In the final installment of J. Chester Johnson’s “Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre,” the author returns to the unmarked site of the massacre in search of some kind of recognition of the many lives lost.
Out of The Wilderness: Liberation
The Moore Six, the Ware Six and those at Cummins State Farm remained in prison; Jones acknowledged much still needed to be accomplished. The favorable decision by the U. S. Supreme Court, released on February 19th, 1923, though precedent setting and historic, had not set the Moore Six free. Rather, the ruling ordered the federal district court to hold a trial to determine if the sharecroppers’ allegations were true. Upon that affirmation, then Arkansas would be ordered to release the Moore Six. Jones knew that the Ware Six and Moore Six remained inextricably linked, and he could now implement part of a strategy leading to freedom for all the sharecroppers.
Having also previously set another, more momentous trap for the prosecution, which had failed to comply, for the Ware Six defendants, with Arkansas state law, Jones would now petition the Arkansas Supreme Court for the immediate freeing of those affected defendants. After the filing by Jones of a “motion for discharge” in mid-April, the Arkansas Supreme Court, in fact, ordered the Ware Six free in late June, 1923. With the liberation of the Ware Six, only twenty-one men, including the Moore Six, of the original prisoners found guilty in the aftermath of the massacre were incarcerated.
By mid-September, Jones had received enough signatures to petition the Governor to grant a full and complete pardon to the remaining prisoners. At about the same time, he not only pushed others to assist in a settlement process, but he also conducted an outreach to the County fathers. Did the State and Phillips Country really want a trial to be held in federal court that would further disclose and reprise the manner in which the first trials were conducted? By late September, the mayor of Helena, the Committee of Seven, and other County leaders petitioned the Governor to commute the sentences of the Moore Six and effectively reduce the sentence to time served. A little over a month later, Jones constructed the final compromise with the State for the Moore Six; without pleading guilty to any charge, they had their sentences commuted to twelve years (being immediately eligible for parole) and were promised to be released within twelve months.
Yet, the drama did not abate. A few months following the compromise, seven of the fifteen remaining men at Cummins–but not the Moore Six–were released, and then the anniversary of the November settlement also passed, still with no freedom for the Moore Six. On December 19, 1924, Governor McRae, only a few weeks before leaving office, released the last sharecroppers imprisoned at Cummins. At this point, Jones understood the Governor had reneged on the agreement, and since the newly elected governor, replacing McRae, won the gubernatorial election with the backing of the Ku Klux Klan, Jones had run out of virtually all options.
Jones caught a train to Helena. Once he arrived, Jones went to the various offices of the County fathers; since they had agreed to the negotiated deal a year earlier, County leaders should sign a petition in support of the release of the prisoners. In addition to the signatures received in Helena, Jones made sure names of leading citizens from Elaine were obtained. On Christmas Eve, he delivered to the Governor the petition of hundreds of names, including those from Phillips County and prominent citizens from throughout the State. Again, nothing happened. On January 13th, 1924, Jones visited Governor McRae once more, but, this time, he left with the assurance the men would be freed. Later that day, as his final act as governor, McRae gave the Moore Six “indefinite furloughs.” All the prisoners from the Elaine Race Massacre were now free.
Not only were the sharecroppers, who had been unfairly convicted and imprisoned, free, but Scipio Africanus Jones, African-American, former field hand himself, had also engineered a legal strategy that established a limit on states’ rights in legal proceedings against the individual and created a new, forceful precedent for federal protection of the basic rights of American citizens, as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
Another View of “The Killing Fields”
In August, 2012, in route to my 50th high school reunion in Monticello, I flew into Memphis to explore, as much as one could now explore, the physical locale north of Elaine where much of the massacre occurred. A representative from the University of Arkansas–a friend who knew of my continuing interest in and inquiry into the massacre–met me south of Memphis in Helena, and we began our journey back into that patently sad and disturbing moment in American history. Out of Helena, we traveled southwest on Highway 44, a rather deserted, small, but now paved road that shortly brought us to Elaine in less than thirty minutes. While much of the massacre happened on the outskirts, just north of town, we thought we’d spend a little time meandering through Elaine just to get a sense of the place, nearly 100 years later. The town appeared smaller than I had imagined–a hamlet of a little more than 600 persons (according to the 2010 Census). Phillips County had suffered a continuing and depressed economy over the last several decades–its population, which fell nearly 18% from 2000, was now less than half of the 1950 figure of about 46,000. With a population decline of about 26% since 2000, the performance of Elaine paralleled that of the County but was even worse.
