Efforts to teach the histories are gaining momentum even as some states try to limit how racism is discussed in schools.
June 29, 2021, 9:59 a.m. ET
The Elaine massacre of 1919 is believed to be the deadliest episode of racial violence in Arkansas history. But when the historian Brian Mitchell began researching it a few years ago, he met teachers in the state who didn’t know about it or weren’t sure how to explain it to their students.
“Teachers who were having a difficult time talking about difficult histories didn’t know where to start,” he said.
So Professor Mitchell, an expert on African American history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, helped create a virtual exhibit about the massacre and packed it with teaching materials.
After the murder of George Floyd last year triggered widespread protests and calls for racial justice, there has been more public discussion of America’s history of racial violence. The recent centennial of the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Okla., which prompted President Biden to visit the city, is a prominent example.
But the Tulsa race massacre isn’t the only one getting a fresh look. In some American schools, museums and other institutions, events like Elaine are being discussed for the first time. And some of these efforts are gaining momentum even as Republican politicians in several states try to block curriculums that emphasize systemic racism.
Roger Brooks, the president of Facing History and Ourselves, an educational nonprofit based in Massachusetts, said it was thrilling to see “the examination of untold or forgotten histories gaining traction across the country.”
“These types of projects, when approached with integrity and deep scholarship, provide a path toward filling out the contours of the larger contemporary picture of the times we’re living in,” he said.
An Arkansas tragedy
The massacre in Elaine, which sits on a bend of the Mississippi River about 100 miles south of Memphis, occurred after a group of Black sharecroppers informed plantation owners that they had formed a chapter of a national union.
As the farmers met at a local church, police officers interrupted them, leading to a shootout in which one of the officers was killed. A mob of white men then “poured into the county to suppress the alleged Black revolt that had been reported to them,” Professor Mitchell wrote in a recent essay. Hundreds of U.S. Army soldiers were sent to Elaine at the governor’s request.
Over the next few days, soldiers, police officers and white mobs are believed to have killed hundreds of people. Homes were burned with Black families inside, and the victims included men, women and children, according to Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, a professor emerita of African American studies at Pennsylvania State University.
A jury later convicted 12 Black men for the murders of three white men in Elaine. They were sentenced to death, but freed years later after six of the convictions were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1923.
Textbooks in Arkansas once “basically accepted” initial, pro-establishment accounts of the massacre from local officials and newspapers, said Barclay Key, a historian at the University of Arkansas. More recent textbooks, he added, have better explained how the massacre started and given agency to the Black union organizers.
‘This happened in my community.’
When Professor Mitchell and his students began researching the Elaine massacre a few years ago, there was virtually no record of Black deaths from it in the county where it had occurred, he said. They managed to find death certificates in a local funeral home’s collection that confirmed deaths that had gone unreported at the time.
The class created a searchable index of those records and donated it to the Arkansas State Archive. Separately, Professor Mitchell helped to create a virtual exhibit around the massacre’s centennial for the university’s Center for Arkansas History and Culture that includes teaching guides, archival records and interactive maps.
Hundreds of local teachers have incorporated materials from the exhibit into their lesson plans, said Deborah Baldwin, the university’s associate provost of collections and archives.
One of them, Ruth Brown, said she had taught the massacre to middle and high school students over the past decade, initially relying on materials and speakers from the Elaine Legacy Center, a local project to commemorate the massacre’s victims.
Over the past year, Ms. Brown used resources from the virtual exhibit and taught about the massacre as part of a broader curriculum that focused on literacy.
“The reason I get a good response is because they take ownership,” Ms. Brown, a social studies teacher in the Marvell-Elaine School District, said of her students. “You know, ‘This happened in my community.’”
From Florida to North Carolina
Elaine isn’t the only place in the American South where teachers, historians, curators and others are trying to educate communities about race massacres, often in places where such events are not a major focus of public school curriculums.
In Florida, the Orange County Library System’s website has a page about the 1920 Ocoee massacre — in which a white mob burned Black homes and churches — with links to books, films and other materials.
In Louisiana, the Historic New Orleans Collection published a website this year about Black activists during Reconstruction, the period immediately after the Civil War. One page analyzes the Mechanics’ Institute massacre of 1866, in which a white mob killed dozens of people attending a state constitutional convention that had been called to consider giving Black people the right to vote.
And last year in North Carolina, a museum published an interactive map about a massacre that coincided with the 1898 overthrow of a Black-majority city’s multiracial government.
That massacre by white militias in Wilmington, N.C., which left at least 60 Black people dead, began with efforts by local Democrats to block people from voting. A mob burned the office of a Black newspaper and sent Black workers fleeing into nearby swamps. White supremacists also forced elected Black officials to resign and banished other Black people from Wilmington.
A “story map” about the event, published last year by the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, offers a fresh account of what happened in Wilmington — and calls it not a “riot” but a “white supremacist massacre and a coup d’état.”
“The story map was conceived of before both the pandemic and the racial protests of 2020,” said Jan Davidson, the museum’s historian. “Still, it became a particularly relevant and timely intervention into the public conversation about race and power.”
Efforts to teach students and the public about race massacre have critics: Several Republican-led state legislatures have either passed or proposed measures that would limit how schools teach about racism.
Those efforts will make it harder for many teachers and school districts to introduce a “serious curriculum” around topics like slavery, freedom struggles and the legacies of white supremacy, said Professor Woodruff, the Penn State historian.
Young people today are “more willing to question the past” than their parents were, she said, and demands for reckonings over the legacies of slavery and segregation — as well as the genocide of Native Americans and underreported state violence against Mexican Americans and Asian Americans — may grow as the United States moves from a white to a nonwhite majority.
“But we are not yet there,” she added.
In Arkansas, the push to talk more about the Elaine massacre comes not only from historians and teachers, but descendants of the victims.
One of them, James White Sr., directs programs at the Elaine Legacy Center. This summer he is helping to organize a reading program for about 50 children that will focus on the writer Richard Wright, who lived in Elaine as a child. Mr. Wright’s 1945 memoir, “Black Boy,” tells the story of how his uncle was lynched there three years before the 1919 massacre.
One of Ms. Brown’s former students, Edlun Marshall, said that he grew up hearing about the massacre from his extended family. Teachers mentioned it in passing, he added, but he did not learn the full story until he took Ms. Brown’s class in high school.
“I can definitely remember feeling the sadness,” he said, “and also the rage, to hear that innocent people were brutally attacked and killed for simply trying to have some type of equality in this land of opportunity.”