned veterans of World War I and expected to be treated equitably and with respect after combat abroad.
It’s a complicated story from a time when white supremacy was the rule and the fear of communism and hatred of unions was pervasive. During the Red Summer of 1919, deadly clashes between racist white mobs and blacks, including veterans, erupted all over the nation. It’s a story that’s been told in rich detail in books by Little Rock lawyer Grif Stockley and American journalist Robert Whitaker. Here’s a bare bones telling of what has come to be known as the Elaine massacre:
Members of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union and others had been talking with a white Little Rock lawyer who had an office in Helena about suing the landowners for whom they planted. Cotton prices were at an all-time high, but black farmers were making pennies on the dollar from Arkansas landlords and could not get ahead. White eavesdroppers and a black spy hired by fearful residents of Helena claimed in reports to the elite of that city that there would be an uprising. Whites believed union organizers were stirring the tenant farmers to kill their landlords.
On the evening of Sept. 30, 1919, black families gathered in a church at Hoop Spur, a southern Phillips County community just north of Elaine, along the Missouri Pacific Railroad line, to talk about taking legal action. A deputy sheriff from Helena, a Missouri Pacific agent and a black prisoner drove to the church, stopped and turned out their lights. Someone opened the car door; armed black guards around the church approached. Shots rang out. It’s unknown who fired first; each side blamed the other. The deputy sheriff was killed. Blacks fled the shooting, some jumping out of the church windows with children. By the light of morning, a posse sent by the sheriff could see the church and a nearby shed had been shot at, though they would later lie about that (and even later admit to the lie).
Over the next four days, whites from Helena and south Phillips County, plus posses from Mississippi who crossed the river to join in the carnage, tracked blacks down and shot them. They shot men, women and children, some in front of their homes, some as they hid in the woods and canebrakes, some as they were picking cotton. They were seen taking ears and other trophies from the bodies. Helena’s leaders asked for help; Gov. Charles Brough responded by sending 500 soldiers from Camp Pike to Elaine. Some Army units were armed with machine guns, which, according to several accounts, they turned on blacks emerging from their hiding places thinking they were saved. (Soldiers in some units, on the other hand, tended the bullet wounds of the black farmers.)
Five white men were fatally shot — one almost certainly by friendly fire, and possibly a second as well. Witnesses, black and white, interviewed after the event, estimated hundreds of blacks were killed between Sept. 30 and Oct. 4, one black ex-soldier wrote, “like they wont nothen but dogs.” An Arkansas Gazette reporter, in a book published in 1925, put the total deaths at 856, though he did not provide a source for the figure. Whitaker has estimated the number at more than 230, based on estimates made by witnesses. Eighty or more other blacks, including women, were jailed.
Twelve black men — union members — were convicted of first-degree murder at farcical trials and sentenced to die. Blacks who had been arrested were whipped and tortured by electric shock to give false testimony against the 12 at the trials. More than 80 men were convicted of lesser crimes, including, ironically, night-riding, the way Ku Klux Klan exacted justice.
Little Rock lawyer Scipio Africanus Jones — who learned the law on his own because the University of Arkansas would not admit him — won the men their freedom after nearly six years of legal and political machinations. He worked with several white attorneys; the NAACP insisted on white lawyers and, ironically, did not at first trust the talents of Jones.
Crucial to the case were two affidavits, taken in January 1923, from men who had witnessed the massacre and taken part in the torture. In a clever legal maneuver, Jones was able to get the affidavits before the U.S. Supreme Court, and in February 1923 the court ruled that the state had failed to provide defendants due process rights guaranteed under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. It was the first time the high court had applied the constitutional guarantee to a state judicial proceeding.
When Stockley published his careful and thorough book “Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919” in 2001, the story of Elaine was retold not as an insurrection against whites but a massacre of blacks. The white press in 1919, relying on accounts from the white power structure, relayed the event from a viewpoint born out of Arkansas’s deeply racist culture, one shaped by the pervasive and confident belief in that whites should rule: Rioting blacks meant to kill as many whites as they could. Considering the evidence — NAACP records thought lost, the affidavits and from personal interviews — some 80 years later, Stockley was able to right the record.
At first, Stockley, who’d written a series of legal thrillers, thought he might write a novel based on the events in Elaine. But the more he learned about Elaine and Scipio Jones, the more he realized it was not the stuff of novels but a tragedy that needed to be documented.
