Out the E
I was told that during the basketball games at Elaine High School (closed in 2005) it was common for the home team to be down in the first half and then come back in the second to win the game. High school students started using the phrase "Elaine Taking Over" to describe the victory. Today, the phrase "Elaine Taking Over", the acronym "ETO" and the uppercase "E" hand sign is used by everyone from senior citizens to young children as a symbol of pride. 2020
The hanging tree in Elaine has been up as long as anyone can remember. You cannot enter and exit the town without seeing it. 2020
The cemetery in Elaine is within the community. I was told that they’ve always buried their loved ones close-by. 2022
There are people in this town who do not want to talk about it, rightfully so. And there are people in this town who have to talk about it. Yet, there are also people in this town who believe the massacre was/is fake news. The racial divide is as strong as ever in Elaine, creating a culture of silence and negligence in a community of about 500 people that has yet to truly heal.
My first visit to Elaine in 2020 was a lonely one until the basketball court appeared. Kids of all ages shoot hoops and ride four-wheelers through loose gravel. It really is the only place in the town where they can be themselves freely. Elaine does not have enough resources for its residents and since the town’s school district closed in 2005, sustaining a place for black children was never a priority for the city council. When I started this long-term project, children in Elaine had been attending school in a town about an hour away twice a week due to COVID-19. A majority of the children had never heard of the tragedy that occurred there. Not only was this astonishing but it also made me realize the lack of education and history these kids are forced to deal with. They did not, at the time, understand the levels of inequity in their lives such as why their mayor was never elected or why the memorial resides in Helena, the county seat, and not Elaine.
Following the Civil War, the need for cheap labor grew in Phillips County while formerly enslaved people became tenant farmers in an egregious system commonly called sharecropping. In 1919, when cotton prices had reached an unprecedented rate, black sharecroppers began to organize in an effort to receive a fair payment instead of continuing to stay trapped in a relentless vortex of credit and debt. Today, black adults in Elaine are still living within the same endless cycle. Having a taxable job forces you to lose government assistance -- and government assistance prevents you from getting above the poverty line. The population in Elaine has steadily declined over the past thirty years but when the Elaine Public School District closed in 2005, a majority of the working professionals and many residents overall left and never came back. The only employment opportunities in Elaine are a few local businesses and working on soybean farms, and the farming jobs tend to be offered exclusively to white people. To make money or discover opportunities you have to leave.
I was slowly allowed into this community by photographing with the children and bringing back prints to give to people. While I am working with film, my digital camera gets passed around and the children make their own images. At first I was cautious but trust was built over time and I was able to leave the town and have them continue shooting. Throughout the past two summers, with the help of Dr. Mary Olson and James White, I was fortunate to be able to host a photography camp with a select group of children at The Elaine Legacy Center, the former elementary school. I borrowed monographs from a public library to introduce them to other black photographers such as Roy DeCarava and LaToya Ruby Frazier. The kids were also able to set up their own spaces to photograph with strobe lighting, edit their images, and make prints. Giving these kids the tools and agency to represent themselves can hopefully empower them and possibly enhance how Elaine exists to them.
In a time when more and more Americans are grappling with this country’s history of extracting wealth and resources from black communities, this work is necessary to place attention on a town and community that has long been forgotten. I want the black community of Elaine to be able to see themselves and for outsiders, like myself, to know that throughout the countless attempts at shutting them out, they are here and will continue to be here. By building a social practice that relies on collaboration and building trust, my work aims to reflect the intimacy and issues of a community that never left.
Trent Bozeman is a photographer based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, focusing on the erasure of Black legacies in the American South. He received his bachelors degree in journalism from DePaul University and is currently an MFA graduate student at the University of Arkansas. He is interested in how black history is reshaped, documented, and preserved. His current photographic work is based in the Arkansas Delta in the small town of Elaine, Arkansas. His past ongoing work explores Gullah sea islands communities, specifically Wadmalaw Island, where his family is from, and the memories that continue to prolong their cultural significance.