Over the next ten days, Green Mountains Review Online will present in four installments J. Chester Johnson’s groundbreaking essay “Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre,” which probes deeply into one of America’s deadliest and least discussed race massacres–an event that also directly led to a more progressive U.S. Supreme Court judgment toward equal protection and thus helped usher in the civil rights movement. Driving Johnson’s exhaustive research is a personal connection to the massacre and its mysterious circumstances that brings to the fore those powerful emotional questions that lie always beyond the larger historical ones. Part 2 of this essay will be published on the site on Wednesday.
Across the sweeping canvas of American history, two markers–inherited and ineluctable–from the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 in Phillips County, Arkansas of the Mississippi River Delta invite a degree of attention to the episode yet to be received from public consciousness. First, the sheer number of persons who died in the massacre–-more particularly, the countless African-Americans who perished-–would certainly cause this massacre to be judged one of the most deadly racial conflicts–-perhaps, the most deadly racial conflagration-–in the history of the nation. Second, the wellspring of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s drew constantly from the 1923 U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in Moore v. Dempsey that emerged out of the legal proceedings in Phillips County against African-American defendants, charged with the murders of whites allegedly committed during the massacre. The ruling in Moore v. Dempsey broke a long chain of Supreme Court decisions brutally adverse to the safety and rights of African-Americans.
Two heroes whose individual backgrounds could not have been more dissimilar share in this American saga. Most apparent, Scipio Africanus Jones, African-American lawyer, who started as a laborer in the Arkansas fields to become a 20th century Moses, climbed, through brilliance and tenacity, to forensic heights to free the black sharecroppers, unjustly found guilty of crimes in the aftermath of the massacre, and, at the same time, developed the legal strategy that, ultimately, through the intervention of the U. S. Supreme Court, altered the application of the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution to protect the individual rights of and due process for American citizens. The other hero, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Boston patrician and distinguished jurist, who wrote the majority opinion for Moore v. Dempsey, not only opened the door to freedom for wrongfully convicted Arkansas sharecroppers, but also articulated a new judicial precedent and principle under which the federal government would more forcefully thereafter engage in the constitutional protection of its citizens.
Notwithstanding the historical and legal significance of the Elaine Race Massacre, outside a handful of advocates and a somewhat wider audience that those advocates engendered, the massacre and its aftermath have been largely ignored. Whether this inattention can be explained by the remote location of the massacre, by the desire of many blacks and whites in Phillips County and through Arkansas to keep quiet about it, or by the rush of other affairs affecting the State and the nation, we’ll never know. It is certainly time for more airing of those few days at the very end of September and early October, 1919 and subsequent associated and gravid events, if, for no other reason, than to debunk the erstwhile success of silence.
The Beginning of the Beginning
Alonzo Birch, known as “Lonnie.” Thin. Not tall, not short. White. Native of the Arkansas Delta. Bespectacled with large pale frames. Inveterate smoker. Agnostic. Thick, gray hair. Tranquil. Inviolately available. Long retired from the Missouri Pacific Railroad (“MoPac”).
For several years following my father’s death in 1946 when I was a year old, I lived with Lonnie and Hattie, my maternal grandparents–until my mother brought my older brother, who, upon our father’s death, spent much more of his time with the paternal side of the family, and me together under one roof in Monticello, another small town in Southeast Arkansas. Soon, thereafter, Lonnie died of a cerebral hemorrhage, but even today, I reminisce over the adoration we shared for each other.
Out of the blue–I must have been in junior high school–without provocation or any apparent reason, Mother casually mentioned that prior to her becoming a teenager, Lonnie had participated in a “well-known” race riot while in the employ of MoPac. Later on, she editorialized about it now and then: How he traveled on a MoPac train to the battle between the races, how the place of bloody engagement with the blacks had been close to the railroad tracks. Not much more than that. Whenever she mentioned the race riot, Mother frequently referred to Lonnie, in a matter-of-fact tone, as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Birch family, pioneer residents of Desha County, immediately south of Phillips County in which Elaine is located, consisted of planters, but, unlike other male family members, who chose to farm, Lonnie instead took a job with MoPac in McGehee, only a few miles from the Birch farms. Home for himself, Hattie, and their several children and situated about sixty miles south of Elaine, McGehee had become MoPac’s regional center for Southeast Arkansas. If anyone in that part of the country found it necessary to get to Phillips County by railroad, the easiest mode of non-local land travel in the early part of the 20th century, the path generally led through the community. Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough had brought federal troops from Little Rock to Elaine via McGehee to “restore” order, and except for those coming through Memphis, all other contributors or witnesses to the Elaine Race Massacre, if, by rail, probably passed by way of Lonnie’s hometown.
Much later, I made the simple connection that the race riot to which Mother nonchalantly alluded and the Elaine Race Massacre were one in the same. It was not very difficult to conflate the related and disparate factors leading to Lonnie’s participation in the massacre–his employment in Southeast Arkansas with MoPac; the routine, quasi-police role MoPac undertook during that time in that region of the State; Lonnie’s chthonic views about race, evidenced by his membership in the Ku Klux Klan; and the history, conveyed by Mother’s verbal remembrances. I had learned that Lonnie, though employed by MoPac, kept in contact, for kinship and financial reasons, with the farmers in the Birch family and therefore would have undoubtedly known of the rumored threats for unionization by African-American sharecroppers in the Arkansas Delta to negotiate for higher cotton prices with the white planters; after all, Robert Hill, the black organizer of black sharecroppers, and his Progressive Farmers and Household Union, both of which were to be so indivisibly linked to the massacre in Phillips County, resided in Winchester, a small hamlet about six miles north of the Birch farms on Highway 65.
