The Forgotten History of America’s Worst Racial Massacre

The New York Times – NaN Elizabeth Woodruff

Dr. Woodruff is a historian and the author of “American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta.”

Hundreds of black citizens were killed in Elaine, Ark., a century ago this week.

One hundred years ago this week, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history unfolded in Elaine, Ark., a small town on the Mississippi. Details remain difficult to verify. The perpetrators suppressed coverage of the events, and the victims, terrified black families, had no one to turn for help. In fact, local police were complicit in the killing of untold numbers of African-Americans. 

The Elaine massacre was among the worst instances of racial violence in American history, and it took place in a region, the Delta, that defined itself by its violence and oppression. One African-American, William Pickens, described the region as “the American Congo.” Elaine, though an isolated plantation region, was part of the broader social upheaval following World War I that came in the form of massive strikes and racial confrontations, both at home and abroad.

Elaine sits in Phillips County, on one of the many bends in the Mississippi, roughly 95 miles southwest of Memphis. There, in the early fall of 1919, a different struggle for democracy was taking place. Emboldened by their war experience, African-American veterans returned to the Delta to demand the full rights of citizenship and justice, not only before the law but also in their labors. In Phillips County, this struggle directly challenged planter dominance.

The town was at the center of a rapidly changing lumber and plantation economy known for harsh working conditions. Sharecroppers worked the land for a small share of the crop and were forced to sell their cotton to the landowners, who paid less than market prices. Workers also had to buy food, clothing, household wares, tools, seed and fertilizer at the plantation commissary, which charged exorbitant interest rates. It was a system intended to keep black people in debt and dependent upon planters. Legal disfranchisement stripped them of the vote and an ability to share in any benefits of citizenship.

But World War I brought changes to the Delta, as it did in Northern urban centers. Men and women migrated to Northern factories or joined the military, creating a labor shortage in the cotton fields and lumber mills. Women received domestic allotment checks from men in the military, giving them cash beyond the control of planters. Consequently, plantation owners and lumber mills had to pay higher wages to have the cotton picked or timber milled. Even worse from the planters’ perspective, the much-feared radical Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, were rumored to be organizing in the fields and mills.

The heroism of black soldiers in the war enhanced the struggle for black freedom, causing industrialists and plantation owners to brace themselves for the return of black veterans. As racialized violence spread in both Northern and Southern cities during the Red Summer of 1919, Delta planters were paying close attention. The violence occurred not only in the more familiar urban centers of Chicago and Washington, but also in the hinterlands of Omaha; Charleston, S.C.; Longview, Tex.; and in the plantation region of the Arkansas Delta.

Late in the evening of Sept. 30, black sharecropper families gathered in the Hoop Spur church near Elaine. They came to discuss membership in an organization called the Progressive Farmers and Household Union, which would help them secure a fair price for the cotton they pickedand to buy land. They aimed to hire a lawyer to represent them with the landlords. The 1919 cotton crop was the most profitable in history and they stood to make a good amount of money. 

At 11 p.m., a band of white men shot into the church. Black guards returned the fire, killing a white agent of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. News of the shooting quickly reached the county seat of Helena. Soon, word spread that blacks were attacking whites in Elaine. By early morning Oct. 1, the sheriff sent white veterans from the American Legion post to suppress what he deemed an insurrection.

Calls went out to the governor for federal troops. Telephone lines to Elaine were cut. Throughout the day at least 1,000 white vigilantes came from all over the state and from Mississippi to join plantation owners, their managers, sheriffs, deputies and the veterans to put down what they called an uprising. It was effectively an invasion. By day’s end, countless black women, men and children had been slaughtered.

The following morning, Gov. Charles H. Brough of Arkansas and a World War I veteran, Col. Issac Jencks, personally escorted 583 soldiers, including a machine gun battalion, from Camp Pike in Little Rock, the state capital, to Elaine. Colonel Jencks sent all of the white women and children to Helena by train, ordered the immediate disarming of everyone and authorized the killing of black insurgents who failed to disarm. Then the real massacre began: For the next five days, Colonel Jencks and his troops, assisted by vigilantes, hunted black people over a 200-mile radius. They scorched and burned homes with families inside, slaughtered and tortured others. The troops were aided by seven machine guns.

On Oct. 7, Colonel Jencks declared the insurrection over and withdrew his troops. He brought the men and women deemed insurrectionists to the Phillips County jail in Helena. On Oct. 31, a grand jury indicted 122 black men and women for offenses ranging from murder to night riding. A jury convicted 12 black men in the murders of three white men, even though two of the deaths had occurred from white people accidentally shooting each other in a frenzy. The “confessions” of the black men had been secured through torture. Black people were thus blamed, sentenced and jailed for their own massacre.

Local officials and businessmen conducted their own investigation of what had transpired in the Elaine area. They produced a predictable narrative that resembled those dating back to slavery. In their view “a deliberately planned insurrection” had occurred, where black sharecroppers had intended to murder the plantation owners to seize the land. The findings blamed outside agitators for stirring up ignorant sharecroppers. The committee’s narrative appeared in newspapers all over the country. Colonel Jencks’s report of his mission supported this view, claiming only two black people and one of his corporals had died. He praised his troops for their restraint in suppressing the rebellion.

