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Voices of Elaine
Synopsis

The powerful Voices of Elaine Symposium, sponsored by the NAACP Hot Springs, was held in February 2023. The mission to tell the truth of the untold stories of the 1919 Elaine, Arkansas massacre that murdered 200 black children, women, and men. 

Through the impressive documentary We Have Just Begun, keynote by the Honorable Wendell Griffen, and the harrowing stories of the massacre descendants, our eyes were opened.

Karen Sparks, a board member of the VCK Democratic Women, captured brilliantly the day in the following synopsis.

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The Voices of Elaine, a Synopsis
By Karen Sparks

On February 4th, the historic Central Theater in Hot Springs was filled to near capacity when
over 250 people gathered to learn about the massacre and land theft perpetrated in and
around Elaine, Arkansas. A chain of events ignited in the fall of 1919 when black farmers dared
to organize to get a fair — white — price for their cotton.


For the vast majority of attendees, the Voices of Elaine Symposium was their first exposure to
this long-suppressed stain on Arkansas history in which hundreds of black men, women, and
children were massacred in possibly the deadliest attack of its kind in U.S. history.
Facts were laid bare. Facts that tell the story and the timeline from 1919 to today. Facts that
explain the scar tissue, the ongoing inequity and trauma, and the need for restorative justice in
Elaine.


Judge Wendell Griffen, Keynote Speaker


Judge Wendell Griffen delivered a stark and unflinching talk. He spoke about our country’s
legacy of stolen land, stolen labor, stolen power, and the willful slaughter of human beings. He
provided historical context for the Elaine massacre within a long continuum of state-sanctioned
atrocities.


From a governor’s reward for Indian scalps to the right of European settlers to claim the lands
they “discovered,” to the Indian Removal Act. From a treaty that promised 7.5 million acres to
California Indians — and its failure to be ratified — to the removal of Japanese citizens from
their homes to internment camps.


Judge Griffen pointed to the deafening silence and whitewashing of facts surrounding the
Elaine massacre while reminding us that words matter. The reference to the Elaine massacre as
a “riot” illustrates ongoing deference to alternative facts.


“What happened in 1919 in Elaine was no more a riot than the landing on the moon was an
accident.” As to minimizing the scope and the horror, “They take a corpse and make it look
better so people don’t mind looking at it.”


Elaine Descendants


We were graced by the Elaine descendants who joined us on stage and via Zoom — from Paris.
They were there to help educate us about a history that is immediately personal to them.

Ms. Lenora Marshall


Lenora Marshal, VP of the Elaine Legacy Center, spoke about the rich soil and the coveted farm
and timber land of the Delta in and around Elaine. She described a thriving town that before
1919 included many well-to-do black land and business owners.


Ms. Marshall related that her grandfather once owned 5,000 acres of land in Elaine. On the
heels of the massacre, after white land grabbers unlawfully had titles changed to their names,
only around 300 acres remain under her family’s ownership.


She told us that in the aftermath of the attack, many black people left Elaine in fear for their
lives. Some changed their names; many never returned. Their departure created just one of
many opportunities for whites to seize land from its rightful owners.


Mr. James White

James White, Director of the Elaine Legacy Center who served as the geographical consultant
for We Have Just Begun joined us from the stage. He told of learning about the massacre, bit by bit, from his grandmother who was 15 years old in 1919. He remembers his grandfather talking about seeing black people hanging who had been lynched. People who they did not dare cut down.


James touched on a theme that echoed throughout the day. That of silence. “White people
don’t want to talk about it because they got all the land. Black people don’t want to talk about
it because they’re afraid.”


He spoke of a lost legacy. One that cannot be passed down because it was stolen. He talked
about the lack of investment in Elaine by those who profit from the land, the loss of their
school, and the need to harness new ideas to break the stalemate on stagnation.

 

Ms. Julia Wright


Julia Wright joined via Zoom from Paris. Julia is the daughter of author, Richard Wright, best
known for two of his books, Native Son and the autobiographical Black Boy.
In Black Boy, Wright recounts moving with his mother to live with his aunt and uncle in Elaine.
His uncle, a prosperous saloon owner, was lynched in 1916 by whites who coveted his business
and resented his success. His family was forced to flee, leaving money and belongings behind.

Ms. Wright also touched on black silence. A code often imposed by those who “love us best but don’t want to see us get lynched.” When Richard Wright asked his mother why they didn’t fight back rather than flee Elaine, she slapped him — a reaction born of fear.


Ms. Wright called black silence “the state’s fossil fuel.” She said it goes hand-in-hand with
“black amnesia,” the shutting out of difficult memories. “When we speak up, and speak out and speak out loud, we will realize we are walking and breathing history.”


She told us she was thrilled to see “Descendant” by her name on her invitation to Voices of
Elaine. “If I ever have a calling card made, I will proudly print after my name the word
Descendant. Descendant means we embody a continuum of history.”


