US cities face past racial strife

Here amid wide cotton fields, many residents of this tiny Mississippi River town wish history would just go away. Others want it to come back - rehabilitated.

For the first time, both sides are confronting the emotional night of Sept. 30, 1919, when gunfire led to a riot in which posses of white men killed dozens - perhaps hundreds - of African-Americans.

Even today, the question of who started the shooting is widely disputed in this tiny town of warm handshakes and red-brick storefronts. Yet, in probing its past, Elaine is joining other US cities - from Tulsa, Okla., to Rosewood, Fla. - in an attempt to redress the racial injustices of nearly a century ago.

Some cities are talking about financially compensating victims of the race riots and their heirs. Others are just talking, reopening long-ignored issues. It's all a sign of how the South is changing. As blacks learn about their history - and gain a stronger political voice throughout rural parts of the region - many are now confronting the wrongs committed during the days of Jim Crow.

"Once the United States agreed to make reparations to the Japanese, people saw that as a precedent," says Harry Watson, director of the Center for Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "As people look at reparations, they begin to identify specific losses and people, which is the case with these race riots."

Race riots were not uncommon in the early 20th century: New York and New Orleans each had one in 1900, and Atlanta had its own in 1906. During six months of 1919, 25 Southern and Midwestern towns endured mass attacks on African-Americans. In northwest Arkansas, for example, black populations vanished completely - having fled or been murdered. Today, the black population there lags behind the rest of the state.

The reasons for repentance and reparations now are myriad, say scholars.

Elazar Barkan, a historian at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of an upcoming book on reparations, says the trend toward taking responsibility for domestic wrongs can be traced to the end of the cold war. In the past 10 years, says Mr. Barkan, the US has turned its attention inward after years of dealing with global crises.

Some scholars also point to a more basic need to purge the past and seek truth. Others add that many African-Americans who heard about such horrific acts as children now hold positions of power to confront the culprits.

In Tulsa, a commission worked for two years to answer questions about the violence that destroyed 35 blocks of Tulsa's black business district in 1921. The findings resulted in a report to the state legislature this year that gave reparations to riot survivors.

The Florida Legislature accepted responsibility in 1994 for failing to protect the victims of a mass murder that began New Year's Day 1923, when a white mob stormed the town of Rosewood, intent on avenging the rape of a white woman.

Here in Arkansas, many want to see similar action taken, and they hope that Elaine, a town of 920 people, captures the attention of the state's politicians.

But not everyone appreciates fresh questions about the racially motivated events 80 years ago. Elaine lies in the distressed Mississippi delta, where race relations remain strained even as more and more African-Americans are elected to local government.

"People over there don't want to think about it, and you see a lot of blacks who are still scared to talk," says Grif Stockley, a Little Rock, Ark., lawyer and novelist who is writing a book on the Elaine riots.

Robert Miller, a doctor who last year became the first black mayor of nearby Helena, Ark., echoes those words. He says his father often told him that the race riots were not a matter of discussion.

But that's not surprising. For years, most Arkansans did not even know the riots occurred. Though documentation is sketchy, the story of Elaine - named for Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" - reads like a tragic Arthurian legend.

When African-American sharecroppers met in the town church with a union organizer, white citizens were worried by their increasing clout. What happened next still generates crossed interpretations - whites say the African-Americans ambushed the white officers; African-Americans insist white officers provoked a gunfight.

Either way, whites formed posses of Arkansans, and even Mississippians who joined as the news filtered through the South. Conflicting reports exist about the death toll: one states that 20 African-Americans died; another says 869 were killed. Army troops in Little Rock were sent to restore order.

Talk now circulates about mass graves, and historians want a Tulsa-like riot commission formed to address concerns and maybe issue future reparations.

"We'd like to be able to get some money to perform an archaeological dig," says Mike Everette, an Arkansas state senator. "It's time for white Arkansas to face up to its terrible history, and blacks to stand up and ask why."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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