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

By Claudia Kolker, LA Times, Tuesday 22 February 2000

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.

In Springfield, Mo., NAACP activist Rosemary Stewart-Stafford has a simple goal: a public plaque acknowledging the 1906 lynching of three innocent men and the black exodus from Springfield that resulted. Leaders of Wilmington, N.C., have consulted with their Tulsa counterparts on ways to acknowledge an 1898 riot in which white supremacists overthrew the city's mixed-race government.

And in New York, crowds are pressing into a Manhattan gallery to confront 60 vintage photographs of lynch victims and mobs, images collected by an antique dealer and published in a new book.

It's not coincidence that these and other long-hidden crimes are being examined at the same time, historians say. For one thing, the riots themselves peaked in the first 25 years of the century, and recent years have been their landmark anniversaries. Sheer distance in time--and the scarcity of reproachful survivors--has made these examinations easier.

But the new interest also belongs to a worldwide trend of recognizing, and apologizing, for crimes against minorities, said Elazar Barkan, a historian at Claremont Graduate University. Though countries have awarded postwar reparations for decades, the trend of revisiting domestic wrongs can be traced to the end of the Cold War, he said.

"The change in the last 10 years is that people are either affluent enough, or have the political space, to admit guilt," said Barkan, author of an upcoming book on reparations theory.

Robert Westley, a Tulane University law professor, traces today's spate of riot studies to two specific events in the United States. "This really started gaining momentum in the 1980s, after President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act that gave reparations to Japanese Americans interned in World War II," Westley said.

Another catalyst, he added, was the Florida Legislature's 1994 settlement with survivors from the black settlement of Rosewood, burned by a mob in 1923. Acknowledging failure to protect Rosewood residents at the time, the state paid $150,000 each to the nine survivors, $500,000 to heirs of Rosewood property owners and created a $100,000 scholarship fund.

That the media so often publicizes these amends bears certain irony. Newspapers were pivotal in whipping up riot mobs. Most newspapers also made clear that blacks' discussions of the events were dangerously unwelcome.

The inhibition persists, making the mesmerized Helena audience one of the first here to discuss the Elaine Riot publicly. Standing to speak in the old theater, a schoolteacher said his grandfather had been paid to bury black corpses after the riot. Historian Nan Woodruff reported that a black death count had been impeded because in some cases victims were burned alive.

Deftly moderated, the meeting didn't touch on restitution. But that issue hovers around any conversation on riot history. The most recent sally in the debate occurred last month when Randall Robinson, head of the TransAfrica rights group, published a book calling for America to "materially compensate slavery's living victims [and] to commemorate in its public architecture" those victims who are dead.

In a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece, he ticked off a list of victimized groups that have been compensated by other nations: Koreans, Poles, Aborigines. The United States has also compensated mistreated groups, awarding native Alaskans $1 billion and 44 million acres in 1971, and $20,000 each in 1988 to former Japanese American internees.

But, with the exception of Rosewood, restitution for African Americans has always stalled. Claremont's Barkan thinks that, historically, resistance came in part from the daunting scope of injustices against blacks.

"The issue scared off even potential supporters," hesaid. "But there could be different forms than outright cash payments--subsidizing education, for example."

To critics, restitution smacks of punishing taxpayers for the sins of their grandfathers, or a culture fixed on litigation and identity politics. Even some families of riot victims voice doubts about direct payment, finding it either irrelevant or insulting.

"I'm not very sanguine about reparations," historian John Hope Franklin, whose father survived Tulsa's riot, told the Dallas Morning News. "The administration of justice in this country--the way in which the death penalty is rendered, something about the prison terms, the exploitation of the black community--that's what we need to [address]," added Franklin, who chaired the president's national race advisory board.

A Need for Historical Analysis

But whether they back restitution, activists say the damage from those days endures. Historical data is just one loss from those times, said Williams, the newspaper editor. There were the black business districts like Tulsa's, never fully rebuilt. There were towns like Sherman's, where black professionals virtually vanished.

Until Americans understand the extraordinary ferocity of ordinary people toward their neighbors, Williams said, it will be impossible to root out the ethnic hatred that defines most global conflicts.

"In almost every account I've read by black riot survivors, there are descriptions of pregnant women jumping up and down, egging the rioters on," Williams observed. "I think there should be a very real historical analysis of what elements caused those events--and whether those elements still exist."