I can indeed conflate the convincing pieces that led to the conclusion Lonnie took part in the Elaine Race Massacre, but I cannot reconcile my love for Lonnie and his apparent views about and role in racism, as practiced in the Arkansas Delta by whites during the first part of the 20th century. In my readings that dealt with the period, I recall the references to the Arkansas Delta as the heart of darkness, and it may have been–with my own grandfather’s propensity adding, in goodly supply, no doubt, to the pool of darkness that spread murderously and perniciously over the land. Yet, he was always kind to me–much kinder than virtually anyone else. So, I will not try to reconcile the two–it would be false, serpentine and artificial. But maybe he couldn’t reconcile the two either. He was who he was, and now that he is dead, I can only ponder the questions–with the answers secluded and forever distant. Still, I know unreservedly my own path to Elaine is, in part, to discover a slice of him that eludes my memory and baffles my personal conscience.
The Elaine Race Massacre Revealed
In 2008, writing the litany of poetry and prose for the formal apology by the Episcopal Church in a national service–Day of Repentance–for the Church’s role in slavery and associated evils, a project that segued a little later into a series of poems I composed and entitled Meditations For Civil Rights Activists, I dove headlong into research to refine my knowledge of consequential African-American writers and leaders. As I read various books, letters, essays and sundry materials of such personages as W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and others, I repeatedly came across references to and comments about the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919. Although reared–a white male–during the 1950s and early 1960s in Southeast Arkansas, some eighty miles or so from Elaine, except for episodic and abstruse allusions about Lonnie by Mother, which I later used to make connections to the massacre, I could recount nothing told or read about the event. I never learned about the Elaine Race Massacre during my school days, in history classes, even in Arkansas history instruction; I never heard it discussed in family circles or in casual conversations at the local cafés or coffee shops or at church and social gatherings. Nothing. A handful of whites died, but many more African-Americans lost their lives–several writers say hundreds, others say less–mostly in “the killing fields,” just north of Elaine. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the fervid lynching critic, traveled from Chicago to Arkansas in early 1920 to understand the event and to interview African-American prisoners, convicted of the murdering of whites during the massacre; she had even written about the incident, including a book of some sixty pages, The Arkansas Race Riot. But I knew nothing. Several friends from Monticello High School with whom I’ve continued a rather close relationship were contacted; they likewise had no or little information to bear on the matter. A void, the silence, evanescence, if you will, of neglected history.
As part of my research, which grew in intensity, I learned the massacre had gradually crept into the public consciousness among many Arkansans, as, over time, information and recounted recollections seeped into the open air. Indeed, I eventually discovered that a symposium had been held a few years ago in Phillips County, allowing both African-Americans and whites to coalesce information that people gleaned over the years about the massacre and its immediate aftermath. I also learned that three excellent books, which discussed the massacre, had been written since 2000: Robert Whitaker’s On the Laps of Gods and Grif Stockley’s two books–Blood in Their Eyes and Ruled by Race. These books built on earlier information about and studies of the massacre. The excellence of these three books by these two formidable writers convinced me to rely heavily on information presented by them as being distinctly reliable. In reciting the facts and narrative of the Elaine Race Massacre, I have depended mainly on Whitaker and Stockley–not to the exclusion of other sources. But since these two writers are not in agreement in all circumstances, I have chosen to follow a course that seemed most determinative in each case, and that decision affects the contents of this article.
Notwithstanding these books, the silence of neglected history still prevailed. I soon contacted several times the Arkansas branch of a national African-American organization to ascertain whether it had plans, even preliminary ones, for a centennial observance of the massacre. After all, if there were a significant set of programs, memorials, and general reminiscences to be scheduled for the centennial in 2019 for commemoration of the massacre, some initial plans or fundraising should soon begin. No return calls, no letters written in response to the inquiries. In additional instances, outreach to others met with similar silence. On the other hand, I did find strong interest by some Arkansans for giving more attention to the massacre–through public forums or other public acknowledgements. I’ve nonetheless had to conclude there is an unwritten agreement, among many blacks and whites, for silence or only modest acknowledgement about the massacre and other unsettling history. Indeed, in her recent and acclaimed book, One With Others, published in 2010, both a poetic and investigative account of the 1969 March Against Fear from West Memphis, Arkansas to Little Rock, Arkansas, C. D. Wright changed or omitted names–nearly a half century after the march, presumably as a result of vicinal responses to various inquiries Wright pursued about the past epoch. I guess I’m forced to consider quite seriously the cynical words of one elder Arkansan, who told me a few years ago: “We should have learned that racism is a scab that never heals. If you poke at it enough, it’ll start to bleed, and we’ve had more than enough blood spilling out of the wound.”
Copyright © 2012 by J. Chester Johnson
J. CHESTER JOHNSON has written verse for over forty years. His work received praise from writers and poets spanning several decades–from, among others, Allen Tate and Nobel Laureate I. B. Singer to current, well-known poets, such as Molly Peacock and Major Jackson, who commented, regarding Johnson’s most recent volume, St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems: “Undoubtedly, this is a work headed for literary permanence in our collective ear.” In his twenties, Johnson served with W. H. Auden as the two poets for the retranslation of the Psalms, as now contained in The Book of Common Prayer. For the last ten years, “St. Paul’s Chapel,” the signature poem for his recent book of verse, has been the memento card for the approximately 30,000 weekly visitors to the Chapel, which was the relief center for the recovery workers at Ground Zero following 9/11. He and his wife, Freda, live in New York City and have two children.