The Elaine Arkansas Massacre
On the evening of September 30, 1919, some black sharecroppers gathered in a small church near Elaine, Arkansas. The tenant farmers wanted a better deal for their labour. However, the white landowners got wind of the meeting and determined to squash any attempt by the sharecroppers to organize themselves into a union to fight for fair wages. The result was the worst single explosion of racial violence in American history.
The Origin of Sharecropping
During the Civil War freed slaves who joined the Union had been promised 40 acres of land and a mule. In April 1865, Andrew Johnson became president and one of his first actions was to return the land to white owners.
Most former slaves were forced to work for their previous owners for wages. Some engaged in share contracts; they would work the land and share the value of their crops with the landowners. State legislatures in the South passed “ ‘black codes’ that forced former slaves to sign yearly labour contracts or be arrested and jailed for vagrancy” (History.com).
It was a very unequal partnership as outlined by Francine Uenuma (Smithsonian Magazine, August 2018), “Each season, landowners came around demanding obscene percentages of the profits, without ever presenting the sharecroppers detailed accounting and trapping them with supposed debts.”
Suppressing Black Activism
The men in that church in Hoop Spur just north of Elaine wanted to put a stop to this exploitation. They had brought in a white lawyer from Little Rock to help them even out the relationship with the landowners.
There was already a boiling cauldron of racial tension and some of the farmers had come prepared and were carrying rifles. All over the United States, workers were organizing for better labour conditions and some black veterans returning from World War I were not inclined to be as submissive as their fathers had been.
The white population was not going to tolerate what were regarded as “uppity blacks,” and it was widely believed that foreign influence in the shape of Bolshevism was involved in stirring up the African-Americans. The rise of unionism threatened white supremacy and those with power were in no mood to share it.
At about 11 p.m. a group of white men, including police, arrived at the church. Accounts vary as to who fired the first shot, but soon one white man fell dead and another was wounded.
Then Comes the Massacre
The wounded man was Charles Pratt, a Phillips County deputy sheriff, so a posse was sent out to arrest the shooter the following morning. But, by the time the deputies arrived, word had spread through the white community that a black “insurrection” was underway. White people in the area were outnumbered 10 to one by blacks and they decided to strike first.
White people from nearby counties and from across the river in Mississippi descended on Elaine. There were between 500 and 1,000 of them and, simply put, the mob went berserk.
H. F. Smiddy was a white man who witnessed the carnage “several hundred of them … began to hunt negroes and shotting [sic] them as they came to them.”
Women and children as well as men were victims.
The army was sent for, and 500 soldiers from Camp Pike arrived under orders from Arkansas Governor Charles Brough to “round up” the “heavily armed negroes.” The Arkansas Democrat added the troops were “under order to shoot to kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately.”
Instead of quelling the angry mob, the soldiers joined in the massacre. Sharpe Dunaway was working the story for The Arkansas Gazette. A few years later, he alleged that the troops “committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes, or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.”
By October 2nd, most of the white mob had had enough and returned to their homes. Many of the blacks were herded into a stockade until they could be vouched for by their employers.
No official body count was made but a commonly agreed upon death toll is that at least 200 African-Americans and five white people were killed.
The Massacre’s Aftermath
Local newspapers kept the pot boiling, accusing African-Americans of plotting against whites.
A committee of seven whites reported on the killings after a probe that lasted all of seven days. The blacks, of course, were deemed entirely responsible for the massacre. The Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America was fingered as the instigator; it had, said the committee, used “ignorance and superstition of a race of children for monetary gains.” Those who joined the union knew that at some point they “would be called upon to kill white people.”
The courts echoed the extreme bias against blacks held by the committee. Twelve black men were charged with murder; before all-white juries the verdicts and sentences were a foregone conclusion. The trials made a farce of jurisprudence with evidence collected under torture and witness tampering.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People went to bat for the twelve men sentenced to death. Appeals worked their way slowly through the courts until the case landed in the Supreme Court. By a vote of six to two the court ruled that the 14th Amendment right of the accused to due process had been violated and overturned the convictions.
Michael Curry of the NAACP says “This was a seismic shift in how our Supreme Court was recognizing the rights of African-Americans.”
In 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War, only about 30,000 African-Americans in the South owned land. Four million other blacks in the South owned no land at all.
Leroy Johnston had served in the trenches of Flanders with the African-American New York 15th National Guard. Shortly after returning home to Elaine after nine months recovering from wounds sustained in defence of democracy he was shot by the marauding crowd. His three brothers suffered the same fate. In September 2018, Leroy Johnston was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.
When the sentence of death was passed on the first 12 black defendants, 65 others facing charges accepted plea bargains. Some received sentences of 21 years for second-degree murder.
No white people were ever charged with any offences connected to the Elaine Massacre.
- “Sharecropping.” History.com, August 21, 2018.
- “Elaine Massacre.” Grif Stockley, The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, July 17, 2018.
- “The Massacre of Black Sharecroppers That Led the Supreme Court to Curb the Racial Disparities of the Justice System.” Francine Uenuma, Smithsonian Magazine, August 2, 2018.
- “Elaine, Arkansas Riot (1919).” Weston W. Cooper, Blackpast.org, undated.
- “A Belated Purple Heart for Victim of Elaine Massacre.” Max Brantley, Arkansas Times, September 15, 2018.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor