Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre

Trista - October 7, 2019

The racial divides in the United States have a long and troubled history, beginning with slavery in the American colonies and continuing today, with police violence against African Americans and ensuing riots. One of the worst instances of racial hatred spewing over into abuse happened in Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919.

The Elaine Massacre stands out as one of the darkest moments in our nation’s history, and it is possibly an event that you have never even heard of. Many history books do not mention it, despite the fact that hundreds of African Americans were slaughtered and a landmark Supreme Court ruling was issued. Even in the small town of Elaine, there are still disagreements as to what actually happened, and old wounds are still unhealed.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
A family of slaves posed in front of a cabin.

1. Slavery Was Abolished In 1863

In the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slavery illegal and all slaves free. While this historic declaration was undoubtedly necessary, there were several problems with it.

One problem is that the country was divided and at war. The South, where slaves were held, believed itself to be part of the Confederate States of America rather than the United States of America. This means that they didn’t think the Emancipation Proclamation applied to them.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Slaves picking cotton.

2. Issues Of White Supremacy Still Reigned

Historic though it was, one issue that the Emancipation Proclamation could not address was the issue of racism and white supremacy. This problem plagued the entire country, not only the South. African Americans in the North were all too aware of the de facto segregation that they faced daily.

Another problem with the Emancipation Proclamation is that it did not confer any civil rights onto previously enslaved African Americans. All that it did was say that they were free. So there was a considerable crisis looming that would shape the South for decades: what should society do with all of these liberated slaves?

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Many African Americans went from being slaves to being sharecroppers.

3. One Solution Was Sharecropping

To keep formerly enslaved African Americans in a position of servitude, former plantation owners came up with a solution that was basically slavery but with a different name: sharecropping. Sharecropping is a system that sounds fair on a system but, in practice, is anything but.

Theoretically, sharecropping means that workers grow crops on the plantation grounds. They get to keep some of the vegetables as payment for their work, and the rest of the plants go to the plantation owner, as he provided the land and tools necessary to grow the crops.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Sharecropping kept African Americans in a position of servitude and poverty.

4. Sharecropping Was Rife With Corruption

While the system sounds good on paper, sharecropping was a thinly veiled means to keep African Americans bound to the land and in a position of perpetual servitude. Plantation owners would routinely falsify the accounts to keep the sharecroppers in debt.

For example, an African American worker could grow $500 worth of cotton in one season, all at pretty much no extra expense to the plantation owner. The land and tools necessary were already there, so the $500 was basically free money. But in the account books, he might say that the worker used $700 worth of tools and actually was $200 in debt.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Early efforts to integrate freed slaves largely failed.

5. Forty Acres And A Mule?

As the end of the Civil War drew near in 1865, many freed slaves left their plantations to join the Union army as it pushed through Georgia. General William Sherman promised that the freed slaves would be given 40 acres and a mule so that they could provide for themselves and their families.

But in the economically devastated South, which was still full of racism, the promise could not be fulfilled. By 1870, five years after the war ended, only 30,000 former slaves in the South owned land, and these were usually rather small plots. Four million slaves did not own property; the vast majority of them became sharecroppers.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Many freed slaves were sent back to their masters.

6. The President Reneged On Promises To Freed Slaves

In the summer of 1865, President Andrew Johnson, in beginning the process of Reconstruction that would repatriate the defeated South, declared that all former Confederate lands would be given back to the people who owned it before the war. In other words, if freed slaves had been given land on what was once a plantation, that land went back to the plantation owner.

The Freedmen’s Bureau had been created to help the millions of freed slaves integrate into society. And now, it had to inform all of the freed slaves that their options were now severely limited: they had to sign labor contracts with the plantation owners because they would not have any land of their own.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
This little girl was a sharecropper.

7. This Climate Enabled Plantation Owners To Recreate The System Of Slavery

With millions of African Americans now having to sign labor contracts with their former masters, the plantation owners were pretty much allowed to re-enslave them. To make matters worse, many Southern states passed “black codes” that imposed harsh penalties on former slaves.

For example, African American workers had to sign new labor contracts with plantation owners every year. Otherwise, they could be jailed for trespassing and vagrancy, seeing as they were “renting” land that was previously slave quarters. All this even though the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments granted African Americans citizenship and the right to vote.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
There was very little difference between sharecropping and slavery.

8. What About The Fourteenth And Fifteenth Amendments?

The law is only as strong as its enforcement. While the nation’s largest cities – New York, Hartford, Boston, Philadelphia – were in the North, the South was mostly rural. Enforcing laws in remote areas, where there may not even be roads to the plantations, is as close to impossible as you can get.

