Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and A Story of Reconciliation
By J. Chester Johnson
Pegasus Books/Simon Schuster, 2020.
J. Chester Johnson’s book, Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and a Story of Reconciliation, brings fresh air and a fresh methodology to the ‘difficult discussions’ circulating today in America about race, racism, and racial reconciliation. Specifically, the book lays out an imaginative and practical reckoning process for remembering and resolving one of the most painful events in American history, the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919, which happened in rural Phillips County in southeast Arkansas along the Mississippi River Delta. Like far too many such events in American history, the Elaine Massacre went unnoticed for too long through the unwritten agreement for a county, a state, and a nation to be silent about this essential chapter in American history.
While Johnson furnishes evidence that the Elaine Race Massacre is arguably the most significant race massacre against African-Americans in our country’s history, the importance of Damaged Heritage lies, in my opinion, in its vision to help guide our nation’s future in racial discourse and decisions. Toward this end, this book accomplishes a major step in that direction by portraying a path of two people together – one Black and one white, one of whom is the author himself – as they reach racial reconciliation whose ancestors were on opposite sides of the Massacre.
A beginning point made in Damaged Heritage is that while recognition of the Elaine Massacre was generally spoken only through whispers, people did indeed talk; what people mostly heard were surreptitious accounts and racially separate narratives. As such, Johnson’s book initially strives to bring the true historical narrative of the Massacre to light by analyzing various accounts of the associated events, reliable public records, and relevant discussions between familial generations. Johnson then boldly includes a personal letter to his deceased grandfather, who had participated in the Massacre, followed by a very open story of his having grown up in the South – just one Arkansas county away from the site of the Elaine onslaughts against African Americans – under Jim Crow and the ways he came to understand apartheid within his own hometown.
The first part of the book provides a clear and factual account of the days leading up to the Massacre, the Massacre itself, and the court cases that followed. Johnson discusses the process that led to more than a hundred and possibly hundreds of Black sharecroppers and family members being murdered, principally by federal troops with machine guns. Johnson demonstrates that the Massacre and its aftermath provided a wellspring for the Civil Rights Movement; toward this end, he presents an engaging account of the Arkansas Supreme Court’s actions to allow victims to become criminals, which for Johnson made the entire legal case, as framed within the State of Arkansas, a “judicial lynching.” Then, he documents the Moore v. Dempsey case as it goes to the U. S. Supreme Court, concluding with a majority opinion, written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, whereby the Court shifts roles for the first time and becomes the “protector of the basic rights of individual American citizens” pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Notwithstanding the historic role that Johnson places on the Massacre itself and on the positive legal ramifications for Blacks that emerged from the event, the importance of this book now rests on the guidance it can provide for racial reconciliation in our country’s future.
Johnson and his ally, Sheila Walker, a descendent of victims of the Elaine Massacre, who were shot repeatedly and left for dead but survived, supply the ‘heart’ of the book through the deliberations and successive stories traded between ‘Chester and Sheila,’ as they forge a deep friendship, notwithstanding the disparate connections they have to the Massacre. The resulting stories and dialogue are both wrenching and awe inspiring at the same time, as these two brave individuals search and find a path for racial reconciliation. Strikingly, Walker reveals in her “Foreword” to the book that her “capacity to personally forgive Chester’s grandfather became easy” when she stopped trying to do it alone and embarked on what she termed a “personal voyage toward reconciliation” with Chester. The spiritual and humane declarations maintained by Walker and Johnson throughout Damaged Heritage provide hope for the future in our individual abilities to deal with race.
Johnson concludes that Walker’s ability to be “more forgiving of Lonnie” than he could be (with the use of the first name throughout the book showing the personal nature of the interplay) came directly from Sheila’s belief in the inherent good in people, reflected in her mantra that “People are born good, but bad circumstances make good people do bad things”. At the same time, frustration reigned for Chester, who believed that notwithstanding his love for his grandfather, Lonnie became the face of racism for Johnson, inhibiting an ability to forgive.
Through the author’s poetic perspective and strength, Damaged Heritage is personally engaging and powerful as Johnson expresses his memories and convictions. For one, Johnson recognizes that the Arkansas Delta, where he spent his youth, is viewed as the “heart of darkness” by many African Americans, including a former head of the NAACP, because of its history of lynching. When facing these accounts, the reader is forced to remember that many “families fractured over the matter of black liberation”, including Johnson’s own. Indeed, he describes the forward momentum of Black liberation and civil rights as akin to “trench warfare, an inch by inch, territorial, jurisdictional, legal struggle”.
By his personal accounts, Johnson unapologetically forces the reader to consider the difficult issues of racial reconciliation in America. For one, he bluntly reflects on how “truly remarkable” it is that people can so quickly “learn and routinely embrace customs, laws, habits, traditions, and all the rest from a previous generation but cannot embrace. . .the genuinely human which underlies and strengthens the way one can authentically and fully care for, love, and behave toward another”. Johnson further concludes that “at its rapacious worst, racism directs the personality of us as individuals and us as communities, and it saps the intelligence, verve, and potential of the society”.
An important twist in this book, however, is how the discussions between Chester and Sheila show that this debate does not automatically sow division; instead, it demonstrates that when people respect each other and search for the ‘genuinely human’ in those around them, honest dialogue can bring true healing.
Nevertheless, as skilled a writer as he is (and as powerful as his narrative is in this book), Johnson concedes that “words. . .can be spun into the air and naturally dispersed unless repeated and given special awareness.” For communities, something else is needed to remind generation after generation of their past: memorials. His argument consists of these elements: “Visual arts of architecture and sculpture are often more dramatically persuasive through their unbroken presence for the public day after day. Architecture and sculpture create perspective, and perspective creates expectation,” which can focus on the “unfilled need for the local community to come to terms” with its violence. Johnson believes that localities where racist murders and lynchings have occurred need to construct perpetual, physical declarations that carry an inherent commitment for such paroxysms and killing of Blacks not to be repeated. In fact, he co-chaired the Elaine Massacre Memorial Committee, which funded, designed, and constructed the Elaine Massacre Memorial, which was dedicated on the centennial weekend in Phillips County. Prior to 2019, there was no memorial to the Massacre.
In the ‘Afterword,’ Johnson brings his case file to a close by briefly touching on the difference between guilt and shame, concluding that while “guilt devalues and enervates, shame is more dangerous and creates spite as it also inspires irrational and hungry vengeance”. In many ways, this was a wonderful way for him to end the book, as it challenges readers (whether they know it or not) to consider how they see American history. Too often, we harbor shame for the bad and thus try and hide it from view. The American community would benefit from adopting Sheila Walker’s approach toward humanity. There is, after all, good and bad. However, if we are always looking for what might go wrong and how those around us might hurt or take advantage of us, we will create a self-fulfilling prophecy premised on mistrust and thereby not see the multitude of ‘genuinely human’ moments where, perhaps, reconciliation can begin. It did begin and remain with Chester and Sheila for seven years until her death in March, 2021.
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