RETURNING TO ELAINE
As I have read the other stories in this series, I feel reluctant to even write an article. I cannot begin to give the type of personal experiences that others have expressed. Other than working with a few black children as a school counselor, I simply don’t have these experiences in my earlier years. Yes, I have learned much from reading and conferences. Even though I have been going to Elaine for over 18 years and knew of the racial division, I am still learning in bits and pieces, especially after the opening of the Civil Rights Park.
Before getting to my story of working in Elaine, I want to note the injustice of leaving that area of Phillips County without a school, without educators in the community, without after-school and weekend activities. The children who are affected the most are the black children. People who make these decisions should ride a bus with the students in the morning and return home to the opportunities offered these students. The Lee Street Community Center has lots of plans, but not enough to make up for a school.
Here I am returning to my elementary school background. This is a lesson I used with third grade students that was helpful to the only black child in one of my classes. My friend and co-worker in Elaine, Ora Scaife, and I have talked about this visual aid. It concerns the description “black” and “white.” Ora is nowhere near “black” and I am nowhere near “white.” My students liked ice cream! “Chocolate” and “vanilla” are certainly closer than “black” and “white.” Maybe we need a field trip to the ice cream store to match our skin colors. (Most children in Elaine have never seen an ice cream store.)
As a counselor, I was also a parent educator. Here is recommended reading on teaching young children about race relations: Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (Chapter 3, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” and eye-opening information on other topics as well.)
Being in Elaine has given me amazing opportunities. I have no doubt that God had Brother Andrew Gibson and I in His plan book for a mission after the school closed. At our first contact when Ben Newell (founder along with Leonora, his wife, of Together for Hope Arkansas in 2002) introduced us, we were both enthusiastic about working together. I had acquaintances in town, but never a close friend in Elaine to work with. Then I met Pastor Andrew’s mother, who still lives on the last street on the north side of town, and his wife, Catherine Gibson, and the other members of Divine Deliverance Church. And then, our churches became friends. Divine Deliverance has come to Fayetteville several times and groups from Rolling Hills Baptist Church go to Elaine. We even have a place to stay, in case any of you want to join us.
Ora is the person I work with the most, but it isn’t just work that we share. We are a sort of mother-daughter team. We realized that to do our work, we simply had to put things in terms of “black” and “white.” For example, white children will not come to the community center in the black side of town. With no stores open, black children seldom come downtown (one of the reasons the Civil Rights Park is on Main Street.)
Brother Andrew had a portable school building donated for the Community Center. After much fund-raising, it was moved to Lee Street which is in the poorest section of town. Students watch for a car to park out front. They come even if we haven’t announced an activity. They are eager for something to do. Our mission is to provide positive activities while showing God’s love. And, the added blessing is that the children see black and white adults laughing and working together!
In a recent CBF magazine, there was an article about “no helicopter missions.” We appreciate groups that accomplish a specific purpose and move on, but mostly we need people who want to return and return again to build relationships with these children. It is individual relationships that build better race relations, not some program written on paper. Do you realize some of these children may not have an on-going relation with any “vanilla” person other than those at the Lee Street Community Center? We are looking for a churches and individuals, black and white, who live closer to Elaine to provide more opportunities for these students.
In closing, here is a story about the value of returning to Elaine. About 10 years ago, we had collected schools supplies, but no one else could go to Elaine. I pulled in the parking lot of the low-income apartments. The children came running. We had lessons on the curb, and I gave out supplies. The children knew me from school, because there was no community center. I didn’t know until later that I should have been surprised the children joined me. I learned parents call their children inside when a white person arrives, but I was a white person the parents trusted. It’s only a small detail in race relations, a detail that made a difference in that situation.
Elementary Educator, Counselor & Author
Named a 2016 Arkansan of the Year by Arkansas Life magazine
Rolling Hills Baptist Church, Fayetteville
Resides in Fayetteville