On Sept. 30, 1919, John Brown University – formerly called Southwestern Collegiate Institute – opened for its first day of classes. That same day, five hours away from campus, the deadliest race massacre in Arkansas history unfolded in Elaine, Arkansas.
As the institution continued to flourish in Siloam Springs, a town located on the other side of the state witnessed the slaughter of over 200 Black women, men and children. Even 101 years later, the remnants of this tragic event still haunt Elaine’s streets.
2019 was a year of jubilee for the JBU community, as the centennial celebration was the focal point. For the small community of Elaine in Phillips County, it was a grim reminder that one hundred years had passed since the bloodiest racial conflict in the history of the United States, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Marquita Smith, former coordinator of diversity relations and division chair for communication and fine arts at JBU, sparked the conversation about the Elaine massacre of 1919 after finding the connection this event holds with the institution. In Feb. 2020, Smith organized a trip to Elaine with several students to learn more and walk around the different historical sites.
“We got to go around the town and work closely with the Elaine Legacy Center, and it was really life-changing honestly,” said Johnathan Cleghorn, senior communication major, about his experience visiting Elaine. “It was crazy to see a town that looked war-torn. Everything was just destroyed and poverty-stricken.”
While in Elaine, Smith and the students saw the area where a memorial tree had been planted but was later vandalized and chopped down. The trip further motivated the group to memorialize this horrific event by planting a tree on the JBU campus – particularly because of the connections the institution holds with Elaine.
The process of planting the memorial tree, which was originally intended to be dedicated in the spring of 2020, was delayed until the fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, on Sept. 30, the group who had worked on the memorial organized a dedication ceremony for the tree that is now located across from Walker Student Center.
At the dedication service, the students who had worked on the memorial since February spoke and led a prayer of lament. Catherine Nolte, senior communication major, shared the importance of the memorial plaque, “We remember and deeply lament the deaths of these individuals and the racism and hatred that led to the massacre,” she said. “While we may not be directly culpable for this event, we are responsible to remember it and work toward racial reconciliation and justice as a part of our calling to follow Christ.”
The Elaine memorial was a combined effort from different groups and organizations on campus – from the Multicultural Organization of Students Active In Christ (MOSAIC), to history students, to the President’s Office, the Art Department, and the grounds crew who planted the tree.
“It was incredibly rewarding to work with a number of students, faculty, and staff both at JBU and outside JBU to make this happen,” said Trisha Posey, professor of history. “I was inspired by the tenacity and commitment of students like Catherine Nolte to carry this out. “
Shekinah Eury, junior psychology major and president of MOSAIC was asked to speak at the event. “While working on the speech, I really wanted it to be a call to action because there is a lot that’s happening in the world,” she said. “I wanted it to be as impactful as it could be.”
After Eury’s speech and a prayer of lament led by Kate Korasick, sophomore history major, President Chip Pollard closed the ceremony by praying over the memorial tree.
The ties JBU holds with the Elaine massacre of 1919 raises an important question: Where do we go from here? Committed to creating safe spaces to lament the injustices that have happened and continue to happen in the country, JBU encourages the community to continue to pray for God’s justice.
Photos: María Aguilar, The Threefold Advocate