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The Elaine Massacre: 100 Years Later

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I have not yet covered the Elaine Massacre in the This Day in Labor History series, but it’s on the list. It’s 100th anniversary was yesterday. 1919 was an atrocious year in American history, one marked by massive racial violence, lynchings of both people of color coming off of trains from World War I in their Army uniforms and unionists standing up for the rights of working people. It was the year of the Red Scare and of the rise of J. Edgar Hoover as a force in American history. It was the year that the U.S. decided to go all-in on isolationism and reject the League of Nations. It was a no-good, awful year and I’m surprised this hasn’t gotten more attention.

But the Elaine Massacre might be the single worst event in that year of distinguished awfulness. And the descendants are demanding reparations for it.

ON THE NIGHT OF SEPTEMBER 30, 1919, 200 men, women, and children gathered in a small wooden church in Hoop Spur, an area just outside the town of Elaine. The clandestine meeting was one of the early gatherings of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union, whose leaders had been recruiting black sharecroppers across the county for the past several months.

Arkansas enjoyed soaring postwar cotton prices that made the rich soils of the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta a wellspring of profit. But black sharecroppers never shared in the fruits of this bounty. Their efforts to collect equitable payment from white landowners were met with threats of violence. In the hopes of strengthening their economic standing, the sharecroppers found inspiration in Northern black newspaper editorials that urged labor strikes and organizing. Black soldiers returning from World War I added to this volatile mix after they found that their military service hadn’t softened bigoted hearts. But newly emboldened by their wartime experiences and training, the sharecroppers of Phillips County sought to unionize.

Annie Giles was just a teenager when she and her family joined the other sharecroppers in the Hoop Spur church that September night. By 8 p.m. the house was packed. Acutely aware of the trouble that would erupt if the white landowners discovered their organizing efforts, union leaders stationed armed guards outside to keep watch.

The facts surrounding the massacre and its immediate aftermath have been documented in two books: Grif Stockley’s Blood in Their Eyes, published in 2001, and Robert Whitaker’s 2009 treatment, On the Laps of Gods. While local activists dispute some pieces of evidence presented in the two accounts today, it’s generally accepted by historians that black informants revealed the sharecroppers’ organizing plans to the landowners.

After the dust settled the next morning, one of the white men who had approached the church that night, a Missouri Pacific Railroad security officer, was reported dead. A deputy was injured. Calls came in to authorities in Helena, the Phillips County seat, where Frank Kitchens, the county sheriff and a prosperous landowner, said that the sharecropper union ambushed the men while they changed a flat tire. Declaring that a black insurrection was under way, Kitchens summoned local whites, handed out 20-gauge Winchester shotguns, and dispatched this mob 20 miles south to Elaine. These men, many of them World War I veterans, were primed to turn their weapons on the black men who had also fought for the United States.

The massacre began in earnest the next day, October 1. The white mob from Helena marched through the sharecroppers’ cabins killing people indiscriminately. Some fought back, killing or injuring some of the white men. As the mob grew in size, attracting whites from across eastern Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, the killings became a “free-for-all,” Mitchell said. News of the massacre reached Arkansas Governor Charles Brough, who quickly wired War Secretary Newton Baker to dispatch 500 federal troops stationed in Little Rock to help suppress the “black insurrection.”

By the next day, many more people had been killed. Among them was 25-year-old World War I veteran Leroy Johnston, who had returned home to recover from the wounds he received defending France from the German invasion. Leroy was living and working with his two brothers, one a prosperous dentist in Helena, the other an auto mechanic, when their fourth brother returned from Oklahoma, where he worked as a physician. According to African American journalist Ida B. Wells, who came to Elaine to document the killings, the four brothers were returning from a hunting trip on October 2 when they heard about the massacre. They boarded a train bound for Helena. But before the train left, they were discovered by some members of the mob, handcuffed, and put in a car. As the car pulled away, the mob riddled the vehicle with bullets, killing all four brothers and the white driver.

