Some see future in civil-rights past of aging towns

Civil-rights battlegrounds in Southern states have become tourist attractions

By Brandon Mulder
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

ELAINE, Ark. (AP) - The small town of Elaine sits deep in the heart of the Arkansas Delta, surrounded by cotton fields, 30 miles north of the confluence of the White and Mississippi rivers.

Like the handful of other towns isolated between the rivers and miles from main highways, its only landmark is a rusted water tower that announces "ELAINE" in fading green paint.

The years of economic decline in the Phillips County town of 600 people would be apparent to any visitor: Main Street is lined with hollow, long-neglected storefronts, restaurants and grocery stores, and public schools have crumbled since they shuttered in 2006.

What would not be apparent is that Elaine and Phillips County were the sites of what historians have called one of the deadliest racial confrontations in U.S. history: The Elaine Race Riot of 1919.

That confrontation left hundreds of blacks and a handful of whites dead. It occurred four years before a U.S. Supreme Court decision that was pivotal in protecting the rights of blacks in the criminal justice system.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that it's a conflict that has been of little note in mainstream history books, although academics and historians have studied it for years. And, there's no marker or memorial in Elaine to point it out.

But some people are hoping to change that, and they foresee the change as paving the way for an economic and educational resurgence in the area.

Over the past decade, interest in the civil-rights movement, its history and its battlegrounds has surged.

Some of the numerous civil-rights battlegrounds in Southern states have become tourist attractions, "making the Civil Rights movement an object of the Southern economy," wrote Droit Wagner in the American Studies Journal in 2012.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, established in 1992, has seen a 13 percent increase in annual visitors since 2010, according to the institute's figures. And since the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Visitor Center was established in 2001 by the National Park Service, annual visits there have increased by nearly 600 percent, according to its figures.

Both cities, as well as locations in four other states, are pushing to add their sites to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's World Heritage List. They expect that designation to attract even more visitors.

Tourism has become an increasingly important sector of Arkansas' economy. Last year, tourism contributed more than half-a-billion dollars in state and local taxes, making tourism one the fastest-growing industries in the state.

However, of the state's 40 attractions listed by the state tourism board, only five are in the Delta and those five collect 10 percent of tourists' dollars in the state, according to a 2015 report released by the state board.

Agriculture is the backbone of the Delta's economy. Over the years, the number of farming jobs has dwindled because of mechanization, and when the jobs went so did the region's population and much of its prosperity. Between 1970 and 2013, Phillips County's population fell by 50 percent to about 20,000, according to U.S. Census data. In 2014, 43 percent of Elaine's population was estimated as living below the poverty line.

Several towns in the Delta have hitched their tourism-dollars wagon to their blues-music heritage.

In Clarksdale, Mississippi, for example, heritage markers along the Mississippi Blues Trail have fed tourism and the resulting money for repaving of roads, installation of stop lights and the birth of new businesses, according the Coahoma County Tourism Office.

And just a bit northward, the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess, which opened to visitors in 2014, is expected to become a lucrative economic anchor in the Arkansas' upper Delta. One study projects that the site will generate $10 million a year for the northeast Arkansas economy, said Ruth Hawkins, executive director of the Arkansas Delta Byways tourism association.

"When you're talking about tourism in the Delta, it's extremely significant because a lot of these small rural communities lack the infrastructure to attract traditional businesses," Hawkins said. "The more things that can be created for people to do, the better chance we have of keeping them in our region for more days, which translates into more lodging and more restaurants and so forth."

But memorial sites, markers and commemorations of civil-rights events do more for a community than attract tourism. Communities willing to confront and embrace their racially biased pasts can move beyond them - a vital step in economic development, experts say. Poor race relations or blatant bias are clear deterrents to outside businesses.

As an example, John Kirk, director of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Institute on Race and Ethnicity, pointed to states that have enacted laws that pertain to lesbian, gay, biracial and transgender people and the resulting backlash from some companies.

Last March, Paypal halted an expansion of its operations center in Charlotte, North Carolina, after Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law curbing LGBT protections. And in Mississippi, business leaders urged Gov. Phil Bryant to repeal similar laws last month.

"Prejudice and discrimination are bad for business. It's the same for African-Americans and segregation in the '50s as it is for discrimination against gay people now," Kirk said.

