Oct. 11th, 2013

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Earlier this week, I went to Phillips County, Arkansas in search of two cemeteries.

That search turned out to be for three cemeteries. I located two of them, and got into one.

But I couldn't have done any of that if not for the help of some very kind people along the way.
I started in West Helena, at the funeral home that handled the burials of three members of the William and Emma McCarroll family - William, Emma, and son-in-law, Josh Martin, Sr., husband of their daughter Mary McCarroll.

I thought I was looking for two cemeteries. I had already spoken by telephone with a very helpful man who remembered the cemeteries on the death certificates - Howe Plantation and Zion Traveler, both in Phillips County.

When I got to Jackson and Highley Funeral Home, however, I found that the funeral home records said Emma McCarroll was buried at Zion Hill Cemetery, also in Phillips County.

The man at the funeral home told me that Howe Plantation was at Wabash, where the granary is now. He said Zion Traveler was at Mellwood behind a church of the same name. That made sense, as Josh Martin, Sr.'s death certificate said he lived at Wabash, and Emma and William McCarroll's certificates said they lived at Mellwood.

So I thanked him for his time, and set out from West Helena to Wabash.
I found the granary with no problem. There were a gazillion pickup trucks parked around it, and not a living soul in sight.

There was also no sign of a cemetery. Since it was getting close to lunch time, I decided to head on down Highway 44 to Elaine, where there is always fried chicken and fish at Robert's One Stop.
Around here, we call southeast Arkansas lowlands the delta. The mighty Mississippi River alternately meanders and roars along the eastern border of Arkansas. You have to cross the Mississippi River to enter our neighboring state of Mississippi.

The farm land is rich and fertile - a planter's dream. A white planter's dream, that is. For black Arkansans in Phillps and surrounding counties, working the land started out as slavery.

Then came sharecropping, which was just slavery by any other name. Whether a sharecropper paid cash rent on the front end, or crop rent after the harvest, he was still just scraping by. The guy who was making the big bucks was still the white plantation owner.

By the mid 1930s in the southern United States, sharecropping had largely been replaced by tenant farming. And although tenant farming was anticipated to enable tenant farmers to earn a decent living, you can't tell that in the Arkansas delta. (Sharecropping was still the predominant way of farming for black Arkansas farmers until the early 1950s. Arkansas has always been reluctant to give up its institutions.)

Tenant farming is still alive and well in Arkansas, but large corporations leasing land have contractual protections and insurance against crop loss not affordable by most individual tenant farmers. In the Arkansas delta, individual tenant farmers still pay crop rent, - 25% to 50% of the value of the harvest to the landowner.
It was a meeting of black sharecroppers from Elaine on 30 Sep 1919 that precipitated what has been called the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history. (Source: The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture)

The sharecroppers were attending a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union in a church about three miles from Elaine. They wanted better payment for their cotton from the white plantation owners who dominated the area.

The sharecroppers had posted armed guards outside the church to prevent their meeting from being disrupted and to try to keep the white plantation owners from gathering intelligence.

There is bitter disagreement about who fired first, but two white men - one of whom was a deputy sheriff for Phillips County - died. By the following morning, lynch mobs of anywhere from 500 to 1,000 white people from Phillips and surrounding counties, as well as across the river in Mississippi, converged on Elaine. Hundreds of Elaine's black citizens were slaughtered. The Governor sent 500 battle ready troops from Camp Pike to help quell what was being called an "insurrection" of black residents.

The 1919 massacre nearly devastated Elaine. In 1920, the town population was 377. In 1970 - the period of time my friend lived in and remembers Elaine - the population had swelled to 1,210.

The last forty years have not been kind to Elaine. In 2010, the population was 636. There is ample visual evidence of its decline.

 photo ElaineAR9Oct2013.jpg
Photo taken from Highway 44, looking toward Main Street, 9 Oct 2013

A very sweet woman at Robert's One Stop waited on me at lunch time. I went to the back of the line to wait for her, and asked her about the location of the cemeteries. She said she didn't know, but if anyone did, it would be the mayor. She sent me around to the only bank in Elaine to talk to the mayor, who works there.

As a general rule, Southerners of any color are polite and hospitable. That's why it took me aback that of all the people I'd spoken to and asked directions from so far that day, the white mayor of Elaine never came out from behind her teller cage to talk to me. (She, one other teller and I were the only people in the bank.) Some of the African Americans were curious as to why a white woman was looking for obscure black cemeteries - That's a black cemetery, you know? - but they were all very cordial and welcoming.