And also consider that the culture of the South was fueled by white supremacy and racist hatred. Even if there were a police force that was officially tasked with ensuring that African Americans were granted equal rights as citizens, the people serving on it would not have carried out their duties.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
The same economic system meant the same kind of labor: unpaid slave labor.

9. Sharecropping Came To Dominate

With only a tiny fraction of freed slaves owning land and therefore having any means to economic autonomy and self-sufficiency, the vast majority were forced to live under a system that replicated slavery in everything but name.

Many of the freed African Americans lived in former slave quarters. Instead of receiving wages for their work, they received a portion of the crops that they grew. Meanwhile, the plantation owner made money off of the crops that they owed him and engaged in some creative accounting practices to make sure that the workers remained in perpetual debt.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
The KKK exists solely to subjugate African Americans.

10. Meanwhile, The Ku Klux Klan Grew In Power

The KKK, as most people refer to it, was a white supremacist group whose sole mission was to subjugate African Americans by any means necessary. The Klan formed in 1865, with the end of the Civil War, and soon spread to every state of the former Confederacy.

One of the favorite tactics of the KKK was lynching, in which an African American would be carried away and usually tortured before being executed. Klan members sent a strong message to any African Americans in the community: we don’t want you here.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Sharecroppers realized that there was strength in numbers.

11. African American Sharecroppers Decided To Unionize

Robert Lee Hill was an African American sharecropper in the Arkansas Delta who advocated for better working conditions and fair pay for other sharecroppers. To that end, he formed the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, a labor union specifically for tenant farmers and sharecroppers.

In 1919, when he began encouraging sharecroppers to join the union, many African Americans had recently returned from fighting in World War I. Disenfranchised by the racism that they returned home to after risking their lives for their country, many World War I veterans joined.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Unionizing would mean fair wages for sharecropping families.

12. Labor Unions Ensure Better Conditions For Workers

Unions are a means by which workers can organize to make sure that they receive fair pay and safe working conditions. The union engages in bargaining on behalf of the workers that it represents. When employers are unresponsive to the needs of the workers vis-à-vis the union, the union may recommend that the workers go on strike.

While unions have long been controversial in American history, workers who belong to unions tend to have more favorable working conditions. They usually pay dues to the union with every paycheck, and the union is run mostly by volunteers that are democratically elected.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Fair pay and safe working conditions would undermine the South’s agrarian economy.

13. Unions Had Been On The Rise Nationally

Wars tend to create changes in economic conditions, and World War I was no exception. With men gone to fight on the front in Europe, women had to work in the factories to produce uniforms, artillery, and other means for the war effort. These workers organized into unions on a large scale to make sure that they received fair compensation. By the end of the war, it was becoming clear that unions were here to stay.

But not everyone welcomed the rise of unions. They threatened big businesses, who would have to pay out higher wages and spend more money on worker safety. They also fed into the Red Scare; Russia was in the throes of a communist revolution, and many became fearful that the communist ideology would spread among unionized workers.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Dorothea Lange captured this photo of a sharecropper.

14. Unionized African Americans Would Threaten The Sharecropping System

The rise of unions did more than threaten big businesses and make people afraid that communism might come to America. It threatened the sharecropping system that had replaced slavery in the South.

If African Americans began demanding fair pay, they would be able to get out of the perpetual debt that the white landowners kept them in. The entire Southern agricultural economy was built on slave labor; should unions disrupt that paradigm, the economic system of large plantations and King Cotton would come to a halt.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Dorothea Lange also captured this picture of a sharecropper and his infant daughter.

15. Unions Would Also Threaten White Supremacy

The KKK was formed in 1865 for one reason: to keep African Americans subjugated and make sure that they did not exercise any of the rights that the national government conferred upon them. If African Americans began organizing, they might soon exercise rights as free and equal citizens.

White supremacists knew that they had to prevent Robert Hill’s plan to unionize sharecroppers from succeeding. The outcome was what came to be known as the Elaine Massacre, the biggest race riot in Arkansas history and one of the largest in the history of the United States.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Labor crises fueled racial tensions in 1919.

16. Labor Crises Caused Racial Tensions To Pique

Keep in mind that while the North may not have had slaves before the Civil War and didn’t have Jim Crow laws, African Americans weren’t particularly welcome up there. But because of World War I, there was a shortage of laborers, particularly in the industrial cities up North, like New York and Pittsburgh.

