Historic building preserved as the Elaine Museum and the Richard Wright Civil Rights Center

ELAINE — Prominently at the corner of Main Street and Quarles Road is what may be the oldest commercial building in this small farming town in southern Phillips County. And after years of sitting empty, it’s taking on new life as the Elaine Museum and Richard Wright Civil Rights Center.

“The museum is going to help this town a lot,” says James White, director of the Elaine Legacy Center, the nonprofit behind the museum. “We’re going to put the truth out there. These are things that need to be known, the truth about what really happened here.”

The museum, along with the Delta Heritage Cycle Path – which is just across Quarles Road – has the potential to bring new visitors to town, says the Reverend Mary Olson, spokesperson for the heritage centre.

“It’s so much more than a museum. It can be a hub for a whole new prosperity in Elaine built around heritage tourism and the bike path.”

The wedge-shaped building that will house the new Civil Rights Center and Museum was added to the National Register of Historic Places in February 2020.

Thought to have been built around 1915, the single-story structure, with its recessed corner entrance, may have been a pharmacy in the early part of the 20th century, according to the National Register nomination form. In the early 1950s, it became Lee Grocery Store when it was bought out by WJ Lee, a Chinese immigrant who worked as a hotel manager in San Francisco before moving to Arkansas to start a grocery store.

The store was passed on to Lee’s sons, Seat and Sam. The building was owned by the Lee family until they sold it in 2014, according to the nomination form.

In 2017, with money from an anonymous donor, the space was purchased by Waves of Prayer, the church associated with the heritage center. The deed has been transferred to the heritage center, according to Olson, who is also the church minister.

Elaine Legacy Center President William Quiney III (left to right), Vice President Lenora Marshall and director James White pose outside the former Lee’s Grocery in Elaine. The building, among the first commercial structures in the city, will be the new home of the Elaine Museum and the Richard Wright Civil Rights Center. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Sean Clancy)
On a cool, bright January morning, entrepreneur and Elaine native Mark Jackson shows us around the interior of the building, which is approximately 2,500 square feet. Part of the rear pine floor collapsed; some ceiling wainscoting boards are missing; there was water damage and the roof needs work, but it could be worse.

“As much as possible, the building will be preserved,” said Jackson, owner of Little Rock-based Central Arkansas Contracting. “This is a renovation/preservation project. We want to preserve those bricks and even the flooring. We want to leave pretty much everything as it was.”

He remembers coming to Lee Grocery when he was growing up.

“We often walked here after school.”

Funds for the restoration come from donations and grants from the National African American Reparations Commission and the NOW! Reparations Fund, Olson says.

The center hired Little Rock architect Ed Sergeant to come up with a renovation that retained the building’s historic elements while updating the space for visitors.

“I’m drawn to historic preservation as much as new work,” says Sergeant, who has served as a team member on construction projects at Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs and the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock. He has also served as project manager at Heifer International and the Central Arkansas Library System Arkansas Studies Institute, among others.

The museum, he adds, “is an adaptive reuse of a historic structure, which I love. It’s a wonderful place and it hasn’t been stripped of its historic elements. It’s all there.”

The sergeant says his goal is to make the space comfortable and welcoming to the public as they learn about the area’s history.

“The theme of the center will be to look at history, and all the better because they will have a magnificent historical structure that will help visitors reconnect with historical events.”

Photo Little Rock architect Ed Sergeant worked to create a design for the Elaine Museum and the Richard Wright Civil Rights Center that retains the building’s historic features while modernizing the space. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
The historical event most closely linked to this region is the massacre of Elaine.

Called “the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history and perhaps the bloodiest racial conflict in United States history” by the Arkansas Online Encyclopedia, it is estimated that Hundreds of black people were killed by a white mob in the days following a Sept. 30, 1919, shooting outside a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America.

The meeting, which took place at a church in Hoop Spur three miles north of Elaine, was one of many held over the past few months with the aim of helping black workers receive better payments for their jobs. harvests from the owners of white plantations.

Five whites were killed in the violence that lasted until the first days of October.