We Have Just Begun, the Documentary


The nucleus of the day was a preview screening of We Have Just Begun, a documentary by
Michael Wilson, co-written and narrated by Tongo Eisen-Martin, and featuring Michelle Duster,
the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, reading from Ms. Wells’ “The Arkansas Riot.”
The film’s lens focuses on the area and people in and around Elaine, from reconstruction to
today. We learn that following the civil war, former slaves found former masters eager to
maintain control over them. Some of those freed black workers engaged in collective bargaining and formed communal settlements on abandoned land.


The workers’ mass exodus from plantations sorely threatened the white capitalist status quo.
Leaders of organizing efforts disappeared, rumored to have been killed in the delta swamps.
From slavery to sharecropping, the plight of many was grim as they were mostly destitute,
owing everything they earned to the company store of the landowners for whom they toiled.
This was the common reality for sharecroppers both black and white.


Blacks who managed to obtain land or other forms of wealth and professional success seemed
to be threatened in proportion to that success. Some wanted to take their wealth — or their
lives.


The struggle for black autonomy, including economic freedom, was ongoing. After WW1, during which many black soldiers served, a large group of black farmers joined an organization called the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA).
The PFHUA would help the farmers negotiate a better price for their cotton crop by
circumventing the white middleman. An evening meeting to discuss the details was planned for September 30th, 1919, at a church in tiny Hoop Spur.

Word of the meeting spread to nearby Helena. White law enforcement visited the church
where armed guards were stationed outside for protection. Gunfire was exchanged and one
officer was killed. News of the altercation made its way to Elaine and neighboring towns, and to the Governor.


The narrative was of an armed uprising. An insurrection on the part of blacks who intended to
kill all whites. 
Justice was turned upside-down. A white mob of hundreds of men descended on the area from Arkansas and neighboring states, killing black people on sight. The governor summoned federal troops; the Secretary of War sent 500 troops to put down the imaginary revolt.


For days, the wholesale killing of black people including women and children continued.
Women were raped and men that weren’t killed were arrested, charged with crimes they did
not commit, and placed in stockades. Innocent men were tortured and coerced to confess to
murder; twelve were sentenced to death — their sentences were later overturned.


Voices of Elaine examines these events and much more. In the aftermath of the violence, the
“hush mouth” was put on survivors. No one dared speak of the horror for fear they and their
family would be killed.


The film explains how shockingly little has changed in Elaine. Black agricultural workers work for white landowners who can fire them on a moment’s notice and ensure no one else hires them. We hear about one fired worker whose former boss had the man’s electricity cut off.
Fields are sprayed with herbicide while workers are present and crop dusters routinely fly over
residential areas, killing homeowners’ plants and trees. People exposed to the spray have
developed rashes, and the long-term consequences of exposure are uncertain.
A willow tree planted as a modest memorial to those killed in the massacre was cruelly and
deliberately chopped down.


People in Elaine are strong. In their community, people help one another generously with the
little they have. What they need is restorative justice, and as descendant James White said,
“something new.”


Making New History


Voices of Elaine made history of its own when 250 people did not look away. They did not avert
their eyes and ears when presented with a story that digs deep into the wounds of history.
It is with new knowledge that we move forward given an opportunity to do and think
differently with an increased awareness of our past.

Julia Wright said, “We will know that we are capable of creating history with our bare hands in
real-time.” May we embody this idea in the most loving sense.


With Gratitude


Deepest gratitude to Lenora Marshall, James White, Julia Wright, Judge Wendell Griffen,
Michael Wilson, Esther Dixon, Hot Springs NAACP #6013, and the Voices of Elaine planning
committee: Andrea Gluckman, Mary Olson, Marsalis Weatherspoon, Janetta Kearney, Karen
Sparks, Dianne Rogers, Tina Pakis, and Kristie Rosset
Thank you to every person who donated, and to every individual and organization whose
sponsorship made Voices of Elaine, Hot Springs possible.
A special thanks to all who attended and did not look away.
--------------/--------------
Voices of Elaine Sponsors
JUSTICE-$1000
Dorothy Morris Leadership Fund, KUAR/UALR
Quapaw Baths & Spa
Virginia Clinton Kelley Democratic Women
EQUITY-$500
Joyce Schulte, Lisa and Greg Waters
DIVERSITY-$250
Celebrate Maya Project, Daniel Hurwitz Photography, The Pancake Shop, Linda Ragsdale,
Ray and Kristie Rosset
INCLUSION-$100
Arkansas T-Shirt Quilts, Colleen Boardman, Ann and Randy Hill, Kathy Farrar, Danielle
Hanscom, Kate and Mark Lefler, Mouton 3 (M3) Services, Tina Pakis,
Red Light Roastery, Lynnette Scofield


In-Kind Sponsor : Central Theatre Hot Springs

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