In this June 2019 photo, men work near the monument in Helena, Arkansas, which will honor the victims of the Elaine Massacre. The Helena monument sits across from the Phillips County courthouse.

A new monument will honor the victims of a century-old racist massacre. Some say it's not where it should be

Updated 2:19 AM ET, Sat September 28, 2019

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(CNN)One hundred years ago, Kyle Miller's great uncles were shot and killed passing through Elaine, Arkansas, on their way home from a hunting trip.

They were among the hundreds of black people murdered in the first days of October 1919 by white mobs and government troops who poured into the small farming community on the Arkansas Delta after false rumors of an uprising by black sharecroppers.
This week, Miller and other members of the Elaine Massacre Memorial board will unveil a monument in Helena, Arkansas, to commemorate the killings.
It will be the first of its kind to honor the victims of the massacre and, its supporters hope, a first step toward acknowledging and healing from the tragedy.
"It was an ugly part of our history and it was something that most people didn't want to remember," Miller said. "I think everybody's realizing that there's more conversations that need to be had."
"This is our contribution to the story."
    But as Helena's board moves forward, their new memorial has opened old wounds in the nearby town of Elaine, where the epicenter of the massacre was and where residents -- after decades of watching their story go untold -- say they should dictate how it is now shared.
    "The people in Helena who are the cultural, the financial and the political descendants of the white power structure who orchestrated and lied about the massacre will now pretend to commemorate it," one critic of the memorial, Arkansas pastor and judge Wendell Griffen, said.

    The massacre

    The Elaine Massacre was one of the bloodiest episodes in a string of similar clashes in which white men targeted black communities across the country in 1919. The events became known as "Red Summer."
    The killings in the Arkansas town began after white law enforcement officers discovered a secret September 30 meeting held by black sharecroppers from Phillips County -- where both Helena and Elaine are located -- who planned to unionize.
    Federal troops escorting African Americans to the schoolhouse in Elaine; October 1919
    White men from surrounding communities descended on Elaine, "destroying homes and businesses and attacking anyone in their path," the Equal Justice Initiative says. They were joined by white troops returning from war, according to the Central Arkansas Library System.
    "They muster these men up and they send them as a force to crush the union," said Dr. Brian Mitchell, an assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
    Some of the white mobs came from Helena, Mitchell said.
    More than 200 black people were killed and another 200 jailed and tortured in the attacks, according to the Arkansas State Archives.
      No white men were arrested for the killings, the professor said.
      More than 120 black people were charged with crimes following the Elaine killings and 12 black men were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, the state's archives say. Those sentences were later reversed with the help of the NAACP.

      A town stuck in the past

      The Helena monument is a first step toward acknowledging that part of history, Miller said.
      "What's incredibly powerful is the fact that you have ... the descendants whose family members were victims and those whose family members potentially had involvement in the posse ... now joining together," he says. "That's the strongest statement you can make about unity and the progress we are making."
      But others are hesitant of such claims of progress.
      "Helena did nothing over the past 100 years to deal with the trauma of the people of Elaine whose relatives were massacred," pastor and judge Griffen said.
      The town of Elaine feels like "you have been put into a time warp," he said, with the racial divide still very much present today.
      "You've got the economic center of the community controlled by whites and the black people are very much in a servile worker situation," Griffen said. "Like segregation never ended."