Elaine race riot
Headline in "The Gazette", 3 October 1919
|Date||September 30, 1919|
|Location||Elaine, Arkansas, United States|
|Also known as||Elaine Massacre|
|Participants||residents of the county|
|Deaths||5 whites, 100–200 blacks|
The Elaine race riot, also called the Elaine massacre, took place on September 30, 1919 in the town of Elaine in Phillips County, Arkansas, in the Arkansas Delta. Sharecropping by African American farmers was prevalent on cotton plantations of white landowners, and blacks outnumbered whites in the rural county by a ten-to-one proportion.
Approximately 100 African-American farmers, led by Robert L. Hill, the founder of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, met at a church in Hoop Spur in Phillips County, near Elaine. The purpose was "to obtain better payments for their cotton crops from the white plantation owners who dominated the area during the Jim Crow era. Black sharecroppers were often exploited in their efforts to collect payment for their cotton crops."  Whites resisted such organizing by blacks, and two went to the meeting.
In a conflict, guards shot one of the white men. Violence ensued in the town and county, leaving five whites and 100-200 blacks dead. The events of the following week in the Elaine area are subject to debate. "It is documented that five whites, including a soldier died at Elaine, but estimates of African American deaths, made by individuals writing about the Elaine affair between 1919 and 1925, range from 20 to 856; if accurate, these numbers would make it by far the most deadly conflict in the history of the United States. The only men prosecuted in the events were 115 African Americans, of whom 12 were quickly convicted and sentenced to death for murder. Their cases went to the United States Supreme Court, where the convictions were overturned on appeal. In the closing days of Governor Thomas McRae's administration, he freed most of the defendants, who were helped to leave the state to avoid being lynched.
In the Arkansas Delta around the time of the Great War, most black farmers were sharecroppers. There were inequities and farmers started to organize to try to negotiate better conditions. Sharecropper organizations or unions were generally opposed by white landowners, who sometimes used violence to break up such meetings.
About 100 black sharecroppers gathered at the Hoop Spur Church in Elaine, Arkansas, before dawn on October 1, 1919 to obtain better prices for their products from the white planters who controlled the land. They considered joining the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America and discussed filing a class action lawsuit against their landlords. Union members advocating for the union brought armed guards to protect the meeting:
Sharecropping The African Americans had been having trouble in getting settlements for the cotton they raised on land owned by whites. Both the Negroes and the white owners were to share the profits when the crop was sold for the year. Between the time of planting and selling, the sharecroppers took up food, clothing, and necessities at excessive prices from the plantation store owned by the planter.
The landowners and sharecroppers did not go together to a market to sell the cotton when it was ready. Rather, the landowner sold the crop whenever and however he saw fit. At the time of settlement, neither an itemized statement of accounts owed nor an accounting of the money received for cotton and seed, was, in most cases, given or shown the Negroes. It was an unwritten law of the cotton country that the sharecroppers could not quit and leave a plantation until their debts were paid. Many Negroes in Phillips County whose cotton was sold in October 1918, did not get a settlement before July of the following year.
According to the Historical Text Archive on Revolution in the Land: Southern Agriculture in the 20th Century, in a section called "The Changing Face of Sharecropping and Tenancy":
Late in the evening of September 30, 1919, black sharecroppers were holding a union meeting in a church in Hoop Spur outside of Elaine, Arkansas. Tensions were high and they had posted guards at the door. When two deputized white men and a black trustee pulled into view, shots rang out. Who fired first is still debated, likely unknowable, and perhaps not that important. What is important is what transpired afterwards. One of the white men was killed, the other wounded. The black trustee raced back to Helena, the county seat of Phillips County, and alerted officials. A posse was dispatched and within a few hours hundreds of white men, many of them the "low down" variety, began to comb the area for blacks they believed were launching an insurrection. In the end, five white men and over a hundred African Americans were killed. Some estimates of the black death toll range in the hundreds. Allegations surfaced that the white posse and even U.S. soldiers who were brought in to put down the so called "rebellion" had massacred defenseless black men, women and children. Nearly a hundred blacks were arrested, and in sham trials that lasted no more than a few minutes each, sixty-something black men were sentenced to prison, and twelve were slated for execution. A massive effort on the part of the NAACP and others, including a prominent black attorney in Little Rock, ensued, and by 1925 all the men were free. But planters had established that blacks had best not organize, even within the law, for racism would bring whites of different classes together to put them down.
