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ChatChat - Claudia Cragg


Jul 30, 2020

@claudiacragg speaks here with J Chester Johnson about a side of his grandfather, Lonnie Burch, that he never knew and only discovered late in his own life. His new book is Damaged Heritage and is he says a 'story of reconciliation'.

The 1919 Elaine Race Massacre, arguably the worst in US history (see more details below), has been widely unknown for the better part of a century, thanks to the whitewashing of history. In 2008, Johnson was asked to write the Litany of Offense and Apology for a National Day of Repentance, where the Episcopal Church formally apologized for its role in transatlantic slavery and related evils. In his research, Johnson happened upon a treatise by historian and anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells on the Elaine Massacre, where more than a hundred and possibly hundreds of African-American men, women, and children perished at the hands of white posses, vigilantes, and federal troops in rural Phillips County, Arkansas. Johnson would discover that his beloved grandfather had been a member of the KKK and participated in the massacre. The discovery shook him to his core. Thereafter, he met Sheila L. Walker, a descendant of African-American victims of the massacre, and she and Johnson committed themselves to reconciliation. Damaged Heritage brings to light a deliberately erased chapter in American history, and offers a blueprint for how our pluralistic society can at last acknowledge—and repudiate—our collective damaged heritage and begin a path towards true healing.

The Elaine Massacre occurred on September 30–October 1, 1919, at Hoop Spur in the vicinity of Elaine in rural Phillips County, Arkansas. Some records of the time state that eleven black men and five white men were killed.[4] Estimates of deaths made in the immediate aftermath of the Elaine Massacre by eyewitnesses range from 50 to "more than a hundred".[5] Walter White, an NAACP attorney who visited Elaine, AR shortly after the incident stated "... twenty-five Negroes killed, although some place the Negro fatalities as high as one hundred"[6]. More recent estimates of the number of black people killed during this violence are higher than estimates provided by the eyewitnesses, recently ranging into the hundreds.[2][1] The white mobs were aided by federal troops (requested by Arkansas governor Charles Brough) and vigilante militias like the Ku Klux Klan.[7] According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, "the Elaine Massacre was by far the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history and possibly the bloodiest racial conflict in the history of the United States".[8][9]

After the massacre, state officials concocted an elaborate cover-up, falsely claiming that blacks were planning an insurrection.[7] The cover-up was successful, as national newspapers repeated the falsehood that blacks in Arkansas were staging an insurrection.[7] A New York Times headline read, "Planned Massacre of Whites Today," and the Arkansas Gazette (the leading newspaper in Arkansas) wrote that Elaine was "a zone of negro insurrection."[7] Subsequent to this reporting, more than 100 African-Americans were indicted, with 12 being sentenced to death by electrocution.[7] After a years-long legal battle by the NAACP, the 12 men were acquitted.[7]

Because of the widespread attacks which white mobs committed against blacks during this period of racial terrorism against black citizens, the Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Alabama classified the black deaths as lynchings in its 2015 report on the lynching of African Americans in the South.[10]