Stockley’s work was followed in 2008 by Whitaker’s “On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation.” Whitaker’s is a lively narrative that fleshes out the evidence turned up by Stockley.
Yet, for all the words written — the books are dense with absorbing detail no magazine article can do justice — what was one of the worst race-related killings in U.S. history is largely unknown in Arkansas. Even in Phillips County, many people — maybe most people — say they never heard anything about the killings until recently. Even now, it’s not something discussed. “Peoples do not talk about the Elaine race riot,” Marvell activist Beatrice Clark Shelby told an interviewer at the University of Arkansas; it’s taboo.
That will change Sept. 29, when the Elaine Memorial Massacre will be dedicated in downtown Helena-West Helena.
Among those who were unaware of what had transpired in 1919 was David P. Solomon Jr. of New York and Helena. His father was a toddler when the massacre took place, and did not himself know about the event until he was an adult. Solomon Jr., 72, said he learned in the past few years that his grandfather (also named David) — a member of one of Helena’s prominent families — had volunteered to join a posse, but was turned down because he had young children at home.
Solomon and a committee of residents from Helena-West Helena and Little Rock have been working for the past eight or so years to erect a memorial in a park across from the county courthouse where the sham trials were held. One of its 8-foot-tall walls will be inscribed with a quote from Ezekiel: “Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.” Its three curving walls encompass what is hoped to feel like a sacred space, with a cenotaph in its midst and a map of Phillips County in 1919 imprinted on the floor. The cenotaph will be incised to read “Dedicated to those known and unknown who lost their lives in the 1919 massacre.”
There has been pushback “from all sides of the community” to the memorial, Solomon said. “White folks who don’t want to think their revered grandfather or great-grandfather did something. And black folks for various reasons, some on the basis the memorial will do nothing for poverty in Phillips County.” And they’re right about that, he said. “That’s a problem the committee can’t deal with. This is a different problem.”
But, as an African-American man he knows once said to him, Elaine and Helena-West Helena “have been pushing [the history] under the rug so long, and they keep tripping on the rug.”
At the groundbreaking for the memorial in April 2018, U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, a native of Helena and the great-nephew of four brothers slain during the event, said the memorial would provide some peace to the souls of those who lay in unmarked graves in south Phillips County, and make peace between black and white. “It’s time to move on,” he said. The memorial would “appropriately memorialize our fathers. I mean all our fathers.”
The dedication ceremony will be at 2 p.m. Sept. 29. Miller will speak. Refreshments will follow in the courtroom where the trials were held.
The killing fields, as author Whitaker calls them, occurred mostly north of Elaine along the Missouri Pacific line, which runs north-south through the county; at the homes of sharecroppers along state Highway 44; and in the cotton fields and canebrakes. There were killings south of Elaine as well, and one on the Lambert Plantation west of Elaine.
Only 14 of the dead can be identified by name, which is why, Solomon explained, no names will appear on the memorial.
Among the 14 named was Frances Hall, the mother of Paul Hall (one of the 12 men sentenced to die). According to Whitaker, Frances Hall yelled at a white mob approaching her home, telling them to leave. They kept coming and, as Whitaker reports, first had a bit of fun: They tied Hall’s clothes over her head. When she kept yelling, one man shot her in the throat. Her body tumbled down the steps and, according to a contemporaneous account by fearless African-American journalist Ida Wells-Barnett, lay in the road until soldiers picked her up. A photograph of Hall as she lay dead, her skirt up around her waist, is a picture of the cruelty and senselessness that was surely repeated many times over.
If it was a riot, Solomon said, “it was a white race riot.”
Solomon is paying for the memorial. (He wouldn’t say how much, but others on the memorial committee said the cost is $500,000.) But the undertaking is not an apology, Solomon said. “I’m sorry that my family was involved in the wrong way. I’m sorry that people got killed. I’m sorry that toxic race relations in Phillips County [continue], some as a result of the massacre, some not,” Solomon said.
Instead, he said, “The point of the memorial is to dedicate something to the memory of the people who were murdered, to acknowledge that it happened. Should reconciliation come out of it? Should this relieve community feeling? I don’t know. Should it get people talking about it? I don’t know.”
What it is, said a friend who accompanied Solomon to his interview at the Delta Cultural Center and who declined to share her name, is “a bit like a stone dropped in water,” its ripple spreading through town.