The summer of 1919 had been marked by deadly race riots in numerous major cities across the country, including Chicago, Knoxville, and Washington, DC. In addition, postwar tensions were high because of labor unrest across the country. Added to labor tensions were racial ones — in Phillips County, a plantation area of the Mississippi Delta since before the Civil War, blacks outnumbered whites by ten to one. Whites feared resistance to their domination. They also wanted blacks out of the county or dead.
When a white deputy sheriff and a railroad detective W.D. Adkins and a prison trusty arrived at the church, a fight broke out between them and the guards. In the ensuing gunfire, the railroad detective was killed and the deputy sheriff was wounded.
The parish sheriff called for a posse to investigate and capture those who were responsible for the killing. Violence expanded beyond the meeting place. Additional armed white men came into the county from outside to support the white citizens until a mob of 500 to 1,000 armed men had formed. Fighting in the area lasted for three days. Sensational newspaper articles reported that an "insurrection" was occurring. After arriving in Elaine, white men roamed the area randomly attacking and killing black men.
Area whites also requested help from Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough, citing a "Negro uprising". As the mob was gathering, Brough contacted the War Department and requested Federal troops. After considerable delay, approximately 500 U.S. troops arrived and found the area in chaos. The troops made their way to the area of the Hoop Spur Church, where they exchanged gunfire with black farmers in the woods. Over the next few days, the troops disarmed both parties and arrested 285 black residents, putting them in stockades for investigation and protection.
More than a hundred African American and five white citizens were killed and more wounded. At least two and possibly more were killed by Federal troops. The exact number of blacks killed is unknown because of the wide area of attacks, but estimates ranged from 100 to 200.
A dispatch from Helena, Arkansas, to the New York Times, datelined October 1 said: "Returning members of the [white] posse brought numerous stories and rumors, through all of which ran the belief that the rioting was due to propaganda distributed among the negroes by white men." The next day's report added detail: "Additional evidence has been obtained of the activities of propagandists among the negroes, and it is thought that a plot existed for a general uprising against the whites." A white man had been arrested and was "alleged to have been preaching social equality among the negroes." Part of the headline was: "Trouble traced to Socialist Agitators."
A few days later a Western Newspaper Union dispatch was captioned with the words, "Captive Negro Insurrectionists."
The NAACP promptly released a statement from a contact in Arkansas providing an account of the origins of the violence: "The whole trouble, as I understand it, started because a Mr. Bratton, a white lawyer from Little Rock, Ark., was employed by sixty or seventy colored families to go to Elaine to represent them in a dispute with the white planters relative to the sale price of cotton." It referred to a story in the Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tennessee on October 3 that quoted Bratton's father:
it had been impossible for the negroes to obtain itemized statements of accounts, or in fact to obtain statements at all, and that the manager was preparing to ship their cotton, they being sharecroppers and having a half interest therein, off without settling with them or allowing them to sell their half of the crop and pay up their accounts.... If it's a crime to represent people in an effort to make honest settlements, then he has committed a crime.
The NAACP sent its Field Secretary, Walter F. White, to Elaine in October 1919. White was of mixed ancestry; blond and blue-eyed, he could pass for white. He was granted credentials from the Chicago Daily News. This enabled him to obtain an interview with Governor Brough, who gave him a letter of recommendation for other meetings with whites, as well as an autographed photograph.
White was in Phillips County for a brief time before his identity was discovered, and he quickly took the first train back to Little Rock. The conductor told the young man that he was leaving "just when the fun is going to start," because they had found out that there was a "damned yellow nigger passing for white and the boys are going to get him." When White asked what the boys would do to the man, the conductor told White that "when they get through with him he won't pass for white no more!"
White talked with both black and white residents in Elaine. He reported that local people said that up to 100 blacks had been killed. White published his findings in the Daily News, the Chicago Defender, and The Nation, as well as the NAACP's magazine The Crisis. Governor Brough asked the United States Postal Service to prohibit the mailing of the Chicago Defender and Crisis, while local officials attempted to enjoin distribution of the Defender. Years later, White said people in Elaine told him that up to 200 blacks had been killed.
In October and November 1919, an Arkansas grand jury returned indictments against 122 blacks. Since most blacks had been disenfranchised by Arkansas' constitution at the turn of the century and discriminatory voter registration, they were not allowed to serve as jurors. Jury members were all white. Suspects were charged with 73 counts of murder, plus charges of conspiracy and insurrection.
Those blacks willing to testify against others and who agreed to work for a period without pay, as determined by their landlords, were set free. Those who refused to comply with those conditions, or were labeled as ringleaders or were judged unreliable, were indicted. According to the affidavits later supplied by the defendants, many of the prisoners had been beaten, whipped or tortured by electric shocks to extract testimony or confessions. They were threatened with death if they recanted their testimony.
