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.
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