The official narrative presented a picture at odds with reality. According to several accounts from white witnesses, both vigilantes and the troops committed acts of barbarism. A local schoolteacher saw “28 black people killed, their bodies thrown into a pit and burned,” and “16 African Americans killed, their bodies hanging from a bridge outside of Helena.” 

A Memphis reporter described events on Oct. 2 after the troops had arrived. Troops and vigilantes, he noted, went into the canebrakes in search of “negro desperadoes,” leaving dead bodies “lying in the road a few miles outside of the city. Enraged citizens fired at the bodies of the dead negroes as they rode out of Helena toward Elaine.”

Still others described the barbarism of “cutting off the ears or toes of dead negroes for souvenirs and the dragging of their bodies through the streets of Elaine.” Gerald B. Lambert, the founder of Listerine, who owned 21,000 acres near Elaine, saw white men spread throughout the woods, firing at any suspicious person. “A steel gondola car was hauled back and forth on the railroad track,” he said, adding, “the men inside firing from the shelter of the steel walls of the car,” shooting black people. He also told how soldiers brought a suspected union leader to his company store for interrogation, poured kerosene over his body and tossed a match. 

The account that best captured the perspective of the sharecroppers came from Ida Wells Barnett, the legendary anti-lynching crusader and journalist. She had been driven from her home in Memphis to Chicago because of her activism. One of the convicted 12 wrote to her from prison, requesting help. Courageously, she dressed up as a sharecropper and went to Arkansas. There she interviewed the 12 prisoners accused of murder, their wives, and many others, publishing her findings in a 1920 pamphlet.

Ms. Wells Barnett gathered testimonies that described the sheer horror of the massacre from those who endured and lived to tell their stories. One union member, Ed Ware, told her that men had fired into the Hoop Spur church, killing several people, then burned it down the next day with bodies inside. When he returned home, 150 men came to ransack his house, seizing his union meeting minutes and his Masonic lodge books. As they surrounded his house, another man inside, Charlie Robinson, tried to run away. He was elderly and handicapped, and ran too slowly. They shot him and left him to die. They stole Ware’s cow, two mules, one horse, a farm wagon, his Ford car and various household goods. He lost 121 acres of cotton and corn.

Many families described how they had run into the woods for safety from bloodthirsty mobs, hoping to surrender themselves to the federal troops for safety. Instead, the troops either shot or arrested them.

Vigilantes from Mississippi seized another union member, Lula Black, and her four children from her house, knocked her down, pistol whipped and kicked her, then took her to jail. Carrying an ax with their guns, they then moved to another home, where they murdered yet another union member, Frances Hall. In a final act of disrespect, they tied her dress over her head and left her body on the side of the road for several days.

Seventy-nine-year-old Ed Coleman had remained at home with his wife when people fleeing Hoop Spur came to his house and warned them to leave. As they ran from the posse, the Colemans saw his neighbor, Jim Miller, and his family burned alive in their house. After hiding for two days in the woods, the Colemans returned home to find dead bodies of women and children scattered about their community.

Families of union members found no welcome when they returned to their homes. The wife of Frank Moore had hidden for four weeks. When she came back to her neighborhood, a plantation manager, Billy Archdale, told her “if she did not leave, he would kill her, burn her up, and no one would know where she was.” Most of those who survived found their homes emptied of possessions that appeared in white peoples’ homes.

Ms. Wells Barnett provided hard evidence of the massacre, but it took the Supreme Court to expose the truth to national attention. In Moore v. Dempsey, the court in 1923 overturned the convictions of six of the Elaine 12, arguing that the confessions had been secured through torture. The trial had occurred in a setting dominated by a mob spirit, violating the prisoners’ right to due process.

The decision by the justices was aided by two white men involved in the massacre who reversed their previous testimonies. They now verified that the planters had gone to the Hoop Spur church to destroy the union and that the posse had killed their own men, instead of the black people who had been accused. They described the wholesale massacre of hundreds of unarmed and defenseless black people, and the torture used to secure confessions. The murders, thefts, violence and terror continued long after the troops had gone and the convicted men had been released.

It is impossible to establish an accurate death toll. Military reports were intentionally vague. Local authorities blocked press coverage. Many denied the massacre had occurred, leaving accounts of the slaughter to witnesses, reports from Wells Barnett, and stories passed down through families of the victims. Estimates have ranged from 25 to 853, the latter from an Arkansas Gazette reporter who named no source. Walter White, of the N.A.A.C.P., reported first that more than 100 African-Americans were killed, later changing it to 250. 

At least two historians, including myself, have settled on a reasonable estimate of 200, recognizing that the toll was most likely far greater. What is certain is that the massacre cast a long shadow for decades, with fear of reprisals silencing those who witnessed and survived the terror.

10 thoughts on “The Forgotten History of America’s Worst Racial Massacre

      1. Yeah, seriously. I’m still learning about various issues or even positive things such as various inventions by black inventors. Shoot, if I knew the concept of video game cartridges and consoles were invented by a black man during my childhood, I would have been in the industry and be making more money than I do now.

        Liked by 1 person

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