On October 1, 1919—93 years ago today—Elaine, Arkansas, descended into Arkansas’ deadliest racial confrontation to date.
On September 30, 1919, roughly one hundred African American sharecroppers met as part of the Progressive Farmers Household Union of America to discuss whites’ unfair settlements for their cotton crops—payments that kept them in deep poverty and perpetual debt. Armed men guarded the church where the meeting took place, but a shootout between these guards and three individuals (two white) led to the death of a white railroad special agent.
Sheriffs the next morning arrested African Americans suspected of being involved in the fatal shooting. Hundreds or possibly a thousand armed white people from surrounding areas, claiming fear of an “insurrection,” traveled to Elaine, shooting and terrorizing African American residents.
By October 2, hundreds of troops arrived in Elaine to maintain order. The troops, though, forced African Americans into stockades for questioning. Powerful whites formed a “Committee of Seven” to investigate the violence—a committee which, not surprisingly given the strong racial prejudice of the time, blamed African Americans for starting an “insurrection.” (To read newspaper articles blaming African Americans for being the instigators, click here, here, and here.)
Ultimately, five white men and dozens of African Americans were killed. Seven hundred African Americans were arrested, dozens were imprisoned, and 67 were indicted. Twelve of these men were charged with murder and faced a trial in front of an all-white jury.
Bowing to public opinion—and encouraged by threats to lynch the twelve defendants of they were acquitted—the all-white jury convicted all twelve men of first-degree murder and sentenced them to death.
After NAACP lawyer Walter White came to the men’s defense, the Supreme Court of the United States in Moore v. Dempsey ultimately ruled that the mob scenes outside the courthouse had made it impossible for the men to face a fair trial, and thus violated the right to due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. More than five years after their arrest, the men were finally set free.
In an era when African American defendants did not often receive equal treatment within the court system (or outside of it, for that matter), the Supreme Court’s ruling represented a decisive victory. However, the violence and indiscriminate murder of dozens of African Americans that first week of October still stands as a horrifying reminder of the violence and prejudice African Americans faced for decades.
For more information about the Elaine Massacre and the ensuing trial, and to view documents and photographs, check out this page from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Readers will also be interested in Grif Stockley’s Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919 (University of Arkansas Press 2001).
To learn more about the Supreme Court case, Moore v. Dempsey, check out this blog post.
This massacre was one of several race riots of 1919. To learn more about the so-called “red summer” check out Robert Whitaker’s On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation (Random House 2009). Other works on riots of the time include Lee Williams and Lee Williams II’s Anatomy of Four Race Riots: Racial Conflict in Knoxville, Elaine (Arkansas), Tulsa, and Chicago, 1919-1921 (University Press of Mississippi 2008) and Ann Collins’ All Hell Broke Loose: American Race Riots from the Progressive Era through World War II (Praeger 2012).
Nan Woodruff’s American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta (UNC Press 2012) also includes information on the Elaine Massacre. To read an excerpt, check out this post from the UNC Press blog.
To learn more about Walter White, check out Kenneth Janken’s Walter White: Mr. NAACP (UNC Press 2006).