LOWER MANHATTAN — Descendants on both sides of one of the country’s deadliest racial conflicts, a massacre that took place nearly a century ago in a little Arkansas town along the Mississippi River, will gather in Lower Manhattan this weekend to discuss the riot and its tangled legacy.
The Elaine Race Massacre, which involved days of murderous riots in September 1919 — and left hundreds of African Americans dead — stirred advocates to fight all the way to the Supreme Court, where they ultimately helped lay the legal groundwork for the civil rights movement.
On Saturday, a descendant of the one of the riot’s victims, as well as relative of the one of the massacre’s perpetrators, will gather for a panel talk at St. Paul’s Chapel on Fulton Street and Broadway to discuss the mob violence and its implications in the continued fight for racial justice.
The free talk, at 2 p.m., will feature historians and authors, including New York City poet J. Chester Johnson, who’s written about grappling with his own grandfather’s involvement in the Arkansas Ku Klux Klan and his likely role in the killing spree that overtook the town for two days.
"Working through what my grandfather had done was particularly grueling," said Johnson, an Arkansas native who began to research the massacre several years ago, unaware of his grandfather's involvement, or the scope of the riots.
"I adored him, and there was no way, ultimately, to reconcile what he had done with the man I knew — they were just two different Lonnies [Johnson's grandfather's name]."
The panel will also feature Sheila Walker, whose ancestor, Albert Giles, was one of the 12 African American sharecroppers who were convicted of murder immediately following the massacre. Giles was ultimately cleared of all charges during a legal battle that stretched all the way to the Supreme Court. The case also, ultimately, set the legal underpinnings for the 14th Amendment, which guarantees all Americans equal protection under the law.
The violence in Elaine, Arkansas, erupted on Sept. 30, 1919, after African American sharecroppers gathered at a church to discuss their unfair wages and potential involvement in a union to protect their earnings.
Suspicious white residents came to spy — or shut down — the evening event, which was guarded by several armed attendees, according to historical accounts. Soon, shots began to ring out, and one white man was killed.
In retaliation, and in fear that the black residents might start a riot, an angry white mob began killing black people in the days that followed, according to the historical record.
Hundreds of African Americans were murdered over the next couple of days, and though only about five white people were killed, dozens of blacks were jailed for the riot, with several sentenced to death.
Johnson said the symposium is particularly important now, especially in light of recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri, over the controversial police shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown.
"Most people would like to forget this massacre, but it's incumbent on us to tell this history," said Johnson, who was active in the civil rights movement. "We haven't gotten it right yet, some of same problems of racism at play in 1919 are still with us today — it becomes important for us to see that in the context of history."
The Symposium on the Elaine Massacre will be held at St. Paul’s Chapel, part of Trinity Church, at 209 Broadway on Sept. 20, at 2 p.m. The free discussion is slated to last two hours. More information is available on Trinity’s website.