Due to the war, immigration from Europe came to a standstill. To fill the factory jobs that had previously been filled by European immigrants, upwards of 500,000 African Americans migrated en masse to the North. Because racial tensions already existed in the North and Midwest, working-class whites resented the African American newcomers for taking their jobs.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Race riots consumed the country in the “Red Summer” of 1919.

17. Race Riots Consumed The Country In 1919

African American soldiers had come home from war, expecting to receive better treatment from their national government than what they received. African American sharecroppers were unionizing, and there was a mass migration of African American workers to the industrial, yet still racially tense, North and Midwest.

In 1919, the racial tensions that had been building erupted in what came to be known as the Red Summer. Between May and October of 1919, race riots, in which white supremacists rained down fury on African Americans, dominated cities all across the country, and hundreds of people were killed.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Chicago saw armed confrontations.

18. One Of The Worst Riots Was In Chicago

On July 27, 1919, an African American who was swimming out at Lake Michigan accidentally paddled himself out to the South Side. This area was frequently used by whites, who were furious that this “black boy” would contaminate their swimming water. They stoned him in the water, and he drowned.

The police refused to investigate the young man’s murder, but a mob of white supremacists on the streets of Chicago made sure that there would not be a black uprising. By the time the Chicago race riot was over, at least 50 African Americans had been killed, 500 had been injured, and 1000 families had been left homeless.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
A newspaper headline for the riots in Washington, DC.

19. Another Was In Washington, DC

A few days before the Chicago riot began, on July 24, an African American in Washington, DC was accused of rape. Incensed white supremacists took up arms and began enacting their own vigilante justice by pulling African Americans off streetcars and beating them in the streets.

In one of the only instances during this period in which African Americans took up arms against whites, a group of African Americans decided that enough was enough. For four days, whites and African Americans battled it out on the streets of the nation’s capital. Six people died, and 50 were seriously wounded.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
In 1919, Elaine saw some of the worst racial violence in the history of the country.

20. The Worst One Was In Elaine, Arkansas

Most of the race riots were in large urban centers. One thing that sets the Elaine riot apart is that it happened in a rural area. Another thing that sets it apart is the sheer number of people that were brutally massacred. We don’t know the exact number, but at least 200 African Americans – many of them women and children – were hunted down and executed.

Elaine is a small town in Phillips County, Arkansas. African Americans in the area outnumbered whites by 10 to 1, and it was here that Robert Hill sought to unionize sharecroppers. During the Red Summer of 1919, even though the act of unionizing is nonviolent, the racial tensions that already existed were bound to explode.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Robert Lee Hill was behind the unionizing effort. / Shorpy

21. In Spite Of The Tensions, Sharecroppers In Elaine Unionized

Most of the people who joined Robert Hill’s Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America were African American soldiers who had just returned home from fighting in World War I. They were determined to join the fight on the home front by joining the struggle to attain civil rights for themselves and their families.

Joining the union was incredibly risky, and all of the people involved probably knew the chance that they were taking. They paid membership dues and attended meetings, which had to be accompanied by armed guards to protect those inside. But the union meeting on September 30, 1919, would spark one of the worst race riots in American history.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Membership card for the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America.

22. The Union Guaranteed Legal Representation

The sharecroppers who joined the union did so because they wanted to have legal recourse to the funds that they believed the white landowners owed to them. In exchange for membership dues, the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America had the goal of arranging legal services to ensure that payments were rendered.

This would mean that landowners who had been keeping false accounts to keep their sharecroppers in perpetual debt would have to be transparent about their account books. Not only would they lose money, but the African Americans that they despised would have legal power over them.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Even today, Elaine is a small, backwater town in rural Arkansas.

23. The Meeting On September 30 Was About Legal Counsel

About 100 African American farmers attended a union meeting at a one-room church in Elaine. There, they were able to meet with representatives to discuss how to move forward in making sure that they were fairly compensated for the work that they did.

These kinds of meetings tended to be disrupted by white supremacists who were bent on making sure that African Americans remained subordinated and powerless. To stave off trouble, armed guards – veterans who had returned home from World War I – surrounded the church.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Elaine sits on the border with Mississippi.

24. Shots Were Fired

Nobody knows who fired the first shots. What we do know is that a car full of white supremacists parked outside the church and threatened the people inside. Two white men arrived on the scene and engaged in a firefight with the armed guards who were protecting the union members inside the church.

By the time the episode ended, one white man was dead, and another one was wounded. Word quickly got to the sheriff’s office, and before the night was over, a mob of hundreds of white men assembled to enact vigilante justice for the two whites that had been killed outside of the union meeting.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Mobs formed to hunt down those responsible for the killing and alleged insurrection.

25. Rumors Spread About A Black Insurrection

The idea of African American sharecroppers organizing into a union already threatened the economic system that much of the agrarian South was built on. In an area teeming with racist hatred, especially during the Red Summer, there were fears that the African Americans were actually planning a revolution.

People quickly spread rumors throughout Phillips County, the rural area in which the town of Elaine sat, about a black uprising. Some even printed posters and distributed them to alert suspicions and feed the mob mentality that was quickly taking over.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Sensationalized headlines helped incite fears and fan rumors.

26. The Sheriff Wanted To Capture Suspects In The Killing

Again, nobody knows who first fired shots outside of the church where the union meeting was happening. We can certainly make assumptions about the motivation for two armed white supremacists making an appearance there, especially when it ended in a firefight.

The local sheriff immediately wanted to find the people who had killed the white men, presumably the African American union members who were meeting inside the church. But the violence quickly spread outside of the church, and before the night was over, rumors of a black uprising had spread beyond the borders of Phillips County.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
More sensationalized headlines to spur on the rioters.

27. Sensational Headlines Fed The Rumors

The Little Rock Gazette, a newspaper that circulated throughout Arkansas, published headlines about a rebellion that African American sharecroppers were planning. The paper even claimed that African Americans had calculated plans to murder whites and were amassing weapons.

The headline even claimed that 21 white men had been selected as the first victims in mass slaughter and that African Americans would “kill every white person in sight.” The inflammatory headline further incited the racial tensions that were already rampant and ensured that nothing short of a massacre would be the result.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Mobs began executing African Americans everywhere they could be found.

28. The Sheriff Organized A Citizens’ Militia To Quell The Supposed Insurrection

A posse comitatus refers to a group of people that a sheriff or other conservator of the peace organizes for the purpose of defending the county or suppressing lawless behavior. The sheriff in Phillips County organized a posse to put down the insurrection that so many whites were sure would happen.

White supremacists in the area were all too happy to join what amounted to a mob. By the end of the first night, there were hundreds of whites assembled to avenge the death of the white man at the church and make sure that a black insurrection did not happen.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Most of the African Americans were unarmed sharecroppers.

29. There Were No Plans For A Black Insurrection

Robert Lee Hill was organizing African American sharecroppers as a means of nonviolence to help ensure civil rights. Many of the people who joined his union were veterans who did know how to use firearms. However, we can reasonably assume that most African Americans did not own guns, besides the occasional hunting rifle.

There were no calls for a violent revolt, and certainly nothing on the scale of what the Little Rock Gazette suggested. The rumors were the product of racist hatred and a mob mentality; they were not grounded in any facts on the ground.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Most of the victims were women and children.

30. But People Acted As If The Rumors Were True

Something does not have to be true for people to act as if it is. Whether or not there was going to be a revolution, the sensationalized rumors played on the white people’s primal fears and hatred of African Americans.

So they joined the sheriff’s posse and even formed their own gangs, which would begin to systematically hunt and shoot down every single African American man, woman, and child that they encountered. Estimates place the death toll at about 240 African Americans, but the actual count could be as high as 800.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
The riot is now considered to be a mass lynching.

31. The Sharecroppers Formed Self-Defense Groups To Protect Themselves

Keep in mind that many of the union members were World War I veterans who had recently returned home from the war. With a white man dead, the African Americans knew that there would soon be harsh reprisals. They formed self-defense groups to protect themselves and their families.

But as the violence unfolded over the next few days, any self-protective measures were seen as evidence that there really was a black insurrection unfolding. Instead of providing protection, the veterans’ presence further incited the hatred and violence that consumed the county.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
There was to be no uprising, but the massacre to follow left hundreds dead.

32. But The Massacre Was To Be Severe

The sheriff, Frank Kitchens, and his deputies did not set out themselves to find the people who were responsible for the white man’s death at the church. Instead, they called for white people throughout Phillips County to form mobs to subdue an impending insurrection.

What unfolded was less a race riot and more a massacre. One of the witnesses, a white man by the name of H.F. Smiddy, remarked in 1921, “several hundred of them… began to hunt negroes and shotting [sic] them as they came to them.”

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Hundreds of African American men, women, and children were shot and killed.

33. People Came From Outside The County To Join The Massacre

With the sensationalized newspaper stories, white supremacists who were determined to make sure that a black rebellion did not happen came in from outside Phillips County to join the sheriff’s posse. Estimates say that as many as 1000 armed white men participated in the massacre.