There are many from Elaine (pronounced with the accent on the E, like “email”) who are unhappy that the memorial will be in Helena-West Helena instead of Elaine. A group of people there has formed the Elaine Legacy Center, dubbed “The Birthplace of Civil Rights,” and the center has also hosted talks on the massacre. “We selected Helena for many reasons,” Solomon said. “One is that the closest restaurant to Elaine is on Cherry Street [in Helena],” Solomon said. “It ain’t so easy to find Elaine.” (Elaine is 45 minutes southwest of Helena-West Helena on state Highway 44.) Too, Solomon’s prominent family of lawyers and landowners has been in Helena since the 19th century.
Solomon also sees it as a natural progression of civil rights sites, the midpoint between Little Rock’s Central High and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain and the location of the National Civil Rights Museum.
Solomon believes Elaine is a “misnomer” for the tragedy. Instead, he believes it should be called the South Phillips County massacre. It is fitting, he said, that the memorial is located in the park across from the county courthouse, where what he called “an abortion of justice” took place.
Too, there is no one in Elaine to pay for a memorial. The impoverished town, with a population barely above 500, has particularly suffered from the exodus of jobs and people from the Delta. Its schools have closed; students are bused to Marvell, 25 miles away. Buildings along the main street into town are falling down. More than half the black population lives below the poverty level.
Guy Lancaster, the editor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas and author of “Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950” and other works about white supremacy, would have Arkansans know not just about Elaine, but the entire state’s history of racial violence.
“People need to know about Elaine, but it wasn’t the exception. It was the rule. There were more than 370 lynchings between 1836 and 1896, and a whole lot of violence we haven’t been able to pin down,” Lancaster said. The 370 do not include the Elaine dead.
Lancaster would categorize the crimes perpetrated on the black citizens of Phillips County as state terrorism. “Lynching was an extension of the state’s power,” he said. Vigilante justice was state-sanctioned.
He gave an example from his hometown. In 1920 in Jonesboro, a white mob was able to force its way past the mayor, the chief of police and two circuit judges at the city jail to grab a black man being held for the alleged murder of a white police officer. The mayor, Gordon Frierson, later said he gave in because “when the mob opened the door, the first half-a-dozen men standing there were leading citizens — businessmen, leaders of their churches and the community.”
Lancaster continues to be “astonished” at the general lack of knowledge about Elaine, even as books and articles have been written about it. “It’s not like we’re hiding it. It is somehow not on people’s radar.”
Only vague whispers about the story were passed down among families. “If you were white in Phillips County, you didn’t want to talk about it, especially during the ’60s and ’70s,” Lancaster said. “Even in the black community, you find a lot of silence about racial violence. There is a shame attached to being a victim.”
Chester Johnson, who grew up in Arkansas, has trouble reconciling his loving grandfather’s role in the massacre.
Johnson, a poet and essayist, learned about Elaine as he was writing the Litany of Offense and Apology, which the Episcopal Church delivered in 2008 as its formal apology for the church’s role in slavery. It was then that he came across Wells-Barnett’s pamphlet on the massacre, which includes her first-person interviews with families and the Elaine 12. It triggered a memory of a family story about his grandfather participating in an event in East Arkansas in which many African Americans died. Johnson has concluded that his grandfather, who worked for MoPac — “MoPac was up to its eyeballs” in assisting the posses, he said — had taken part in the massacre.
Johnson’s grandfather, Lonnie Birch, who raised Johnson until his mother, a widow, could get her feet on the ground, “was the most loving, caring, singularly important figure in my life,” Johnson said. How is that same man one who might have taken part in the killings? Knowing about Elaine, Johnson worked to make the story more widely known.
In 2013, Johnson attended a Christmas party with Solomon Jr. and briefly raised the issue of Elaine with him there. Later, over lunch, “We started talking further about Elaine [and] we both concluded that something needed to be done. … Out of that, David really took the bull by the horns, and this has become a very significant part of his life,” Johnson said.
Like Johnson, Sheila Walker is also the descendant of people involved in Elaine, and is of the same generation as Johnson. But Walker, who lives in Delaware, is black. Her great-uncle Albert Giles was one of the Elaine 12, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to die. Another great-uncle, Milligan Giles, was convicted of second-degree murder when he was 15 years old and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was paroled in 1923 and pardoned by Gov. Sid McMath in 1951.