The trials were held a year after the events, in the courthouse in Elaine, Phillips County. Mobs of armed whites milled around the courthouse. Some members of the audience in the courtroom also carried arms. The lawyers for the defense did not subpoena witnesses for the defense and did not allow their clients to testify. Twelve of the defendants were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Their trials lasted less than an hour in many cases; the juries took fewer than ten minutes to deliberate before pronouncing them guilty and sentencing them to death. The Arkansas Gazette applauded the trials as the triumph of the "rule of law," as none of the defendants was lynched.
Thirty-six defendants chose to plead guilty to second-degree murder rather than face trial. Sixty-seven other defendants were convicted and sentenced to various terms up to 21 years.
The NAACP took on the task of organizing the defendants' appeal. For a time, the NAACP tried to conceal its role in the appeals, given the hostile reception of its report on the rioting and the trials. Once it undertook to organize the defense, it went to work vigorously, raising more than $50,000 and hiring Scipio Africanus Jones, a highly respected African-American attorney from Arkansas, and Colonel George W. Murphy, a Confederate veteran and former Attorney General for the State of Arkansas. Murphy had been an unsuccessful candidate for Governor on the Progressive Party ticket.
The defendants' lawyers obtained reversal of the verdicts by the Arkansas Supreme Court in six of the twelve cases for which the men were sentenced to death. The grounds were that the jury had failed to specify whether the defendants were guilty of murder in the first or second degree; those cases were accordingly sent back for retrial.
The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the death sentences of the six other defendants, rejecting the challenge to the all-white jury as untimely, and finding that the mob atmosphere and use of coerced testimony did not deny the defendants the due process of law. Those defendants unsuccessfully petitioned the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari from the Arkansas Supreme Court's decision.
The defendants next petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging that the proceedings that took place in the Arkansas state court, while ostensibly complying with trial requirements, were in fact only a form. They argued that the accused were convicted under the pressure of the mob, with blatant disregard for their constitutional rights. The defendants originally intended to file their petition in Federal court, but the only sitting judge was assigned to other judicial duties in Minnesota at the time and would not return to Arkansas until after the defendants' scheduled execution date. Judge John Ellis Martineau of the Pulaski County chancery court issued the writ. Although the writ was later overturned by the state Supreme Court, his action postponed the execution date long enough to permit the defendants to seek habeas corpus relief in Federal court, where U.S. District Judge Jacob Trieber issued another writ.
The State of Arkansas took a narrowly legalistic position, based on the United States Supreme Court's earlier decision in Frank v. Mangum. It did not dispute the defendants' evidence of torture used to obtain confessions or mob intimidation, but the state argued that, even if true, this did not amount to a denial of due process. The United States district court agreed, denying the writ, but it found that there was probable cause for an appeal and allowed the defendants to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Moore v. Dempsey 261 U.S. 86 (1923), the United States Supreme Court vacated six of the convictions on the grounds that the mob-dominated atmosphere of the trial and the use of testimony coerced by torture denied the defendants' due process required by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The other six men went back to trial; they were convicted again and received prison sentences of 12 years each.
Prominent Little Rock attorney George Rose wrote a letter to outgoing Governor Thomas McRae requesting that he find a way to release the remaining defendants if they agreed to plead guilty. Rose's letter was an attempt to prevent Governor-Elect Thomas Jefferson Terral, a known member of the Ku Klux Klan, from getting involved in the matter.
Just hours before Governor McRae left office, he contacted Scipio Jones to inform him that indefinite furloughs had been issued for the remaining defendants. Jones used the furloughs to obtain release of the prisoners under cover of darkness. The defendants were quickly escorted out of state to prevent their being lynched. Within a month, Jones also obtained the release of the other defendants who had pled guilty or been convicted of lesser offenses.
The Supreme Court's decision opened up an era in which the Supreme Court gave closer scrutiny to the criminal justice given to black defendants in the segregated South, at least in well-publicized cases. A decade later, the Supreme Court reviewed the case of the Scottsboro boys. The victory for the Elaine defendants gave the NAACP greater credibility as the champion of African Americans' rights. Walter F. White's risk-taking participation and report helped propel his career. He later became executive secretary of the NAACP, serving for decades.
In recent years, researchers have begun to investigate the riot in Elaine, Arkansas, more thoroughly, as well as the Tulsa race riot in Oklahoma in 1921. In early 2000 a conference on the Elaine riot was held at the Delta Cultural Center in the county seat of Helena, Arkansas.
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