Home / General / This Day in Labor History: September 30, 1919

This Day in Labor History: September 30, 1919

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On September 30, 1919, a shootout occurred between armed guards protecting a union meeting of sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas and whites seeking to intimidate them. The next day, the governor ordered the military to crack down. One of the worst massacres in American history, and yet sadly little known, it represented the peak of white violence to ensure Black labor remain subordinate in the bloody years after World War I.

Sharecropping was established in the late 1860s and 1870s as a sort of compromise between white landowners who wanted to replicate the system of slavery as closely as possible and Black workers who wanted their own land. With the Republican Party indifferent to freedmen’s claims to land because private property was a principle they held much more strongly than Black rights, for former slaves, this was as good as they could do. Sharecropping might not have been slavery, but it was still a terrible system, one designed to keep workers on the land in a state of permanent debt. Moreover, it was whites who controlled the levers of the system, so they could rip off the sharecroppers and pay them for far less cotton than they grew, with the point of a gun or a noose ready to go behind them. Over time, whites were drawn into the sharecropping system too, but it still remained a largely Black labor force.

Meanwhile, World War I changed labor conditions for Black Americans. This was the beginning of the Great Migration, a period that continued through World War II when millions of people left the exploitative farms of the South for jobs in northern cities. While at this time, it was still something of a vanguard leaving the farms, it did significantly reduce the labor force in some places. That also gave more labor power to those who remained on the farms. They determined to act upon it.

Robert Hill was a sharecropper in the town of Winchester, Arkansas. He was involved in Black fraternal organizations, which served a variety of community functions in these oppressed communities. It wasn’t too hard to move from this to labor organizing. Being quite familiar with the National Negro Business League, an organization of Black business owners founded by Booker T. Washington, as well as the trade union movement, Hill felt it was time to organize the sharecroppers like himself to put pressure on the farmers to pay decent rates and allow workers to live with dignity. He founded the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America in 1918. He had success in getting people to join the organization over the next year. Many of them were veterans of World War I, bitter that they had fought for their nation that was determined to put them right back in the exploitative position they were in before, often with lynching and sometimes that lynching took place while the veterans were still in uniform. By this time, Hill claimed there were lodges in upwards of twenty Arkansas counties and the area around the town of Elaine was a center of organizing.

The union organized not only men but also women. Women began refusing to work for low wages as domestics in white households. Men and women both demanded higher wages for cotton. The croppers made contact with a prominent white attorney in Little Rock who happened to also be a rare racial liberal for the time and place. Ulysses S. Bratton was ready to file lawsuits in Little Rock against landlords who illegally withheld wages, for which the workers had no real recourse. His son also attended the meeting in Elaine on September 30.

Now, whites knew this was going on the whole time. There were plenty of scared people who tried to get a leg up for themselves by informing on the activities with the landowners. This soon came to the attention of the state legislature and the governor. At the same time, the forces of order were using violence to crush labor around the nation. A bit later in the year was the Centralia Massacre in Washington that was a battle between the IWW and the American Legion that led to the death of four Legionnaires, one lynched Wobbly, and government oppression of the entire organization. This was the same time when the Red Scare rounded up radicals such as Emma Goldman and deported them to the Soviet Union. Moreover, through the war, the Wilson administration had acquiesced in extra-legal union busting such as the Bisbee Deportation and the lynching of Frank Little in Butte. So there was little reason for Arkansas whites to think they couldn’t shout “communists!” and just wipe out the nascent labor organizing with the state’s armed forces.

In fact, that’s exactly what they did. At the September 30 meeting, some whites parked a car outside the church where it took place. They were armed, words were exchanged, and there was some shooting between them and the men guarding the meeting. One white was killed and another, the country’s deputy sheriff, was wounded. Arkansas’s governor, Charles Hillman Brough, was a terrible human who had called Robert LaFollette, the Progressive senator from Wisconsin, a communist, so he wasn’t exactly reticent to go to extremes against non-extreme opponents.

The next day, Brough called for 500 men from Camp Pike to enforce order. But before they could get started, about 1,000 whites, some from Mississippi decided on a rampage. It was a total massacre. We will never know how many Black people they killed, but it was at least 200 and maybe closer to 500. You think all these people were at the meeting? Of course not. It was anyone they could find. It was just a hunting season of Black people. Five whites were killed too. The military showed up the next day, arrested Black people, and the whites went home scot free.

Then whites rounded up all the Black people they could find, created a grand jury, and charged the people with the violence against whites. They used plenty of torture through this process. Robert Hill was able to escape at first, but was caught in Kansas. However, the governor of Kansas, fearing Hill would be lynched and certain he would not receive anything like a fair trial, refused to extradite him.

Now, you’d think this was the end, but this story has a twist. For once, the courts were actually like, wait a minute here, this is bad. The NAACP got involved. Walter White came to Elaine himself. When death sentences were issued, it became a cause celebre. Bratton now advised the NAACP on how to fight this in Arkansas and oddly enough, a former Confederate officer named George Murphy, who was super old by this time, worked with the organization to force a new trial. This all worked its way through the courts for the next five years. In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court got involved and in a 6-2 ruling, threw out the convictions, noting the use of torture violated the 14th Amendment. Pretty rare during these years for the Court to remember that the 14th Amendment existed to protect Black people and not corporations. Finally, in 1925, all the remaining prisoners were released.

Hill mostly worked on the railroad in Kansas for the next forty years. Of course, this all destroyed the union and conditions for sharecroppers did not improve. Finally, sharecropping began to disappear due to mechanization but no one did anything for the croppers.

The always excellent Encyclopedia of Arkansas has even more detail on the Elaine Massacre.

This is the 454th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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