The elevated MoPac railroad tracks that brought Governor Brough, the Camp Pike troops, Lonnie and others involved as participants in or witnesses to the Elaine Race Massacre, ran alongside Highway 44 and were unobstructedly visible a few yards from the center of town.
For film buffs, the town conveyed an abraded look and feel of Thalia, Texas in The Last Picture Show–with crumbling and vacant walls for several downtown (to the extent a downtown existed) buildings. After driving only a few blocks further south, we eyed a relatively new school with a gymnasium in back; a plaque declared it had been opened in 1984, but the school was now boarded up with a warning sign proclaiming trespassers would be prosecuted. Across a street from the abandoned school stood another relatively spacious, somewhat impressive, but vacant building. We then stopped in at the town library in the center of Elaine and were told the school closed a few years ago with students now being bused to Marvell, a small neighboring community. Several women in the library gave us a quick, unsolicited summary of the economic ills of the region, but there was no doubt, at all, in their minds, why we, these strangers, came to Elaine–others, also curious to sense the place of the massacre, had preceded us. Without prompting, one woman told us they had nothing of interest, but we could possibly find more information in Helena at the County Museum.
As we walked and rode by and through “The Killing Fields” and adjacent areas in the fierce and thick summer sun and August Arkansas humidity under a broad azure sky with only a few, high cirrus clouds, guided mostly by the Whitaker map and with an eerie notion we could be surveying a concealed necropolis under foot, two striking and related conclusions sprung to mind. First, little change to most of the landscape or along the narrow, dirt roads, off of Highway 44, had taken place over almost 100 years; at the same time, some of the wooded and copse spots, where the African-Americans hid themselves from both the white posses and the federal troops, and the sharecropper shacks had completely disappeared, replaced by ever expanded farmland. We were also able to fix, within rows of the cultivated land, the approximate location of the Hoop Spur church, where the union meeting had been held, where the automobile that carried the deputy sheriff, the MoPac security agent and the “trustee” had closely parked and where the first blood had been spilled on the night of September 30, 1919. Second, no one ever intended to set any historical reminder in this place–a marker of explanation, a monument, a memorial of any kind–for notable exposition so future generations could know, with a degree of certainty, that several whites and more than a hundred (and, perhaps, hundreds of) African-Americans died in these humble and unremarkable fields and in like spaces within Phillips County as part of one of the most important racial confrontations in our country’s history.
In my quest to sight an existential piece of Lonnie among the ruins of the Elaine Race Massacre, I had, after all, concluded history can be doubtless and too much and too little abided in the fields and fury of Phillips County for Lonnie and me to inhabit any amicable turf there–too much intervening and unsympathetic time, too much dismay as I turned the leaves of record, which bore too much descent and strife and turpitude, too little comity, too little heart.
The End of the Beginning
Several people, in and out of Arkansas, have talked about an appropriate commemoration for the Elaine Race Massacre–in connection with or in advance of the centennial. To be sure, the massacre and its aftermath plead for expanded recognition in the public consciousness across the State of Arkansas and nation. Back home alone in my study but still absorbed in this unassailable point, I cautiously return to Phillips County with a troubling vision–to the killing fields, to Elaine, to the forlorn and erstwhile violated countryside, and, in that vision, I despair that if historical markers appear along Highway 44 at the former, blood-drenched sites, contemporary variants of the October, 1919 posses will, on some lonely and tenebrous night, obliterate any conspicuous reminders of the unrestrained pogrom. I conjure up an idea that maybe a fitting memorial should appear next to the steps leading into the Phillips County Courthouse or on the grounds of the State Capitol, near the statues of the Little Rock Central Nine. At that moment, I wonder why silence and void are always the preferred resolve to evil and lies; in the background of the vision, which now travels half way around the world to the outskirts of Kiev in the Ukraine near the Dnieper River and to September, 1941, I then hear the gurgling and groaning sounds from a giant ravine with Jews being indiscriminately shot at the mouth of the pit and haphazardly rolled down the steep slopes–as I also remember the first two lines of the famous poem by the Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko: “Over Babiy Yar, there are no memorials.”
Copyright © 2012 by J. Chester Johnson
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