She didn't know where the cemeteries were. She did, however, know the real "go-to" woman in Elaine.

Mrs. Viola Watson.

From the time I knocked on Mrs. Watson's front door, until I left a couple of hours later, I had a delightful time.

She knew exactly where the cemetery at Howe Plantation was. (Apparently, once I got to the granary, I zigged where I should have zagged.)

She also knew exactly how to get to Zion Hill Cemetery (she has a cousin buried there), and asked me doubtfully, Honey, are you down here by yourself? What are you driving? (She was right about that. There's not a road down in there, but there are two ruts. I've told Curtis that he is going to come with me with one of his four wheelers, because I am going to find that cemetery. I also told him we should call on Mrs. Viola Watson while we are there. She knew his parents.)

She wasn't sure exactly where Zion Traveler Cemetery was, except it was at Mellwood, behind a church of the same name. She told me if I stopped at the store at Mellwood, anyone in there should be able to tell me exactly how to get there.

I left Mrs. Watson's house and made my aborted attempt to find Zion Hill Cemetery. Then I cruised on down Highway 44 to Mellwood.

I had a sinking feeling as I went into the store and saw the two white women behind the counter. They were friendly enough, but they sent me back up the highway toward, but not into, Elaine with very specific directions about how to get to Zion Traveler Cemetery. (Okay, now two black folks, each of whom are older than both of you combined, have told me unequivocally that this place is at Mellwood. Um hmmm...)

I found the cemetery. It was St. Peter Cemetery. The elderly man clearing brush gave me a brief history of the church and cemetery. The church had been torn down before it fell down.

I took photos of every gravestone I could see. Everyone deserves to be remembered.

He also said Zion Traveler Cemetery was at Mellwood. Behind a church of the same name.
I was running out of daylight, and had no four wheeler with me. So I headed back to Wabash to find the cemetery on Howe Plantation, because I really wanted to find that one.

This time, I was determined to find someone to ask. I parked in front of what looked to be a caretaker's house, but the only one who answered my knock at the door was a dog with a low throaty growl. I skeedaddled back to the car.

Drove around the granary for a couple of minutes, marveling that no one had come round to ask me what the hell I was doing.

Then I saw him. A man putting gasoline in a four wheeler. (No, I did not heist his four wheeler.)

Maybe I walked up to trotted toward him just a tad too fast. Or maybe it was my joyous, Yay! A real live human being!

In any event, he took a step back as he said, "Okay...yeah..."

I told him what I was looking for. Not unkindly, he asked me the same thing I had heard for most of the day. That's a black cemetery, you know?

We stood shoulder to shoulder as he pointed down a road that bisects the granary to a little white dot in the distance. The sharecroppers' church. Behind it was the cemetery. He said his parents were buried there. He also said there were many more unmarked graves than graves with stones, because the people around there were so poor.

He told me the cemetery was part of what is known by the local residents as Howe Plantation. The plantation was owned by Jimmy Howe. I asked him how many acres. He told me to turn around in a circle, and look as far as my eyes could see.

When I got home, I did some research on Jimmy Howe, son of Otis Wilson Howe and Harriet Virginia May, and grandson of Wilson Herrick Howe.

African American sharecroppers in and around Wabash worked the plantation fields until the early 1950s. Due to poverty of sharecoppers, many were buried (as well as their family members) in a field behind the sharecoppers' church.

I thanked him, and set off down County Road 433, where the pavement soon gives way to gravel. I stopped at the church first.

 photo church.jpg

As you walk across the cemetery, it is fairly easy to see the evidence of unmarked graves, some of which have holes from shifting soil and disintegration of wooden coffins.

 photo IMAG0375.jpg

 photo wideangle2.jpg

Crops encroach to the very edges of some graves.

 photo wideangle.jpg

Someone must have loved her very much, as they made a homemade stone for her grave. I think her name was Mariah Washburn, but I can't make out any dates that may have been on the stone.

 photo MariahWashburn.jpg

I created Howe Plantation Cemetery on Find a Grave.

I didn't find a stone for Josh Martin, Sr. I wasn't expecting to, but was strangely disappointed anyway.

You can leave a virtual token for Curtis' great grandfather on his Find a Grave memorial.

Everyone deserves to be remembered.


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Dee Burris Blakley

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