Walker, 71, who spent part of her childhood in Hot Springs, knew nothing of Elaine. She loved her Uncle Jim, as she called Milligan Giles, who after his release from prison worked in the Hot Springs bathhouses. “He was the most gentle person I ever knew,” Walker said. “I don’t know how much Elaine affected him, but he showed a child love. … I remember sitting behind him; I liked to comb his hair. He was part Choctaw. My grandmother would say, ‘Leave Jim alone.’ ”
During a trip to Arkansas, when Walker was 25 and living in Chicago, Walker’s grandmother, Annie Alford, began to tell her a story about what had happened to her as a girl. She said she was in a church, and had to jump out of a window. Then Alford went into hysterics and could not finish the story. “Each time I would visit, I would ask and I would get the same result,” Walker said.
“She must be talking about Elaine,” Alford’s daughter, Walker’s mother, said.
It wasn’t until years later that Walker read Stockley’s and Whitaker’s books. She decided to contact Whitaker.
“He asked me would I be willing to meet someone on the other side, and I said, ‘Yes, why not?’ ” Whitaker put Walker in touch with Chester Johnson, and after a two-hour talk on the phone and months of emailing back and forth, Johnson and Walker met at Walker’s son’s home in Boston. He showed her pictures of his grandfather. She talked about her past. “I could do nothing but embrace Chester. We sat down on the sofa and the next thing I know we are holding hands,” Walker said. “I knew upon our first meeting that with Chester I had an ally. I didn’t know where it was going to lead or what.”
Where it led was several symposiums with Johnson, at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York, at the UA in Fayetteville and at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena. They told their stories. At the New York symposium, Walker told the group she forgave Johnson’s grandfather more than Johnson did. In Helena, she called it “divine intervention” that they met.
Among the 14 known victims of the Elaine massacre were the Johnston brothers, four well-to-do black sons of Helena. David Augustine Elihue Johnston, a dentist, was married to Maria Miller, the daughter of Abraham Miller, the head of the most prominent black family in Helena. Gibson and Leroy Johnston were WWI veterans and were setting up a car dealership when they were slain. Louis Johnston was a physician visiting from Oklahoma. The four brothers were returning from a hunting trip Oct. 2 in their car when they were stopped in Ratio, a town south of Elaine, and advised that it was safer to take the train home. But in Elaine, the brothers were taken off the train and arrested for providing ammunition to the “insurrectionists.” They were bound hand and foot with chains and put in the back seat of a car. According to the white account, one of the Johnston brothers was somehow able to get a gun away from one the captors and killed him. The remaining whites turned their guns on the Johnstons and dumped their bodies in the road.
A photograph of the bodies exists. It is now in the possession of Brian Miller.
Brian Miller’s younger brother, Kyle, still lives in Helena-West Helena, where he is the director of the Delta Cultural Center. Though he’d heard family tales growing up, Kyle Miller said he didn’t know the whole story until the 2001 UA symposium on Elaine at the DCC. “I had a reaction that maybe you wouldn’t expect,” Kyle Miller said in a recent interview. “I know this is going to sound crazy. I was relieved. I was relieved because, you know, family stories, you hear these stories and believe them to be true, but always … maybe … there’s a portion in your mind where you wonder what’s folklore and what’s been embellished.” That could be one reason why the story of Elaine has been suppressed: It’s too awful to be believed.
Though his great-uncles were killed in Elaine, Kyle Miller, who is part of the memorial committee, said the Helena site makes sense, adding, wryly, “You have some in south Phillips County who are perfectly happy it’s not in South Phillips County.” Miller added he’s “fairly confident” that there are no descendants of victims in the Hoop Spur area still living in Elaine. “Everybody left. They got out.”
Dr. Brian Mitchell, a professor of history at UA Little Rock, has turned up a 1920 article in the Topeka Plaindealer newspaper reporting that 200 people from Elaine were living on the streets in that city and asking that churches come to their aid.
Thanks to research by Mitchell and his public history graduate students, we now know where some of the Elaine 12 went after Scipio Africanus Jones won their freedom. With one known exception, it’s believed the men fled Arkansas, sure they’d be hunted down and lynched once freed from prison.
Frank Moore, the lead plaintiff in the seminal Moore v. Dempsey case before the U.S. Supreme Court that triggered the eventual release of six of the defendants (the other six, the so-called Ware defendants, were freed by the state Supreme Court), moved to Chicago and worked as a security guard. He died in 1932 and his body was sent back to the National Cemetery in Little Rock.
