Last year, Lisa Hicks Gilbert ran a Facebook page and ran Zoom events for those like her descended from victims of the Elaine massacre in 1919, when crowds of whites incited by white planters killed, arrested and displaced hundreds of blacks in Phillips County, Arkansas, following an attempt to organize black sharecroppers. At the time, she hoped to create a space where the descendants of victims could heal together and take the lead in restorative justice in Elaine, a rural town in the Arkansas Delta with a population of just over 500. 71% black.
Today Gilbert, the founder of the Descendants of the Elaine Massacre of 1919, is returning home to Elaine, where she will help manage the programs at the Lee Street Community Center and work towards realizing the vision that she and other descendants have spoken over the past year.
Part of that vision is the annual Elaine Unity Fest, which first took place last weekend, on the 102nd anniversary of the massacre. While this year’s festival is virtual, Gilbert and his co-organizers plan to hold it at the former Elaine High School in the future. The high school, which closed along with the rest of Elaine’s public schools several years ago, is now owned by the Elaine Alumni Association.
This year’s Unity Fest included a town hall, a restorative justice panel, a writing workshop, and a church service. Its sponsors included the Delta Commons Group, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), the Emmett Till National Park campaign, Holding Spaces, The Magic Soul and Damaged Heritage. The festival was not without its challenges: Its virtual nature, dictated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, prevented some Elaine residents from attending due to a lack of adequate internet service.
Many of the problems faced by Elaine and Phillips County are, according to descendants, a direct result of the massacre and its aftermath. Local authorities arrested 122 blacks and falsely accused them of crimes; 12 were sentenced to death. In her pamphlet “The Arkansas Race Riot”, investigative reporter Ida B. Wells-Barnett calculated that the money lost by the Elaine Twelve families because they were unable to harvest their cotton while sitting in Phillips County Jail was at least $ 86,050 – over $ 1.3 million in today’s dollars. Wells-Barnett estimated that a full accounting of the cotton profits lost by the families of murdered or imprisoned black sharecroppers – money that largely went into the pockets of white planters – would amount to $ 1 million , or nearly $ 16 million today.
In the decade following the massacre, 5,660 blacks left Phillips County – a peak in the out-migration of blacks from that area. All of the Elaine Twelve left the state following the easing of their sentences; only one, Joseph Knox, would return to Arkansas for good.
One of the first to leave was Robert Lee Hill, the organizer of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, which was meeting at a church near Hoop Spur the night the massacre began. Fleeing white possessions and a potential arrest, Hill traveled first to Oklahoma, then to Kansas, where he was arrested by local authorities in 1920. The NAACP campaigned against his extradition to Arkansas, and he was finally released; he lived the rest of his life in Topeka. One of Hill’s descendants, his great-niece Charlotte “Mama C” Hill O’Neal, who is the co-director of the United African Alliance Community Center in rural Tanzania, recorded a video titled “The Blood I Carry “reflecting on her. my great-uncle’s legacy and her work for justice and fairness.
“I knew the blood that I carry, the blood that cries for freedom, the blood that spills love, the blood that looks so much like what my great-uncle spoke of when he formed the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America… I knew Great Uncle Robert Lee Hill had to be the one they always talked about, ”O’Neal said. “And now I know why the conversations were so whispered.”
“We must have broadband”
During a Friday morning session on restorative justice, panelists lamented the fact that the recent apologies and acknowledgments for the massacre of White Arkansans and state officials have not led individuals, philanthropists or governments to invest more in Elaine.
“I implore more action, more restoration, more transformation, more involvement in the issue at hand, the issues that are devastating our community,” said Clarice Abdul-Bey, Arkansas Peace co-host. and Justice Memorial Movement and a descendant of a black family who lived in the area at the time of the massacre.
“If you have capital and you express remorse… and you have connections or resources, repentance is good,” Abdul-Bey continued. “But the recovery to help thousands of young people and people able to look at their homework, to be up to date with technology, to be able to go on the Internet, to be able to do telemedicine, to be able to do telemedicine in health mental, all of these things are very important.I want to link repentance to resources for change.
High-speed internet could provide all kinds of opportunities for the community, Gilbert believes. With the Internet, they could set up a call center in the old high school that would create jobs. With the Internet, they could host concerts not only for the community, but also to stimulate tourism and economic development.
“We have to have broadband, and there is money for that,” Gilbert said. ” We are back. During this massacre, no one came to help Elaine. No one came to help. And here we are again, they’re still not trying to help. Where are our state representatives, our local representatives? you?”
During Friday’s call, panelists also highlighted the city’s rusty water tower, a photo of which was featured in a recent USA Today investigation into pathogens in water towers. Elaine’s water, they said, often comes out of the taps discolored.
“The water situation in Elaine has been a problem for years,” Gilbert said during the restorative justice panel. “It is not only the water that goes into the houses, but also the pipes, the sewer system. When it rains, if it rains a lot, it means that they have sewer backups.” Gilbert said residents of Elaine tried to bring water and sewage issues to the attention of the town and the mayor, to no avail; Mayor Michael Craven, who did not attend Unity Fest, did not respond to an email request to be interviewed for this article.
Gilbert has also been in conversation with UAMS about bringing a telemedicine clinic to Elaine, who would be housed in the old high school. Currently, people living in Elaine must travel at least 30 minutes to Marvell or Helena-West Helena for medical treatment; there is no ambulance in the city. “If you can’t bring doctors to these rural areas, why not connect them through interactive video? Said Terri Imus, director of clinical telemedicine operations at UAMS, who worked with Gilbert on the vision for the telemedicine operation.
The barriers right now are broadband and funding. Imus estimates that they need less than $ 50,000 in start-up costs and the Internet that allows video calls and downloads. The equipment to set up a telemedicine clinic is relatively straightforward: a mobile cart with a camera, lenses and a stethoscope that would allow doctors to virtually examine patients’ heart and lung sounds, as well as injuries and wounds. , and medical equipment to be housed in the examination room. Federal grant money and COVID emergency aid have run dry for now, but Imus says they’re still on the hunt for funds.
“We don’t care where the money comes from,” Imus said. “A Walton or a Rockefeller, someone with money to give, we’ll take it.”
Test the waters
In addition to working with organizations inside and outside of Elaine to bring services and economic revitalization to the city, Gilbert will work to maintain the park at the Lee Street Community Center and create a ‘a program for young people.
“I want to create a leadership program, but I want to start by asking [the youth], ‘What do you want to see in your community? What does it look like? What does the leadership program look like? ”She said. She hopes that by being in Elaine and working to put the needs of the community first, she can encourage others to speak more openly about the massacre and its continuing effects – conversations that are often still whispered, still controversial – and that the city, black and white inhabitants, can evolve towards restorative justice, reconciliation and unity.
Her first effort to involve students in these reconciliation efforts was an essay competition for Phillips County students on the topic of racial reconciliation, as evidenced by the late Sheila Walker, a descendant of one of the Elaine Twelve, and J. Chester Johnson, whose grandfather participated in the massacre. She only had one entry, which she said is indicative of the culture of silence and fear that still exists around acknowledging the history and legacy of the Phillips County massacre – and the current difficult climate around the teaching of the history of racism.
“With all the talk around critical race theory, there are some things that teachers are afraid to bring up. And I mean, it was about reconciliation,” she said. “But that was intentional. I had to test the waters. I go there apparently blind, but I had to test the waters to see what I’m up against.”