Over 500 American troops were sent to Elaine by Governor Charles Brough from Camp Pike in North Little Rock. A photo that accompanies the entry about the massacre on encyclopediaofarkansas.net shows a large crowd outside the building that will become the Elaine Museum, waiting for the soldiers to arrive.

The Elaine Legacy Center was formed approximately six years ago by descendants of massacre victims to “research, preserve, and share the oral history of Elaine” and as a “foundation to end the poverty of descendants of the massacre and others living on the killing fields of 1919,” according to its website.

The center and Waves of Prayer are based in the old Elaine Elementary School building at 313 College Ave. The center also operates a food pantry, holds classes, programs for seniors, and hosts performing arts and other special events here.

Gathered in what was once the school cafeteria are Heritage Center President William Quiney III, Vice President Lenora Marshall, Principal White, and Olson.

Marshall talks about the museum’s mission which, among other things, will be a repository of the region’s oral histories:

“When you think of loved ones who were brutally murdered, whose lives were taken unnecessarily and of descendants who lost the value system that was put in place, you want some kind of compensation or reward and see justice and publish the story, to let the children of today know what our ancestors went through.Let the real story be told.

“We want the truth out there,” White says. “They buried the truth. They buried our history. We dig it up and preserve it in our museum. There are people who have lived here all their lives. They were told, ‘Shut your mouth. Don’t talk about it”. .’ To this day, people are traumatized.”

Marshall recalls growing up and adults being “reluctant to tell you details about what happened. You might have heard a little something, and if you were standing next to a closed door, you you might hear a little more. They tried to save us by not giving out a lot of that information.”

She learned about the massacre in part from an aunt “who spoke freely”, she said.

Quiney says his wife’s grandfather spoke of being forced to dig up a mass given to bury the victims:

“Even today it bothers me a lot. I am still a part of it. My children knew it because it was shared with them. In prayer, their children will know it. If you don’t know the past, you are under reserve to repeat what happened. I want my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren and those born after my wife and I are gone to know the truth.

One of the consequences of events during and after 1919, according to members of the heritage center, was the illegal taking of black-owned land and businesses.

“There were black businesses here,” White says. “People owned land here. It might not have been a lot, but they owned it. This story doesn’t come out. The story was that they were just sharecroppers and everyone was poor and that black people had nothing, but that’s not true. My people had land. These people brought troops here and tore everything down, and people ran away and left everything.

Photo This was the view from the front door of the old Lee’s Grocery in Elaine in mid-January before renovations began about a week later. The building will become the new Elaine Museum and the Richard Wright Civil Rights Center. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Sean Clancy)
Much of the legacy center’s work has been to collect oral histories of the massacre and the area. They will be kept in the new museum.

“The museum will preserve these oral histories that were passed down by descendants who knew the truth,” Marshall said.

There will also be a space dedicated to Richard Wright, the civil rights center’s namesake and author whose works include the 1940 novel “Native Son” and the 1945 memoir “Black Boy.” Wright, who died on November 28, 1960 at the age of 52, spent part of his childhood in Helena and with his aunt Maggie and uncle Silas Hoskins in Elaine. Hoskins will also be remembered in the museum.

Hoskins owned a saloon and had been threatened by white people who coveted his business, Wright wrote in “Black Boy.” He left home one evening for work and never returned, allegedly shot by a white man. Hoskins’ wife was not allowed to view his body or claim his property.

From “Black Boy:”

“There was no funeral. There was no music. There was no time of mourning. There were no flowers. There was only silence, silent crying, whispering and fear.”

The works of the museum should last five to eight months. It will be dedicated on September 30, the 103rd anniversary of the start of the massacre. There will also be funeral rites for Hoskins and the 12th annual Earth Healing Ceremony, Olson said.

“I tell my kids all the time that one day I’ll be sleeping in clay and you have to learn everything you can,” Marshall says. “It’s good to know your story. That’s why we have descendant stories, so we can get the truth out.”

Photo A rendering shows the Elaine Museum and the Richard Wright Civil Rights Center by architect Ed Sergeant of Little Rock. Construction of the new space is expected to take five to eight months. (Special for the Democrat-Gazette/Sergeant Architecture PLLC)
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