Ed Ware — like Moore, a leading member of the union that the white landowners so feared — made his way to St. Louis. His wife, Lulu, also a member of the union and who, like many wives, found her house and possessions plundered after she was released from jail, accompanied him. They died in St. Louis and were buried there.
Alfred Banks also went to St. Louis, working as a laborer for a steel company. He’s buried in Centerville, Ill. Joseph Knox, who sang spirituals to the men on death row, served as a pastor in Little Rock. He died in 1941 and is buried in Little Rock’s Haven of Rest Cemetery.
Albert Giles moved to Springfield, Ill., where he ran a speakeasy and gambling house. He died of injuries he suffered in a fist fight, Mitchell’s research shows, though Sheila Walker’s family story is that his abused wife poured poison in his ear.
Ed Coleman, who was 70 when the Hoop Spur shooting occurred, was the oldest man ever to be placed on Arkansas’s death row. His wife was killed in the massacre. He moved to Memphis, where he worked as a laborer; he died three years after his release. His body was returned to an unknown cemetery in Arkansas; Mitchell’s class is still searching for the location.
Though it’s unconfirmed, it’s believed that Paul Hall, whose mother was taunted and killed, survived the longest, dying in an assisted living home in Ohio in 1963.
The difficulty in tracing the 12, Mitchell said, is likely because they changed their names, as did the union organizer Robert Hill, who was not in Elaine during the massacre but who believed he surely would be lynched. He was spirited out of Arkansas and made it to Topeka, Kan. Angry letters from Helena residents demanding Hill’s extradition helped convince the Kansas governor that Hill, who was not part of the events in Elaine, would be lynched if he were made to return. Hill changed his name to Smith.
What about those who died in Phillips County who lie in unmarked graves, some possibly in mass graves? Mitchell believes the state and the federal governments owe it to the descendants of the massacre to investigate. At a June 1 seminar at Little Rock’s Mosaic Templars Cultural Center on the aftermath of the massacre, the history professor told the audience, “I believe there is a responsibility on the part of the federal government and the state government to do whatever it can to find out what actually happened and the scope of the violence that took place there.”
In Tulsa, Okla., the Oklahoma Archeological Survey will conduct a six-week investigation of the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which a white mob killed 300 blacks and burned a black neighborhood of 35 city blocks to the ground. But 35 city blocks is nothing compared to the size of Phillips County, where farmland has been leveled and woods cut.
Kyle Miller said there should be a way to find the graves. “I have a hard time believing that there’s not somebody who doesn’t know where the bodies are. Somebody knows.”
Mitchell, Lancaster and Stockley are working on a follow-up book to “Blood in Their Eyes,” and among the new information they’ve turned up are American Legion minute books from 1919 to 1925.
The book documents an October 1920 resolution passed by the Legionnaires protesting any consideration of a commutation of the death sentences given the 12 men. The Legionnaires had been promised the 12 would be found guilty even before the men went to trial. The resolution:
“At the time of this race riot, the members of this Post were called upon to go to Hoop Spur and Elaine to protect life and property, and in compliance with this request, there were two American Legion members killed and one seriously injured, besides the other nonmembers who also perished, and when the guilty negroes were apprehended, a solemn promise was given by the leading citizens of the community that, if these guilty parties were not lynched, and let the law take its course, that justice would be done and the majesty of the law upheld.”
How are race relations today in Helena? On the positive side, a black woman who served in the Middle East was the first African American to join the American Legion’s chapter there, invited by the post commander. On the other hand, two members of the post resigned.
Kyle Miller thinks race relations in the Helena of today are improved. “I think that, for one thing, the fact that we’re sitting here talking about Elaine says to me that growth has taken place, that reconciliation is going forward and that progress is being made,” he told this reporter.
And the Rev. Ray Brown says he believes that the people of Helena-West Helena, he said, “sincerely want things better.”
Brown is new to Helena-West Helena, assigned to St. John’s Episcopal Church three and a half years ago. St. John’s was founded in 1853, and some of Helena’s oldest families are members. It was in St. John’s basement where the American Legion met to draw up its resolution.
