Photographs by Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
This building in downtown Elaine is being considered as the site for a museum as Phillips County civic leaders hope to create a memorial for people killed in a 1919 massacre.
Originally published August 13, 2017 at 04:30a.m., updated August 14, 2017 at 04:30a.m.
In September 1919, former slave and reverend Elias Camp Morris became a peacemaker.
The Elaine Massacre was raging just 20 miles south of Helena, turning the Delta cotton fields and woodlands of southern Phillips County into killing fields. And the town's white society was growing fearful over rumors that "black insurrection" would soon spread to Helena.
By then, E.C. Morris was recognized as one of the state's most distinguished black ministers. He had founded Arkansas Baptist College, and the Helena church he raised with his own hands just 14 years before -- the Centennial Baptist Church -- was a beacon in the civil rights movement. The church hosted such leaders as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard H. Boyd.
Morris was a trusted figure in the town's black and white communities. He used that trust and credibility to calm the 1919 fears of insurrection, and Helena remained quiet.
Today, Morris' 112-year-old Centennial Baptist Church is one of the nation's 2,500 National Historic Landmarks, but it's on the brink of collapse. Its smashed windows and windswept roof allow the Delta rains to rot its wooden floors and bow its arching trusses. Its derelict red-bricked exterior is ensnared in kudzu vines.
Any passer-by would scarcely notice its vague crumbling beauty, let alone its historical significance. Much like the Elaine Massacre of 1919, which local historians say killed upward of 200 people, mostly black, some white, nearly all forgotten, E.C. Morris barely registers in mainstream history.
But Phillips County civic leaders want to change that, they hope with assistance from the National Park Service.
TAKING THE LEAD
The sons of the late David Solomon -- a prominent Jewish attorney and lifelong resident of Helena whose passing last spring was a cause for great mourning in the city -- Rayman and David Solomon have begun dual efforts to save the Baptist church and erect a memorial to all those killed in the 1919 massacre.
They've formed committees dedicated to each task: the Elaine Massacre Memorial Committee, which has gained nonprofit status, and the Centennial Church Foundation, which is seeking such status.
Each committee consists of a dozen or so local leaders -- including U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, his brother and Delta Cultural Center Director Kyle Miller -- as well as other black and white civic-minded people, David Solomon said.
"Although the [Elaine] memorial is being developed by a private committee, it is our intention to see that it becomes a matter of public trust," he said. "This is not meant to be forever a private venture. It's meant to be a public monument."
Solomon would not disclose exactly how much cash he intends to invest in the Elaine memorial, and he assures that project leaders are not proposing to seek local tax money for it.
Later this month, architects commissioned by the Solomon brothers are to present designs to the memorial committee. Those designs will subsequently be released for public input before any construction is done.
Solomon said he envisioned some tribute being erected in Helena-West Helena on Court Square Park, between the Jacob Trieber Federal Building and the Phillips County Courthouse. Barring any unforeseen occurrence, he expects the Elaine monument to be installed before the massacre's centennial on Sept. 29, 2019.
The cost of repairing the Centennial Baptist Church, on the other hand, is another matter entirely.
The church hasn't hosted a Sunday service since the late 1990s, and in recent years it has been considered too precarious for anyone to enter.
In 2007, the Little Rock-based Jameson Architects firm determined that the ailing structure needed $1.2 million in repairs. Today, after another decade of deterioration, the architecture firm estimates the repair costs at $2.5 million, a seemingly impossible amount to raise in a county where 37 percent of the population, or 7,125 people, lives below the poverty line, according to 2011 census data.
THE PARK SERVICE
The National Park Service in recent years has acknowledged that it needs to promote and increase diversity at the sites that make up the park system.
"It is wholly within the mission of the NPS to locate, evaluate, recognize, preserve, and interpret nationally significant sites associated with the many threads of the civil rights story," according to the park service's framework for identifying significant civil-rights sites.
And Phillips County's two sites, one park official said, would fit that bill.
There are 417 national parks or sites across the country. Any addition to that list must be considered so vital to the public that the site should be cared for by the federal government into posterity. Typically, sites are added through legislation filed by the pertaining U.S. representatives or senators.
So far, only the Centennial Church Foundation has made park service overtures to congressional members.
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., acknowledged the treasure Helena-West Helena has in the Baptist church, "not only for its association with Reverend Morris and his pioneering civil rights work, but also as an example of the critical role it and other churches played and continue to play in Delta communities today," he said in a statement.
"I'm hopeful that efforts to add the church to the National Park System will prove fruitful to further memorialize Centennial Baptist and its contribution to the community and Arkansas."
If legislation is filed and approved by Congress, the benefits to the cause and the area would be multifold. Not only would the National Park Service assume future repairs and maintenance costs for the church and possibly a future Elaine memorial, the service would help draw attention to an overlooked part of history.
Having national park sites in Phillips County would be a "tourist godsend," Solomon said. Like many other Southern states, civil-rights sites have become increasingly popular as drivers of the Southern economy.
ELAINE 1919 MASSACRE
Racial tensions in post-World War I grew as black soldiers returned from Europe, spawning a nationwide surge in violence now known as the Red Summer of 1919 -- a succession of racial conflicts in dozens of cities from Washington, D.C., to Chicago. The episode in and around Elaine, however, was singular because of its staggering death toll.
On Sept. 30, 1919, about 100 sharecroppers secretly gathered in a church just outside Elaine to organize for fairer wages. Their meeting was disrupted when three white landowners discovered their gathering, and a shootout resulted in the death of a white railroad worker.
The next morning, a white mob of up to 1,000 armed individuals arrived to quell the "insurrection," and Arkansas Gov. Charles Brough followed up with 500 federal troops from Camp Pike.
Exact figures are unclear, but historians estimate that more than 200 sharecroppers were killed. Several more were arrested. Twelve were convicted of murder -- six of whom went on to win their freedom in the momentous 1923 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Moore v. Dempsey.
White leaders in Phillips County subsequently formed the "Committee of Seven," consisting of prominent public officials and planters -- including the Solomon brothers' great-uncles -- to investigate the massacre.
According to Grif Stockley, historian and author of Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacre of 1919, the Committee of Seven undertook an extended effort to convince the public that blacks had planned an "insurrection."
Soon after, the story was buried -- swept under the rug for so many years, as Solomon put it, "that now there was a huge pile in the middle of the rug we keep tripping on."
Many who live in the area had not heard the story until recently, and many more across the state remain oblivious, historians say.
"I remain convinced it is beyond question that the Elaine Massacre was one of the deadliest racial conflicts in the nation's history," Stockley said during an interview. "National Park recognition is long overdue as the documentation of the conflict continues to be buttressed and supported by further research."
Metro on 08/13/2017
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