Elaine, Arkansas Massacre of 1919


We have written previously on the blog about Harrison, Arkansas, a little town that earned the name of the ‘Most racist town in America’. Harrison saw a lot of horrific white-on-black violence during race riots in 1905 and 1910, and the legacy of those years continues to this day.

While researching further into the history of race relations in the surrounding areas, I came across accounts of a brutal massacre in another part of Arkansas – Elaine, a rural town in Phillips county on the Eastern border of the state.

Phillips county was an agrarian community that in the years before the American civil war had relied on enslaved labour to run it’s cotton plantations. After the abolition of slavery in 1865 black labour was still being utilised in the form of tenant farming or sharecropping.

With freed slaves unable to purchase or own land, sharecropping involved families renting plots of farmland from a landowner in exchange for an agreed-on portion of their crops each harvest time. However, many white landowners exploited the power imbalance created by this system.

Cotton prices were plunging, and many black workers ended up producing a crop which was unable to bring in the expected market value. The workers had ‘purchased’ seed, tools, food and housing from the landowner throughout the year. Debts would accrue over time, and across the South many former slaves were forced to sign sharecropping agreements which were exploitive and impossible to meet. Payment was often months late, inaccurate, and poorly recorded.

Large numbers of whites felt threatened by the abolition of slavery – by the sudden legal freedom granted to black men and women (although they were far from truly free), by the loss of their unpaid labour, and by the fear that perhaps black communties could start to own land and to existence free from white rule and direction.

In order to counter these fears and to keep former slaves “in their place”, Jim Crow laws, voting restrictions, and laws were put into practice across the South. Black individuals were excluded from shaping laws or reforms, segregated in society, and cornered into impossible and unfair working conditions.

And then in 1914 the First World War broke out in Europe. The United States officially entered the conflict in 1917.

Many black men were eager to join the conflict and fight – some hoping that the patriotic duty performed would result in a recognition of themselves and their families as true and full American citizens. It has been documented that 700,000 African Americans registered for military service. Naturally, black men were not allowed to join the Marines and were generally kept in menial positions in the army, often suffering discrimination and racism even whilst fighting for the country they called home.

After the war, as black men began to return to their homes and families, racial tensions were growing. Men who had fought, suffered, and lost comrades to preserve the freedom of both America and Europe expected to be treated as true citizens, indeed, as human beings.

White society grew more fearful, more grasping of their accustomed position of power and authority.

In Elaine, black sharecroppers grew more determined to negotiate fairer working conditions, and began to organise a farmers union. Their meetings were regularly spied upon and disrupted by whites, who viewed the meetings as suspicious.

On September 30th of 1919, 100 black farmers were meeting to discuss membership in the ‘Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America” at a church in Hoop Spur, just outside Elaine. Union advocates had provided armed guards, and some of the farmers may have been armed also. Two white men (one of whom is recorded in some accounts as a local deputy, and in some as a railroad agent), arrived, presumably in an attempt to disrupt proceedings.

No one knows who fired first, but shots were exchanged with the guards, and the deputy was killed. One white death was the lit match dropped into the gasoline of years of building tensions, hatred, fear, and anger.

A posse was formed by the local sheriff to capture suspects in the killing, with wildfire rumours spreading that this was the start of a planned insurrection of blacks against whites.

Hundreds of white men (estimates suggest there were anywhere from 500-1000) not only from Phillips county but from the surrounding areas, poured into the area and began attacking black residents on sight. Mobs formed and rampaged through the county, with the violence escalating to such a level that Governor Charles Hillman Brough requested federal troops to step in, with 600 being sent.

They found the county in chaos, and stepped in to disarm both sides. 285 black residents were arrested and placed in stockades until they could be vouched for by their employers. Reports surfaced later of both posse members and soldiers slaughtering unarmed and defenceless black men, women, and children.

White women and children were sent out of the county to nearby Helena. The killing of any blacks who did not obey orders to disarm was authorised. It is said that the troops, assisted by local vigilantes, then went on a rampage, hunting and killing black men, women, and children. There are reports of homes being burned with families inside, of torture, and of wholesale slaughter.

The most quoted figure states that 237 black residents were killed. Original reports show the black death toll as extremely low (one stating that just eleven black men had died), but more recent research has suggested there may have been as many as 800 deaths.This would constitute the worst single white-on-black massacre in US history. Five whites died during the fighting.

The aftermath of the massacre paints another frightening picture of the state of race relations in America during the early 1900’s, as state officials created an effective cover-up. Local and national news sources proclaimed that the blacks had been meeting to plan to kill whites en masse.

A headline in the Arkansas Gazette dated October 3rd reads “Negroes Plan to Kill All Whites” and continues “Blacks had armed themselves and planned to kill every white person in sight when plot was exposed”.

As a result of the reframing of the massacre, over 122 black men and women were prosecuted on a range of charges. 73 were charged with murder.

Twelve of the men were sentenced to death by electric chair for the murder of the deputy at the church, and of two other white men who it was later reported were killed in white crossfire.

The verdict had been reached by white juries (remember, blacks had been prevented from voting or serving on juries), in courtrooms guarded by armed white men, with some of the white audiences inside the courtrooms also carrying firearms. Many of the defendants later stated they had been tortured to elicit ‘testimony’.

In a twist of irony, the conviction of those twelve men had been glorified in the Arkansas Gazette as a “Triumph of the rule of law”…because it was so remarkable that they had not been lynched. The juries had taken less than ten minutes to pronounce each man guilty.

The account of the legal battle to acquit those convicted is a story in itself, with their release only being effected, after enormous effort by the NAACP, in 1925. These men are known to history as the ‘Elaine Twelve’. No whites were ever prosecuted for the hundreds of black deaths.

The story of the Elaine massacre is little known. Residents of the area are often unaware of the tragedy. Some residents say there are mounds of earth in the area that have changed in size over the years, and there are speculations that these could be mass graves for those killed in the attacks.

We may never truly know the full story, or even how many black men, women, and children died. Accounts were deliberately suppressed, and records vary in detail.

Today, a memorial stands opposite the courthouse where the Elaine Twelve were tried. Yet some people, including a former mayor, still claim the massacre never occurred – or that only a few were killed.

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