Brown learned of the Elaine massacre from Chester Johnson, and he has read the books, trial transcripts and the affidavits that persuaded the Supreme Court that Arkansas had not given the 12 a fair trial. Rather than preach to folks to change their minds about the historical events, he tells those who ask to know more that “ ‘I have some material that I think might inform your thinking.’ Some folks want to see it. Others said no, they’re not interested. I always take no as ‘no, I’m not interested now.’ ”
The congregation at St. John’s is much diminished from previous years. It is also integrated. And its members are “incredibly generous, giving money and time,” Brown said. U.S. Census data in 2018 put the Helena-West Helena poverty rate at 42 percent. Three or more people come to the church’s door seeking help every week. The church spends thousands of dollars out of the rector’s discretionary fund and from gifts from church members to help those people. Brown has not heard anyone “fighting to defend the old narrative” of black insurrection. “But what I do hear is, ‘Will this memorial help us continue to move forward or will it create dissension? My thoughts are that matters of justice are just that. They matter. It’s important.” And along with the words from Ezekiel, Brown has another Biblical verse to apply to the Elaine massacre: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
When Adriene Corbin was growing up in Helena-West Helena, she heard terrible stories of lynchings. “My mom had a relative who was burned and drug behind horses,” she said. She personally experienced fear: During the civil rights movement, freedom riders were welcome at her house. “I remember as a kid all of us having to lie on the floor. My dad had received threats that Caucasian men in town were going to come and shoot the house up.”
But Corbin didn’t know about the Elaine killings. “Never heard anything about it. Not in school, not from family,” she said. Instead, she learned it from a student when she was getting a graduate degree in New York.
As the public relations person for the Delta Cultural Center, Corbin finds herself writing press releases touting the town’s annual reenactment of the Battle of Helena and the town’s many Confederate landmarks. “There’s a lot of history in Helena and a lot of it is the Civil War. There’s a great contingent of people throughout the country that participate, and not just from a Confederate point of view,” she said. So, it brings revenue to town. She can see how the monuments to the seven Confederate generals the town produced might feel oppressive to some — the “heavy spirit” that hangs over Phillips County, as Brian Miller put it.
But there is also Freedom Park, built on the site where black refugees — labeled “contraband” by the Union Army — first camped when the Union took over Helena. Freedom Park has been designated a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site. Cathy Cunningham, the director of the town’s Advertising and Promotion Commission, would like to see a memorial to Scipio Jones.
Corbin, also a member of the memorial committee, said the two reactions she hears to the project are “let old dogs lie” or “this is the way to heal.”
“Some of them think it’s a great way to start healing,” she said. There are those who suffer still from the events 100 years ago. “We still have people suffering under the trauma of those stories. … On some kind of level it feels like there is some kind of cellular connection that will impact their life today.”
There is plenty of evidence of intergenerational trauma. White supremacy has had a detrimental economic and psychological impact on African American families through the centuries. The legacy of slavery is reproduced with every generation in which certain classes of Americans have been denied the right to vote, the right to an education, the right to life itself — be these denials perpetrated via faceless bureaucracy or baseless violence. And when mothers and fathers pass along to their children the tools needed to navigate this violent world and make it home alive, they pass along, by necessity, the memories of those who did not. These memories, this vital information, can be all that parents have when the legacy of slavery has stripped them of everything else.
As Sheila Walker said in one of the Elaine symposiums she was invited to partake in, reflecting on being raised poor, “I wonder, if [Elaine] hadn’t happened, my family would be better situated. If they had gotten some money from those crops, they could buy a small farm.”
The U.S. House of Representatives held hearings in June on a bill that would authorize $12 million for a commission to study the effects of slavery and make recommendations for reparations. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized the House bill, saying he didn’t see the need to apologize for “something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living is responsible.”
But as Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his eloquent and lengthy argument for reparations, wrote in The Atlantic, “One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge,” the slave who fled his household.
On Nov. 16, 2018, Leroy Johnston, one of the four Johnston brothers ambushed and killed in Elaine, was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. The award was a correction of a past wrong: Though Johnston, who served in the Army’s 369th Infantry, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, was wounded in battle in France in September 1918 and required a lengthy convalescence, his medical records were altered at some point. A notation that his injuries were severe was changed to read “slightly.”
Historian Mitchell discovered the records, and contacted the Army and 2nd District U.S. Rep. French Hill (R-Little Rock) and won for Johnston the overdue honors. Johnston was also awarded the World War I Victory Medal for his service in France and the World War I Victory Button. A wrong was righted, even if it came 100 years after his battle wounds were inflicted.