No publicity could be found for the groundbreaking of the Elaine memorial, but rumors had circulated for months as to when this date would be. Would Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson be there? Would the Solomon family speak at the event? Would anyone address that this memorial was being placed not in Elaine but in Helena, particularly in a downtown known for its monuments to confederate soldiers?
We arrived late in the night and headed straight to the empty square of downtown Helena. A simple, wooden signpost covered in a blue tarp had been placed in front of some fresh earth and a newly poured foundation for the future monument. Our director of photography, Mark Thiedeman, captured both the visual of the memorial’s surroundings and the audio of the electric buzz of street lights. Jordan Hickey, a journalist who was accompanying us, stood back with me so that our elongated shadows did not drape over the shot. This was a quiet space that would be filled with the mutlivalent voices of tomorrow’s event—a space where the librarians would discuss walking during their lunch break, where employees in the courthouse told us it was mandatory that they come, where a silenced town would create the backdrop for the event’s speeches.
Since the groundbreaking was believed to have been rescheduled multiple times, we woke early in case anyone attempted to change the time. We walked around a very uneventful square until noon at which time an eclectic audience grew around the wooden signpost. One gentlemen was in a Panama hat with a full suit, bow tie, and a little color of something on his lapel—an attire that looked like a Southern caricature next to the plain, black suits and casual clothes around him. A younger man with a camera came up to us and began questioning who we were and explaining how he was friends with the person making the memorial and was filming today for him. Rayman Solomon – who had been interviewed in the fall of 2017for the documentary – approached the memorial with others, and the crowd began to quietly congregate around the front of the signpost.
One of the speakers laughed while stating that they hadn’t thought this all out very well. It took everyone a minute to realize the context of that statement: There was little to no space for everyone to stand since the signpost was placed so close to the sidewalk and road. Nevertheless, the group formed a semi-circle around the speakers, none of which were a part of the Solomon family who stood to the side.
The overarching theme of the event was the graciousness of the Solomons for their donations for and work on this memorial. As the praise was laden on the family of the hour, people from Elaine stood along the sidewalk some yards away. They were holding hands and staring forward. During a moment of silence at the event, Mark captured the two separate groups each in their own kind of stoicism—the monument’s onlookers in prayer as the people of Elaine stood resolved in their silent protest. A speaker would criticize those who separated themselves from this community, those who didn’t want this monument to be erected, those who were talking to the newspapers. (Earlier that morning, an Arkansas Times article gave the opinion of those against this monument.)
After the event ended, the group from Elaine held hands and sang hymns as the crowd dispersed. New faces had joined the group that were not there during my last visits. The issue of the monument not having a quorum court came up during our filming just as Rayman Solomon walked by. He stopped mid-step and listened to our interview. Some stated that not following the quorum court process made the monument illegal. Others brought up the lack of concern for the rules in Phillips County, giving the example of a certain high-powered person in the community landing a helicopter illegally in the center of the square. We listened to multiple cases of the abuse of power in the area from the time of the Elaine massacre to present day. Each story shared the same thread of disenfranchisement from the closure of schools to unfair home loan practices to brutal violence.
As we drove through Elaine for a few last shots of the town, it was difficult to consider how the multitude of problems could ever be wrenched up from this land. Further, was Elaine not a microcosm of the Delta itself, the rural South, America as a whole? One could only hope that an exposure of these once-hidden wrongdoings could be of some service or, at the least, solace.
On our final day of shooting, we drove throughout Phillips county to shoot the ports on the Mississippi river, signs of the larger farming corporations, and roads south of Elaine. We also got drone footage of The Mound as well as the site of the massacre (as described by Ida B. Wells in her writings on Elaine).
The afternoon ended on a poetic note as we interviewed James White at his newly opened store on Main St. James discussed what he hopes to accomplish here and how he can best serve his community. We purchased some of his large pepper plants and thanked him for his help throughout the week. The cash register clacked and rang, concluding what would be our last footage of Elaine this trip.
The location where the Elaine massacre occurred has no signposts. The church where the black sharecroppers had met that night is no longer there. This Space would have disappeared from memory if not for the narratives that have marked its significance. Another pre-dawn morning began with the crew driving westward between Helena and Elaine to film where the massacre had taken place.
Afterwards, we headed back to Helena. There, we went to speak to some of the banks and corporations in order to ask about the government subsidies that they had received which have had little to no impact on the lower class workers of Phillips County. While downtown, we took footage of the many Confederate monuments scattered throughout the area—one which had been erected as recent as 2013.
Towards the end of the evening, half of the crew went to film the tens of thousands of birds that had now made their way to Elaine proper. During sunset, the birds swarmed the water tower, diner, and church surrounding Main St. The other half of the crew went to knock on the door of David Griffin who is the largest landowner in Phillips County. Although residing in Nashville, this mansion was formerly used while in the area. However, the crew found it to be a sprawling but seemingly-abandoned estate—cobwebbed, ill-kempt and riddled with feces.
We began before dawn driving northwest of Elaine to film the thousands of migrating birds that flock to the delta each year. The decision was not purely aesthetic; many landowners are paid large amounts of money to flood their fields in order to attract these birds. Mary Olson, director of the Elaine Legacy Center, remarked that the geese are a lucrative presence in the area for hunting. Further, other areas, even as far away as Mississippi, have attempted to lure the birds by flooding land.
In the afternoon, we were joined by James White, a local business owner who also works at the Elaine Community Center. Mr. White rode along with the crew to discuss the properties south of Elaine where some of the most affluent residents of the delta live. Despite the overall poverty of the county, many of the larger corporations that profit off the land have received tens of millions of dollars each in subsidies. Tomorrow will focus on questioning prominent figures in Phillips county about these subsidies, focusing on the lack of infrastructure and social mobility for the citizens in the community who are not receiving the multimillion dollar subsidies allotted to their corporate neighbors.
Returning to Elaine this winter led us back to what has come to be known as The Mound—a raised burial ground that is situated in the middle of a cotton field. Roy Clark, a nearby landowner of Native American and African American descent, discussed the town’s belief that this is a gravesite for the Native Americans who walked the Trail of Tears. However, the chunks of intricately cut tombstones found atop this area tell another narrative. Others believe that the Native American theory is a ruse to hide one of many mass graves for those massacred nearly a hundred years ago.
Mr. Clark took us to his home where he explained the near impossibility of growing produce due to the industrial pesticides that corporations spray on the surrounding farms. Any attempted crops, such as the kale that he had once been growing on his land, are very often poisoned and killed by the crop dusters that fly overhead. This is to say nothing of the effects that these sprays could have on the townspeople. The lack of recognition for the working class extended beyond the private sector. At the time, many in the community had been without water for over two weeks. Mr. Clark related this to the overall failures of the local government to adequately care for its citizens.
The night ended with our crew reflecting on the beginning of our second trip to Elaine and the multiple, interwoven narratives revealed to us: the past and present atrocities of racism, the horrors of businesses capitalizing on those atrocities, and the townspeople who have been resilient against such racial and capitalist oppression throughout Elaine’s history.