UA Little Rock class creates digital archive of long-lost Phillips County death certificates

Members of Dr. Brian Mitchell’s class include: Back row (L to R): Ellis E. Thompson; Domorion Williams; Grant Burress; Kevin Hill; Benny Mutoni; and Nicholson Weaver. Front Row: John Anderson; Dr. Brian Mitchell; Corrie Green; and Tarrie Boggs.

A history class at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has created a new digital index of Phillips County death certificates from 1917 to 1922. 

Dr. Brian Mitchell’s American Urban History Class created the index during the fall 2017 semester and donated the archive to the Arkansas History Commission so it can be made available for public use.

“This project is an important addition to the commission’s collections as it is currently the sole record of African American deaths in the county for that time period,” Mitchell said. “The index would be helpful for future research on public health issues in the region, identifying many of the Elaine Massacre’s victims, and of vital importance to African-American genealogy in the state.”

Mitchell went on to note that “students don’t always understand the importance of history as an academic pursuit or understand what public historians do, but classes like this allow them to see how history is useful for the general public.”

The class has already received a thank-you email from one amateur genealogist who used the archive to track down the never-before-found death certificate of her great-grandfather. He died in Phillips County in 1918 from an “epidemic.”

Students who participated in the class include John Anderson, Tarrie Boggs, Grant Burress, Mark Ford, Laura Fuentes, Corrie Green, Kevin Hill, Benny Mutoni, Ellis Thompson, Christian Weaver, Nicholson Weaver, and Domorion Williams.

The death certificate of Leroy Johnston, who was one of the four Johnston brothers killed during the Elaine Massacre. Leroy had recently returned from fighting in World War I, where he served as part of the 369th Infantry more popularly known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

Mitchell’s current research involves creating a digital archive of records related to the 1919 Elaine Massacre. Through his research, he discovered that long-lost death records for Phillips County residents were kept at the Keeshan-Lambert Funeral Home.

“The death certificates had been missing from the historic record for a long time,” Mitchell said. “The reason for their absence was the policy in the county at that time was for the coroner to take possession of their own records when they retired. When the coroner retired, the family kept them. Fortunately for the people of Arkansas, the family owned a pretty notable funeral home. Instead of the death certificates being disposed of, they remained in the records of this funeral home. The family donated the records to the Arkansas History Commission.”

Since the county’s main newspaper in Helena, The Helena World, did not print many obituaries for African Americans at the time, these records may likely be the only record of death certificates for African Americans in the county during that time period.

Mitchell is also hoping the archive will help identify members of the Elaine Massacre that occurred in the first week of October in 1919 in Elaine, Arkansas. Historians have been unable to discover how many people died during the Elaine Massacre. Estimates run from 17 to nearly 800.

The death certificate of Calvin Miller, a possible victim of the Elaine Massacre, states that he died on Oct. 4, 1919, due to a hemorrhage.
The death certificate of Calvin Miller, who Mitchell believes is a previously unidentified victim of the Elaine Massacre, states that Miller died on Oct. 4, 1919, due to a hemorrhage.

“Despite being considered one of the largest race riots in American history, there has never a single identified grave for a black massacre victim.” Dr. Mitchell is hoping that the recovered “death certificates will assist in the identification and the locating of victims’ graves.”

“I was fascinated by the fact that you can have that many people missing or disputed and have no records of who died. It’s one of these mysteries that you want to keep pursuing. It’s important to the families of these individuals that there is some accounting of their death. I’ve met a few family members of the individuals who went to prison. For many of those families, they think it is important that some commemoration of all these people be put into place.”

The records themselves make it difficult to identify possibly victims of the Elaine Massacre, since many do not list a cause of death or burial site and could have been issued months after the actual death occurred.

“The hypothesis we have come to is that many of these death certificates were made up when family members showed up to look for their dead loved one,” Mitchell said. “Many people don’t show up until the following year (1920), and these death certificates tell very little about how their loved ones died or how their bodies were disposed of.”

The Phillips County death records span from 1917 to the early 1950s. Mitchell has plans for future classes to continue archiving the records and making them available for public use.

In the upper right photo, members of Dr. Brian Mitchell’s class include: Back row (L to R): Ellis E. Thompson; Domorion Williams; Grant Burress; Kevin Hill; Benny Mutoni; and Nicholson Weaver. Front Row: John Anderson; Dr. Brian Mitchell; Corrie Green; and Tarrie Boggs.

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