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New memorial to honor 1919 Arkansas massacre victims

ELAINE, Ark. (AP) — A new memorial has been erected to honor the victims of the 1919 Elaine massacre in eastern Arkansas, one of the largest racial mass killings in U.S history.

Monday marks 100 years since poor black sharecroppers in Elaine who dared to join a union were attacked, and at least 200 black men, women and children were subsequently killed. The massacre occurred during the summer of 1919 when hundreds of African Americans across the country were slain at the hands of white mob violence during the "Red Summer." It was branded "Red Summer" because of the bloodshed and amounted to some of the nation's worst white-on-black violence.

Civic leaders and community members gathered Sunday to unveil the Elaine Massacre Memorial in Helena-West Helena. The centerpiece of the memorial is a 14,000-pound (6,350-kilogram), 3-feet (0.91-meters), 6-inch-tall (152-millimeter) altar-like cenotaph.

The memorial, designed and constructed by Amoz Eckerson of Helena-West Helena, is privately funded and will also be maintained with money paid by the Elaine Massacre Memorial Committee.

"The design is kind of a modern interpretation of a church, specifically the chancel of a church where the altar is," Eckerson said earlier this month while at the memorial site. "The cenotaph is the focus of the whole thing. It is the monument."

Critics of the memorial took issue with it not being placed in Elaine, a declining farming community about 25 miles (40 miles) south of Helena-West Helena. Opponents have contended the money used to erect the Helena-West Helena memorial could have been used for something else in one of the state's most destitute counties, adding that it will just stir up unpleasant memories in an area historically separated along racial lines.

"The memorial doesn't alleviate the terrible poverty, we acknowledge that," said David Solomon, a Helena-West Helena native who spearheaded the committee to build the memorial. "There's nothing we can do about those problems, but we can do something about memorializing this terrible event. It seems like the honest, decent thing to do."

The Elaine Legacy Center, which opposed it, instead opted to host a separate commemorative event at the same time.

Rev. Mary Olson, president of the legacy center who lives in Helena-West Helena, said that she believes the memorial should be in Elaine, where the people died.

Last month, a willow tree planted there in April to honor victims of the Elaine massacre was chopped down to its base in what Olson calls a hate crime.

But a new tree will be planted, she noted.