Next year will mark the “Un-Centennial” of the 1919 Elaine Arkansas massacre, where many more than 200 African-American men, women, and children were murdered – by white vigilantes from two states and by Arkansas military brought in to “restore order.”
Does the Black community care, or even know? And what about our sometimes allies in formerly-Big Labor?
The term “un-centennial” is used to describe important events that do not receive the appropriate commemoration and contemplation. If the 100th anniversary of an important historical event is ignored, – can it make an impact? Can its lessons influence and improve current struggles for democracy and equality? Can they remind us of the potential benefits or pitfalls of coalition building? Not to mention the value of self-sufficiency and, when necessary, armed self-defense?
Elaine is in Phillips County, eastern Arkansas, near the river and state of Mississippi. As with the Nile Delta, silt deposits from upriver created fertile areas ideal for cultivation. And as with most of the south, cotton was king. Elaine was and is a small town, with a population of less than 900 as of the 2010 census. The 1920 census lists an Elaine population of 377. Of course, the 1920 numbers (the year following the massacre) are probably significantly less than they might have been. Many survivors of the killings would have understandably been unwilling to return. They would have joined the migration to the north and Midwest.
The massacre started with an attempt to hold a peaceful organizing meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA.) The all-Black union grew out of the Colored Union Benevolent Association, a community-based, shared-help society created after the Civil War. Their purpose was “to advance the interests of the Negro, morally and intellectually, and to make him a better citizen and a better farmer.”
The group raised funds to purchase land in the fertile Mississippi delta. But its main goal was to organize sharecroppers/tenant farmers in order to negotiate better prices for the cotton harvest. The organization was led by Dr. V. E. Powell and Robert L. Hill. They hired (white) attorney Ulysses S. Bratton to negotiate or litigate their price increase demands. Union organizing was seen as subversive in much of America, and most unions excluded blacks from membership. The idea of a black union would have been most unwelcome in an Arkansas whose economy was little changed from the pre-Civil War period of African enslavement.
On September 30th, the union held a meeting in Hoop Spur, another small town located 3 miles from Elaine. And as with most of their meetings, armed guards were in place to protect the crowd. Blacks in this era were not as passive as the history books imagine. And the Great War had provided many Blacks with military training, as well as experience in killing white Germans.
There was an exchange of gunfire between the union security and law enforcement – who may have been watching the meeting or looking for bootleggers as was later claimed. One white officer was killed and another was wounded, undoubtedly in self-defense. The massacre of blacks was soon to follow.
As news of the church confrontation spread in the area, law enforcement called for whites to “hunt Mr. Nigger in his lair.” Hundreds of heavily-armed whites, from Mississippi and Arkansas descended on the Elaine, killing any and every Black person in sight – women and children included. According to a participant in the initial church incident, “The whites sent word that they was comin’ down here and kill every nigger they found. There were 300 or 400 more white men with guns, shooting and killing women and children.” This eyewitness statement suggests that the size of the vigilante mob was larger than the total population of the town.
The blood lust of the vigilantes was stoked by false newspaper claims that the church meeting was part of a plot by Blacks to murder whites, take plantation land, and to rape white women. After days of vigilante killings, Arkansas Governor Charles Brough brought in 500 troops to “restore order.” Many of these troops became participants in the vigilante murders.
The violence finally ended after four days. The official records listed 25 Black and 5 white deaths. The majority of the murdered victims were probably dumped in the Mississippi River. No evidence of the claimed uprising or plantation-grabbing was presented Forced “confessions,” statements taken from among the Blacks arrested were publicized. No white vigilantes were detained.
Elaine is now recognized as among the bloodiest of the many anti-Black terror attacks in American history. The official death total is viewed by many to be a serious under-count, similar to President Trump’s estimate of the Puerto Rico death toll following 2017 Hurricane Maria.
The Elaine massacre has long been ignored by organized labor and by the Black community – although it was a pivotal event in the history of both groups. Maybe one or both of these groups can organize a suitable commemoration in 2019. Lest we forget.
(Editor’s note: part two of this discussion will explain how a national movement was organized to Save the Elaine 12, Black men sentenced to death for their part in the “anti-white insurrection.”)