In September 1919, former slave and reverend Elias Camp Morris became a peacemaker.
The Elaine Massacre was raging just 20 miles south of Helena, turning the Delta cotton fields and woodlands of southern Phillips County into killing fields. And the town’s white society was growing fearful over rumors that “black insurrection” would soon spread to Helena.
By then, E.C. Morris was recognized as one of the state’s most distinguished black ministers. He had founded Arkansas Baptist College, and the Helena church he raised with his own hands just 14 years before — the Centennial Baptist Church — was a beacon in the civil rights movement. The church hosted such leaders as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard H. Boyd.
Morris was a trusted figure in the town’s black and white communities. He used that trust and credibility to calm the 1919 fears of insurrection, and Helena remained quiet.
Today, Morris’ 112-year-old Centennial Baptist Church is one of the nation’s 2,500 National Historic Landmarks, but it’s on the brink of collapse. Its smashed windows and windswept roof allow the Delta rains to rot its wooden floors and bow its arching trusses. Its derelict red-bricked exterior is ensnared in kudzu vines.
Any passer-by would scarcely notice its vague crumbling beauty, let alone its historical significance. Much like the Elaine Massacre of 1919, which local historians say killed upward of 200 people, mostly black, some white, nearly all forgotten, E.C. Morris barely registers in mainstream history.
But Phillips County civic leaders want to change that, they hope with assistance from the National Park Service.
TAKING THE LEAD
The sons of the late David Solomon — a prominent Jewish attorney and lifelong resident of Helena whose passing last spring was a cause for great mourning in the city — Rayman and David Solomon have begun dual efforts to save the Baptist church and erect a memorial to all those killed in the…