Inaugural Phillips County Festival Focuses on Creating Unity

The virtual event includes a town hall for the descendants of the Elaine Massacre.

Elaine Massacre defendants and their counsel Scipio Jones
Elaine Massacre defendants Ed Hicks, Frank Hicks, Frank Moore, J. C. Knox, Ed Coleman, and Paul Hall. Scipio A. Jones, the group’s counsel, stands to the left. Photo courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System.

In the spring of 2021, State Senator Joyce Elliott sponsored a bill to create the Unify Arkansas Commission and establish an official observance of the National Day of Racial Healing. SB 674 did not make it out of committee, which prompted Lisa Hicks-Gilbert to create the inaugural Elaine Unity Fest The virtual festival includes a series of events Sept. 30 to Oct. 3.

“We don’t need permission or we don’t need a bill to tell us that we need to have unity, not just in Phillips County, but in the state of Arkansas,” Hicks-Gilbert says. “So what better place to have a unity fest in the state of Arkansas than where the worst tragedy of the state happened.”

The Elaine Massacre was the deadliest racial confrontation in the state’s history and possibly the bloodiest racial conflict in the history of the country, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. A shooting incident on Sept. 30, 1919 escalated into mob violence and it’s estimated hundreds of African Americans were killed by whites, although the exact number is unknown.

Hicks-Gilbert is the founder and managing director of the Descendants of the Elaine Massacre of 1919, a group that amplifies the voices of descendants and supports the economic empowerment efforts of Elaine and the surrounding communities. She is a descendant of Ed and Frank Hicks, and first learned of her family’s connection to the massacre from her grandmother, who was not comfortable speaking about the incident.

Her grandmother would share pieces of the story and Hicks-Gilbert collected what information she could over time. Per her grandmother’s request, Hicks-Gilbert waited until she died in December 2019 to start speaking out and officially formed the group in March 2020. 

The Elaine Unity Fest will begin Sept. 30 with a conversation with Charlotte Hill O’Neal, co-founder of the United African Alliance Community Center in Tanzania and great-niece of Robert L. Hill. He helped organize the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America in 1918 and fled Arkansas during the Elaine Massacre.

A virtual town hall is also scheduled for Thursday evening. The event is needed because there are a lot of things where the community is feeling left out, Hicks-Gilbert says. She anticipates questions about why the Elaine Massacre memorial was placed in Helena and why the community was not included in conversations about how reparations given to the Elaine Legacy Center are used. 

Hicks-Gilbert also expects participants to ask about city government and she hopes to discuss ways people can address some of the issues in the community by speaking at city council meetings, helping host events for young people and volunteering.

“They’re going to come with problems or issues or concerns, and I’m going to spend some time making sure that they understand that we know their problems, what am I personally going to do to help fix them,” Hicks-Gilbert said. 

The Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement will host a restorative justice symposium Friday and author Janis Kearney will host two writing workshops Saturday, one for adults and one for children. Kearney is president and founder of the Celebrate! Maya Project, which promotes the life and legacy of Maya Angelou through public forums, writing and creative arts competitions. The festival winds down Sunday with a call for churches to remember the victims of the Elaine Massacre during their services.

The massacre prevented generational wealth and because of that generational poverty has been rampant for more than a century, Hicks-Gilbert says. Approximately 16,500 people live in Phillips County and more than 62 percent of the population is African American, according to the United States Census Bureau. An estimated one in three people live below the poverty line in Phillips County and improving the state of the community cannot be done alone, Hicks-Gilbert says.

“I hope that the citizens and the descendants in particular understand what [our ancestors] were fighting for,” she says. “They were fighting for better for their community, for themselves, for their family and for us, for their descendants, and that we need to get back to that. We need to step it up and get back to that.”

The inaugural Elaine Unity Fest is Sept. 30 to Oct. 3. Details about the free, virtual event are available on the Descendants of the Elaine Massacre of 1919’s Facebook page

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.