The bodies of the four brothers were left on the roadside for days, where they lay “in the hot sun just as if they had been so many dead dogs,” Wells wrote in a pamphlet she published in 1920. Historians estimate that between 100 and 300 African Americans and five whites died. Hundreds of African Americans were arrested. The 12 black men who faced the death penalty ultimately won back their lives in the 1923 landmark Supreme Court case Moore v. Dempsey. In a 6-to-2 ruling, the justices found that the actions of the white mobs had violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

An October 3 New York Times story on the Elaine Race Massacre carried the headline “Trouble Traced to Socialist Agitators.” The Arkansas Gazette placed blame squarely on the sharecroppers in a report that declared, “Negroes Plan to Kill All Whites.” Newspapers across the country blamed the violence on the black sharecroppers and communist agitators for the next several months. White men had successfully distorted the event, transforming the episode from an abominable massacre to a “black insurrection,” the sum of all white fears.

The massacre was just one of many flashpoints of racial violence that gripped the nation during one of the darkest periods in American history, the Red Summer of 1919. Race massacres occurred in more than 30 cities between May and October of that year, beginning in Charleston, South Carolina, and continuing for the next six months in smaller Southern towns and larger Northern cities alike. Until the night of September 30, the bloodiest of these clashes had taken place in Washington, D.C.—when whites began randomly beating black pedestrians after a black man was accused of raping a white woman. In Chicago, rioting broke out after a black man was stoned to death for swimming on the white side of a Lake Michigan beach.

This is precisely the type of horrible action in our history in which whites should pay for. Elaine is poor. The African-American population there is even poorer. People’s ancestors survived terrible things (or didn’t) with massive PTSD and fear that was passed down through the generations. What are we going to do about that?

At a time when progressive Democrats have thrust the issue of reparations for slavery into the 2020 primary race, the Elaine Legacy Center group claims that reparations should include the atrocities that came after the Civil War. They believe that the rampant poverty that now defines Phillips County—the 15th-poorest county in the country—can be traced back, in part, to the massacre. “There’s a lot of blame and resentment that many of the residents still have toward what they saw as an active assault on their community,” Mitchell said. “They feel as if they’re owed something. Their ancestors were killed.”

They believe that the land farmed by large agricultural corporations throughout Phillips County would belong to black residents if it weren’t for the brazen land theft that followed the massacre. However, historians like Mitchell have yet to discover any census or land records that substantiate their claims. Without finding deeds or property tax records that show black land ownership, allegations of land theft remain unsubstantiated. “We know an atrocity took place, [but] we need more proof to make demands,” Mitchell says. These views have created tensions between the academics and civil rights activists. While academics adhere strictly to what historic records can prove, the activists argue that the oral histories are the primary gateways to understanding the history. The lack of land records, they say, does not disprove their land theft claims.

Many Arkansans, both white and black, feel proper remembrance and commemoration can heal the deep-seated wounds. Others, mostly poor blacks living in the area, feel true justice cannot be served without reparations—a kind of economic atonement. Yet Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, the great-grandnephew of the four Johnston brothers who were gunned down in the massacre, wonders how such a plan could play out. “Who do you receive reparations from? The state of Arkansas? Who do you go to? The U.S. government? And then do you pay guys like me? Although I lost four great-uncles down there, I’m a federal judge and my father was a doctor, my grandfather was a doctor. Do you give me money?” he says.

Although debates over reparations have consumed African American history scholars for decades, the idea has gained new momentum in recent years. In April, Georgetown University students took a nonbinding vote to raise tuition to create a reparations fund for descendants of the school’s 1838 sale of 272 slaves to Deep South plantations. And in June, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing on H.R. 40, which calls for a commission to study reparations for the “perpetration of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity on African slaves and their descendants.”

Something like reparations are really hard to figure out. The documentation for claims about the black past often doesn’t even exist anymore, as in Elaine. How is it implemented? Who pays? And what about all the white liberals who claim to care about racism until being asked to do the first thing about it, a highlight of too many LGM comment threads about schools, never mind politically conservative whites? There aren’t easy answers. But reparations is the place that our national conversation needs to be because it is only when whites will go beyond meaningless words and engage in actual soul-searching and action that we will even take the first step toward a successful fight against racism in this awful, awful country we call home.

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