Race Relations and TURNING POINT PARK
On October 1, 2016, the Lee Street Community Center opened TURNING POINT PARK on Main Street in Elaine. The Bridge Grant provided the biggest portion of funding for the park. (We continue to need and raise funds to keep the park open.)
The park honors Scipio Africanus Jones who was born a slave and became a lawyer who saved the lives of 12 African Americans who were sentenced to death after the massacre of 1919 in which over 200 African Americans were killed. He took a case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but did not get to argue the case there. He would have been the first black lawyer argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case resulted in a new interpretation of the 14th Amendment, giving all citizens, not just white, due process of the law.
Inside the park is the original interior door from a one-room school house built in the early 1900’s. A story written to go with it makes you stop to think of the many people who turned that door knob, most of them African American. The door is a historical treasure that could have easily disappeared with the unstable building.
Under the pavilion, there are nine musical instruments, with two more on the wish list.
Recently, the park included a lighted, nine-foot Christmas tree decorated with cotton and candy.
All the benches are moveable so that the park can be used for a variety of activities.
Our park does not tell the story of the 1919 riot. That story is introduced on the State Park Historical Board which is just across the railroad tracks from Turning Point Park. The park’s purpose is not to present the turmoil, but to recognize the progress made by Scipio Jones and the Supreme Court.
The park serves as a steppingstone into activities happening before October, 2019. There is nothing in the park that should stir up any anxiety in the town. However, it has happened, even though very few residents have come to see the park.
Here are some observations:
- There are only a very few residents who do not believe the history that has been discovered. Respectfully, they accept what has been passed down to them.
- Most residents don’t want it talked about because they don’t want their town known for that and the past is the past and it is better to leave it alone and move on.*
- There are residents who accept the history but have firm relationships with those who don’t want it talked about.
- Most of the guests for the grand opening were from out of town. Few white residents attended. Few black residents attended.
*Residents would learn that very little of the killing was done by Elaine residents or in Elaine itself. About 500 armed men came to the area and 500 more from Camp Pike. Even though some white landowners started the rumor, the extent of the killing was out of local control. Some white families protected black families.
- We respect those with differing thoughts and realize that if we didn’t research for ourselves, we would agree with what our grandparents taught.
- We understand that it is not a pleasant topic for the community, but we know it is going to become much more public in the next three years—even if we did nothing. We know of two or more documentaries being made and at least 30 – 40 people around the country who are studying this history. We have not initiated any of this.
- We respect long-term relationships. Sometimes it is better to not talk and wait for the right time. (You know that if you’ve had a spouse or a teenager.) Scipio Jones was very skilled at knowing when to save announcements and when to speak up. We are not trying to force people to talk, but to prepare them for the talk that will be happening about Elaine.
- We did have the Mayor of Elaine and some other white friends at the opening ceremony and understood why others did not attend. We had to think about why we didn’t have more African American residents. Some of the oldest black residents still find the topic too painful to discuss. Some may have not seen the mail or posters. Some did not want to appear to start “trouble.” Some didn’t understand what we were doing. Some didn’t find it important. And, some of the members of a group that sang left after the opening activity and didn’t stay for the history part of the ceremony.
The saddest thing we have heard is a rumor that the park is meant to stir up racial conflict. All we can do is pray and continue to be who we are.
We are concerned about how this history will be taught in this part of the state. The teacher can present it in a manner that encourages learning from the past and reconciliation or that builds up resentment and more racial conflict.
We feel some of this has an effect on our fundraising. We will continue to look for funds to open the park at set hours for residents and visitors. We will work with other nonprofits to plan city-wide activities. Most important is that we focus both downtown and at the community center on the children who need positive activities.
With a presence both downtown and in the black community, our goal is to bring hope, not discouragement, to Elaine.
Elementary Educator, Counselor & Author
Named a 2016 Arkansan of the Year by Arkansas Life magazine
Rolling Hills Baptist Church, Fayetteville
Resides in Fayetteville