Red Summer






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If we cannot bear to face our past, how can we bear to live in our future?
As I pen this commentary on the eve of the conference, I cannot help but reflect. In the past 80 years and even in the past year in Phillips County, Arkansas, much has remained the same. Who would have thought last year when this conference was being planned, that it would be held during a time when Phillips County would be in the midst of a more modern racial "war"? How many of those living in fear in 1919 would have believed that a County that had progressed so far in many ways could remain so stagnant in others? For, as the final page of the website is being set to paper, racial chaos and tension still reign in the place I called home for so many years.

The population of Phillips County is nearly the same as it was 80 years ago.
It is still predominately Black. Yet, some changes have occurred. The majority of the city council members, the Mayors of Helena, West Helena, and Lakeview are Black men. There are now Black lawyers, judges, doctors, politicians, professors and legislators in the county. Strong "invisible lines" and racial dissention remain. Sadly, many Phillips Countians still cannot look beyond race when placing blame for their troubles.

In a year or so, this website will have been forgotten and replaced, its usefulness ended. It will have met its objective. Hopefully too, some of the objectives of the conference will have been met. I cannot help but believe that 20-40, perhaps 100 years from now, people will look back upon this time and wonder what was happening in in Phillips County in February, 2000. They will wonder, much as we do now about The Elaine Race Riots of 1919. They will want to satisfy their curiosities. They will have records on which to rely and discover the past. I only hope and pray that they will be able to examine these tumultuous times from an historic viewpoint, and not be able to relate firsthand to the racial tensions that now exist. Therein lies one of the main reasons for this conference and for the study of history. Without a true history of ourselves, however painful, we are truly lost as a people and as a society.

There is nothing like discovering a new bit of information or history to keep me humble. I often try to fit myself into the shoes of the players of an era to try and imagine how I would have reacted in those times. It has been difficult for me to do so in this case because so little was actually recorded about the "Elaine Riots". Believe me, as I put together this website, I truly tried.

First, I brought up all the deprivations that I suffered or felt that I had suffered. Growing up Black and poor in rural southern Arkansas in the 1960s, I could well imagine a few things. I knew what it was like to live without indoor plumbing, to attend segregated schools, and to be treated differently because of the color of my skin. I knew about riding at the back of the bus and sitting in segregated waiting rooms. I recalled all the stories I could about the tragedies of the times. Still, I could not fathom what it was like in 1919.

Therefore, I went a little further. I reexamined the culture shock that I encountered when I moved to the Mississippi Delta in 1976. I recalled how offended I felt to read about the "coloreds" in the local paper, and to be taken to the back of the dentist's office by a Black cab driver as a matter of rote. I recalled the dismay and surprise I felt to go to ladies' room in a doctor's office that still showed the faded traces of the words "colored" on the door. (Yes! 1976!) Still, I could not imagine the horrors of 1919. The horrors were so great that even a near century later, the descendants of those involved in the riot are too fearful to speak about it.

Fear, Prejudice, and Ignorance can be strong gods.

I tried once more to step in their shoes. A few years ago, I took my teenaged sons shopping and saw unwarranted fear in the eyes of white ladies we didn't even know as they hurriedly locked their car doors, "just in case". My sons were neatly dressed and non-threatening. Their only thoughts were on how much of their Momma's money they could spend. When I querried them, they just shrugged their shoulders and said that it happened frequently. I gave up. If could not even imagine what it was to grow up as a Black male in the South, I certainly could not imagine walking in the shoes of those who suffered so greatly during The Red Summer.

No one who has ever lived in the Delta for any length of time can truthfully say that or she has not been treated, at some point, according to the color of their skin and nothing, nothing else. So, while we can all try to imagine the fears of 1919 from various points of view, we cannot imagine what it was like in 1919. Trying to piece together a vital part of one's heritage is not an uncommon occurrence. To let so much time elapse between the event and the true discovery of the facts is uncommon.

Where would we be today without knowing about the horrors of the Holocaust, or the tragedies in Bosnia or the Vietnam War or even the AIDS Epidemic in Africa? Have we not been enriched through the discovery of documents once believed to be lost, that are now recovered? Would we not cry "foul" if we were prevented from learning about these events, no matter how tragic? Would we not all say "we need to know", so that we could better understand ourselves and why we are the way we are? Again, there lies the purpose of examining history and the objectives of this conference. To know, to heal, to grow.

There will be those who will have their own objectives and agendas and will use this effort of discovery as a scapegoat to try to position and enrich themselves. There are those who are so wrapped up in their own petty worlds that they will never see much farther than their own driveways. They will never see that the world is growing smaller; the color of America is changing. They will never, ever see past the confines of their own self-imposed prisons.

I recently moved away from Arkansas. I am, and always will be, a Southerner, a product of Arkansas and of Phillips County. I can no more change that than I can change the size of my feet. Nor should I want to. But I can try to expand my focus beyond two-dimensional thinking. I can try to learn from my personal experiences and try not to repeat my errors. What we can do as a society is to try and face the past, understand it and its products, and let ourselves grow beyond it. While the majority of us may and should, regret what happened in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919, it cannot be denied. We cannot try to mask the past just because it was horrible. We must not put off this discovery of events one second longer.

If we cannot bear to face our past, how can we bear to live in our future?

Audrey Madyun, an Arkansas native, is the webmaster for this site. Your comments are welcomed. To send a comment, please visit our guest page or send her an email at the addresses found throughout this site.