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A Painful Present as Historians Confront a Nation's Bloody Past

Scholars and heirs search for documentation of the destruction of black communities decades ago. Compensation is an issue.


HELENA, Ark. — Mayor Robert Miller always heard that the 1919 race riot--the one in which four of his uncles died--began with a power struggle among whites. Was that right? Did anybody have details?

Addressing an audience of blacks and whites in a shabby former theater, the African American mayor spoke quietly, almost tentatively. Listeners murmured. But no one could give him an answer.

That, after all, was why the 200 academics, community members and civil rights activists had come last week, to a two-day conference on a riot that lacerated Phillips County 81 years ago. Somehow, like dozens of similar mob attacks of that era, the so-called Elaine Riot had eluded most documentation, even common remembrance.

With a mix of revulsion and urgency, people in communities from Florida to Oklahoma, Missouri to Texas, are also beginning to study their bloody pasts. The outlines often are similar: an individual lynching turned into a full-fledged pogrom. In some riot-wracked towns, such as Harrison, Ark., black populations vanished so completely--having fled or been murdered--that scholars liken the results to ethnic cleansing.

The new will to confront those awful times, say historians, echoes a worldwide trend of recognizing, apologizing for--and sometimes compensating--crimes against particular groups. The first task, not an easy one, is to assemble the fragmented, second- or third-hand, accounts. Then, the questions get even harder.

How could events so traumatic--and public--be so thinly documented? Why the public scrutiny now, seven or eight decades later? And, perhaps most delicate of all: the question of what to do with these findings once they're unearthed.

The conference in Helena came one week after a highly publicized decision on a 1921 riot in Tulsa, Okla., where as many as several hundred blacks were killed, and the city's black business district torched. After months of study, a state panel recommended unspecified cash restitution for survivors and their heirs. The Legislature will vote on the controversial idea later this year.

While a near-frenzy of racial lynchings first gripped the South in the 1890s, community assaults, like that on Tulsa's black district, peaked in the first quarter of this century. The end of World War I brought both economic crisis, and an anti-Red fever that extended to minority groups and trade unions. Just three years earlier, a defunct Ku Klux Klan leaped back to life with help from the film "Birth of a Nation."

Also, troops of black soldiers, transformed by their war service, began to come home. In Tulsa, it was one of these veterans who led fellow blacks in defying the mob.

Today, for communities examining their riots' legacy, Tulsa is a rare exemplar of how to proceed. In Arkansas, for instance, some historians are now calling for a Tulsa-like riot commission, said Tom Dillard, curator of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

But researchers may never truly know what happened in the small town of Elaine, perched on the Mississippi about 25 miles from Helena. As in other places where riots broke out, the most graphic events of the Elaine attack were described by newspapers, or trial transcripts. Absent, however, are crucial details: black death counts, property documents, methodical eyewitness interviews.

As Different as Black and White

Instead, whites growing up in the area heard blacks started the violence, after plotting an "insurrection" against landowners. Blacks learned that the riot started when white deputies fired on a group of sharecroppers.

Whatever the origin, what ensued in this threadbare delta county was a massacre. When it ended, five whites and anywhere from 20 to several hundred blacks had died.

Newspaper editor Kathy Williams of Sherman, Texas, has known for a decade about the 1930 mob that destroyed Sherman's black business district. But it was a class with the forensic anthropologist working with Tulsa that prompted her to study the current impact of that riot. Academics at nearby Austin College are also hoping to explore the episode.

"Usually the reaction from the white community is, 'Get over it,' " Williams said. But, she added, many in Sherman don't grasp the barbarity of what happened--or understand its lingering shadow.

Typical for race riots of its day, the Sherman violence began when a black man was accused of raping a white woman. Locked in a steel cell inside the courthouse, he burned to death when a mob roiling outside dynamited the building. Scaling the wall, rioters snatched his corpse, cut off his genitals and dragged him through the black business district before burning it down, according to contemporary accounts.

As a result, the county where Sherman is located has only two black professionals today, Williams said. Locals describe the riot as the time the courthouse burned down.

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