"After World War II, Little Rock businessmen tried to lure industries here," Kirk said, but the 1957 opposition to Central High's desegregation made headlines everywhere and dampened prospects for economic development. "The furor becomes a symbol of racial hatred, and businesses just say they don't want a part of that. They don't want to be there when there's negative publicity and upheaval."

It wasn't until the 1990s that Little Rock openly embraced that past. Already people were traveling from all over to visit the school that had become so iconic in American civil-rights history.

Little Rock native and downtown real estate developer Rett Tucker gathered a group of stakeholders motivated to open the Central High Museum in the old Mobile gas station across the street from Central High School. He began fundraising in several sectors of the community and received a $200,000 grant from the city.

"So many people wanted to sweep it under the carpet, keep it in the closet and not bring it up," Tucker said of the integration crisis. "But at the same time, we were hearing from the Convention and Visitors Bureau that man, many visitors to Little Rock wanted to see it. But there wasn't a pamphlet, there wasn't a visitor's center - there was no educational experience."

The Central High museum was opened by 1997, the 40th anniversary of the school's integration. Shortly after, operations were handed over to the National Park Service after then-U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers sponsored legislation to designate the school as a National Historic Site.

And while there was some resistance, Tucker said - in the form of anonymous hate mail and "people maybe a generation older than me saying 'why do you want to do this?'" - most people in Little Rock supported the idea.

Hawkins with the Arkansas Delta Byways said that "for heritage tourism to happen, the people in the community have to all embrace it and be supportive of that happening." She said, "I know there are a lot of wounds in Elaine that are still raw. It's difficult when you're developing a site that deals with difficult heritage. It's difficult to do that authentically and objectively."

Fayetteville native Pat Kienzle has taken on the challenge for Elaine. Her interest in the town began in 1998 when she was awarded a McAuliffe Fellowship grant to help create educational programs in Arkansas' underperforming school districts. One of those districts was Elaine. The schools there closed eight years later. Nonetheless, her biweekly trips to the town continued.

She founded the Lee Street Community Center, and through it hopes to develop a garden in memory of the 1919 massacre. She hopes to have it completed before the massacre's 2019 centennial.

"We are trying to get the community to accept it as part of their past," Kienzle said. But she's proceeding with care. "What I don't want to see happen with this is that we somehow end up making tensions worse."

It wasn't until Kienzle began raising awareness about the massacre that some Elaine residents first learned about it, a few said. Then in 2014, the state erected a panel mentioning the conflict along the state's Delta Heritage Trail State Park. Kienzle described that as an "icebreaker."

The exact numbers of those killed in the 1919 riots is in dispute, though Kirk and other sources estimate it at upward of 200.

Former Elaine resident, 86-year-old Poindexter Fiser, who was the town's mayor between 1985 and 2007, believes those estimates have been exaggerated by outsiders trying "to make it look like a big deal." He estimates the deaths at between 20 and 25.

The conflict was never anything that the town talked about, he said, and he feels the attention it's getting now is undue. "It's just trying to stir up trouble - just cause a lot of problems."

With the community not completely behind Kienzle and with a significant portion of the population near the poverty level, grass-roots fundraising to commemorate the riots is difficult.

Similar efforts in other Delta communities working to promote black history reference points are also hampered by lack of money.

For years, Fayth Washington has been trying to tell the story of Arkansas' first integrated kindergarten-12th-grade school in Hoxie in Lawrence County, and to that end, she co-founded the Hoxie Hill Foundation with her late-mother in 2003.

The foundation began fundraising for a memorial for the families who integrated the small town's school. Between bake sales, fish fry events, and ads sold in anniversary books, the foundation raised $5,000 - only a dent in their $100,000 goal. And financial support from outside the town has been hard to get, she said.

Tourism dollars are certainly a motivator for commemorating these various civil-rights sites, but Washington, Kienzle and Hawkins also aim to document for future generations how the civil-rights battle was fought over time, from place to place. Without preservationists, that history could be lost forever.

"That's the issue I'm concerned about, and it's why I've worked so hard in the Delta region to make sure our history is not forgotten," Hawkins said. "Because without any tangible evidence for people to see and be aware of, you don't know if these would get lost."

Published: Mon, May 16, 2016