The city of Elaine, Ark., has one eye gazing upon its gruesome past and another staring toward what it could be.

Elaine, with a population of about 500, made national headlines when a tree commemorating the death of more than 200 black people in 1919 at the hands of a white mob was chopped down last week. The Elaine Police Department and the Arkansas State Park are investigating the chopping, according to WMC-TV.

James White Sr., director of the Elaine Legacy Center, called the early 20th century slaughter “a nasty stain” on the town that has to be brought to the open.

But it is hard to acknowledge a tragedy when some do not view what happened as such or even accept that it occurred. There is a “black side” and a “white side” of the story, White said, and those differences can run as deep as the ditch that ran through Elaine when he was growing up, separating blacks and whites.

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Such division is part of how the riots started, according to Brian K. Mitchell, an assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who has written about and studied the Elaine massacre.

“Everyone is invested in a narrative, and some people have more voice than others in the community,” he said about the reticence of black and white Arkansans to talk about the killings.

What happened?

Black sharecroppers realized they had been cheated by local white planters. To create some form of protection for themselves and to achieve fair wages, they formed a local chapter of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. The black farmers hoped that pooling their resources would be enough for them to hire a lawyer who would represent them against the white land owners who took more than a fair amount of their profits, entrapped the black farmers in debt and declined to give accounting particulars.

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Investigative journalist Ida B. Wells wrote about the “crime” against the black farmers and what they were trying to accomplish in her 1920 pamphlet, “The Arkansas Race Riot.”

“Most of these men and their families has worked for years ‘on shares’ and had come out every year in debt or just barely out. The price of cotton had been low, and the landlord who furnished the land and supplies saw to it that the Negro laborer remained in his clutches from years to year.”
"The Arkansas Race Riot," Ida B. Wells

The Rev. Mary Olson, president of the Elaine Legacy Center, has been collecting oral histories with White since 2000. She said the black oral history that has been shared with her indicates black farmers had figured out how to sell their cotton at a fair price and started shipping it to Boston. The move bypassed the big cotton companies in the area owned by whites, she said.

That dynamic, where black sharecroppers could have gained financial independence, created a panic among white plantation owners who would have been left with white workers who could not be controlled by Jim Crow laws of the era, said Nashid Madyun, director of the Southeastern Regional Black Archives and Research Center at Florida A&M University.

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Many of the sharecroppers had gone off to war and returned with the expectation of being treated like citizens allowed to have grievances, Mitchell said. “The problem is the planters don’t see them as citizens. They see them as objects of exploitation,” he said.

The sharecroppers started meeting in churches to collect fees and dues for a lawyer and to organize.

Word spread, and a group of white men, some believed to be part of law enforcement, gathered at a church on Sept. 30, 1919. While there are different versions of whether the black sharecroppers or the white men outside the church fired the first shot, gunfire broke out, chaos followed and a white man ended up dead.

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News of the death swirled around the area, stoking fears of a black uprising.

For days, mobs of white men killed at least 200 black people, with assistance from about 500 troops called on by Arkansas Gov. Charles Brough. Some scholars estimate the number of dead to be closer to 800.

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Wells wrote that hundreds of white men were “chasing down and murdering every Negro they could find, driving them from their homes and stalking them in the woods and fields as men hunt wild beasts."

The violence raged for a week.

In the aftermath of the riot, 285 black people were arrested, and the Phillips County grand jury charged 122 black people with crimes ranging from night riding to murder. The first 12 men tried were convicted of murder and sentenced to death by electric chair. Their case, Moore v. Dempsey, would limit how much local governments could deny federal constitutional rights.

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If it were not for the NAACP intervening in the case, what happened in Elaine might not have seen the light of day by the greater public, Madyun said.

The post-massacre media was effective in communicating the message of black insurrection, Madyun said, which is why the Elaine riots are not part of the public consciousness as much as other well-known uprisings, such as 1921 Tulsa race riot.

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Elaine today

Getting the “real story” out about what happened that year is challenging in a town where descendants from both sides live. Many of the families who were profiting from black economic dependence or who had relatives directly involved in the killing of hundreds of people are still thriving. Many blacks still work at white-owned properties in the area, said White and Olson.

Dredging up the past can feel burdensome and blame-inducing to a community that is relatively low on crime and where good manners are appreciated.

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But White and Olson see the act as a deliberate attack to quiet down the voices they are trying to elevate.

The chopping down of the tree and the stealing of the sign trigger flashbacks to times of lynching, where body parts, such as toes, genitals and fingers, were taken from victims as souvenirs.

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To White, the tree’s destruction is a “hate crime,” and the idea that it could just be vandalism or the reckless behavior of misguided teens is absurd. He has pledged he and the Elaine Legacy Center will not stop their mission to spread the word about what happened in the city a century ago.

Another tree is scheduled to be planted in early winter with lights and cameras around it — security measures that were not there before, Olson said. There is also a four-day celebration to commemorate the victims planned for late September.

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Elaine "tells us these things happen when societies get so polarized and injustice is allowed to continue,” Mitchell said. “It has a very modern message that we can learn from today.”

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