At the time J. Chester Johnson was writing the Litany of Offense and Apology for the national Day of Repentance (October 4, 2008) when the Episcopal Church formally apologized for its role in transatlantic slavery and related evils, he came across a seventy-page document, The Arkansas Race Riot, that had been written by the African-American historian and anti-lynching advocate, Ida B. Wells. She described an event, which later would be known as the Elaine Race Massacre, a massacre of black sharecroppers and their family members that occurred in Phillips County, Arkansas along the Mississippi River Delta in early October, 1919 during the Red Summer, a name given by the black poet, James Weldon Johnson, to that summer soon after the close of World War I, when multiple racial conflicts broke out in various parts of the nation. Phillips County was located only one county removed from Johnson’s childhood home, but neither Johnson nor friends and classmates from his youth that he contacted had knowledge of the conflagration. Still, it may have been the most significant racial massacre in our country’s history. Moreover, the judicial case, Moore v. Dempsey, which evolved in the aftermath of the violence, was decided on behalf of certain of the black sharecroppers by the U. S. Supreme Court, with Oliver Wendell Holmes writing the majority opinion, and became a landmark precedent that put federal support, for the very first time, behind the 14th Amendment (equal protection under the law) to the U. S. Constitution.
Johnson was challenged to learn as much about the event as he could. Ironically, during the course of the research and based on recall of family stories, he discerned that his own beloved maternal grandfather, Lonnie Birch, who was Johnson’s principal caretaker during the early years of his life, had actually participated in the Elaine Race Massacre. Five years after he first read the document by Ida B. Wells, Johnson wrote a serialized, four-part article entitled “Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre” that was distributed by the well-respected literary journal, Green Mountains Review. As a result of the article, he and Sheila L. Walker, a descendant of an African-American family victimized during the Massacre, became acquainted and soon thereafter committed themselves to a journey of reconciliation, which blossomed into a close friendship in which both of their respective families were part.
In addition to the above commentary, Damaged Heritage tells how one man’s journey through a history, a region, and a family of virulent racism ends remarkably in racial reconciliation. The book also argues persuasively that white racism against African-Americans will not end in this country until whites acknowledge and repudiate both “damaged heritage” and filiopietism, the partner in the historical crime of black subjugation. While the book describes, by real life experiences and personal history, why the country still suffers from white racism against black Americans, it also answers the question: how does one grow up in a racist society and not be a racist?
At a time when the election of Donald J. Trump ripped open the wound of America’s racism against persons of color, this book gives the country a set of insights and approaches that can put us on a path of reconciliation and devotion to the genuinely human that are essential for a nation to be at peace with itself.
For a hundred years, there was no permanent memorial to the Elaine Race Massacre. J. Chester Johnson served as co-chair for the Elaine Massacre Memorial Foundation, and on September 29th, 2019, a Memorial, located directly in front of the Phillips County Courthouse and some three hundred yards from the Mississippi River, was dedicated and opened to the public. As part of the Memorial ceremony, Johnson read an original poem he composed for the dedication. Here is the final stanza of the poem:
“Of time and the river,
Beckoning no escape,
Leaves no choice:
So, we shall no longer wait
For more light that we may
Better see light, nor wait
For other dreams that we
May better inspire dreams.”
J. Chester Johnson
is a well-known poet, essayist, and translator, who grew up one county removed from the Elaine Race Massacre site in southeast Arkansas along the Mississippi River Delta. He has written extensively on race and civil rights, composing the Litany for the national Day of Repentance (October 4, 2008) when the Episcopal Church formally apologized for its role in transatlantic slavery and related evils. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement and following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, Johnson returned to the town of his youth to teach in the all African-American public school before integration of the local education system. Several of his writings are part of the J. Chester Johnson Collection in the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College, the alma mater for Andrew Goodman, one of three martyrs murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. His three most recent books are St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems (2010), Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems (2017), and Auden, the Psalms, and Me (2017), the story of the retranslation of the psalms in the Book of Common Prayer for which W. H. Auden (1968-1971) and Johnson (1971-1979) were the poets on the drafting committee; published in 1979, this version of the psalms became a standard. The manuscript, Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and A Story of Reconciliation, will be published on May 5, 2020 by Pegasus Books. Johnson, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U. S. Treasury Department, owned and ran, for several decades, an independent financial consulting firm that advised states, large public authorities, and non-profit organizations on capital financing and debt management. His poem about the iconic St. Paul’s Chapel, relief center for the recovery workers at Ground Zero, has been the Chapel’s memento card since soon after the 9/11 terrorists’ attacks (1.5 million cards distributed); American Book Review recently said of the poem: “Johnson’s ‘St. Paul’s Chapel’ is one of the most widely distributed, lauded, and translated poems of the current century”. One of fifteen writers selected to be showcased in October, 2019 for the first Harvard Alumni Authors’ Book Fair, he was educated at Harvard College and the University of Arkansas (Distinguished Alumnus Award, 2010).
Copyright © 2019 by J. Chester Johnson