The fear and mayhem were so severe that in nearby Camp Pike, troops stationed there indiscriminately began killing African Americans throughout the area. The use of force by soldiers there would be a precursor to what would happen when the National Guard would come to Elaine to dispel the violence.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
A map showing the location of the church where the union meeting was held.

34. The Sheriff Told the Posse To Find And Kill Those Involved In The Shoot-Out At The Church

He basically gave the mob the go-ahead to find and kill any and all African Americans in the area. And the hate-filled, fear-incited mob was all too happy to go along with his orders. They went to the African American part of town and burned down houses.

Innocent men, women, and children were shot down in cold blood. One eyewitness to the carnage claimed that the people in the mob “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.”

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
A map made of Elaine, established in October 1919, to show where some of the white people who died in the riots were killed.

35. The Black School Was Burned To The Ground

The sheriff’s posse would not be satisfied with finding out who killed the white man at the church. In fact, we still don’t even know what happened because no one was interested in finding out. They would not be satisfied with putting down what they saw as a rebellion.

The goal of the posse was to let the African Americans know who was in charge and make sure that they stayed in a position of servitude. They didn’t just hunt down men who might be armed and dangerous. They burned down the school where African-American children studied.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
The mob mentality that took over led to massive violence.

36. Entire Families Were Killed

In other race riots that occurred during the summer of 1919, African American homes were destroyed, and people were indiscriminately attacked on the streets. But what happened in Elaine exceeded the bounds of what could be called a riot. It was an all-out massacre.

Entire families – men, women, and children – were summarily hunted down and killed by people in the white mobs. The carnage was so severe that there are stories of mob members taking souvenirs – including ears and fingers – from the bodies of the murdered victims. Many of the slain were mutilated, their bodies left to bake on the side of the road.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Image showing those who died in the massacre overlaid on the modern town of Elaine.

37. African American Women And Children Hid In The Woods

No African Americans were safe from the violence. Whether or not they were part of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America was irrelevant; what was taking place was a full-scale massacre of every African American that the mobs could find.

To try to save their own lives, women and children hid in the woods around Elaine. But even for the survivors, the devastation was complete. With as many as 800 people killed, nobody in Elaine was untouched by the massacre. The atmosphere of fear and hatred would haunt the town for decades.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Malcolm X’s quote applies to the role of the media in the massacre.

38. Historians Have Identified Over Twenty “Killing Fields”

The mobs of angry, hate-filled white men systematically rounded up and murdered entire families at a time. Because of the rural isolation of this small town in the Arkansas Delta, not many people at the time, or even now, were aware of the mass slaughter that occurred there.

But historians are taking a renewed interest in the Elaine Massacre and trying to understand better what really happened there. They have identified over 20 sites where African Americans were slaughtered en masse, places that they somberly refer to as “killing fields.”

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Federal troops took over where the mob left off.

39. The Governor Brought The US Military In to Restore Order

On October 1, the day after the slaughter began, authorities in Phillips County telegrammed the governor of Arkansas to request that the military be sent in to end the violence. Governor Brough contacted the US War Department, which gave him permission to have troops from nearby Camp Pike brought in.

500 soldiers came to Elaine to restore law and order. But the law and order that they were interested in restoring were making sure that the alleged black revolution could not happen. The angry mob of rural farmers was replaced with well-trained soldiers.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
The governor had troops sent in from nearby Camp Pike.

40. Soldiers Arrived On October 2, 1919

When the soldiers began to arrive, the members of the sheriff’s posse began to disband and return home. Evidence suggests that the soldiers then began killing African Americans in the effort to restore law and order.

The official total of African Americans killed by the troops is only two, as reported by Colonel Isaac Jenks. However, a correspondent for the Memphis Press recorded that “Many Negroes are reported killed by the soldiers….” What makes the tragedy even worse is that many of those killed were also military men, African American veterans who fought in Europe during World War I, only to come home and be slain by their fellow soldiers.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Stockades were a type of open-air, makeshift prison.

41. The Soldiers Detained African Americans In Stockades

According to the newspaper Helena World, based in a town near Elaine, “The present trouble with the Negroes in Phillips County is not a race riot. It is a deliberately planned insurrection of the Negroes against the whites directed by an organization known as the ‘Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America,’ established for the purpose of banding Negroes together for the killing of white people.”

None of the members of the murderous mobs were apprehended for what they did. But to make sure that a black uprising did not occur, the soldiers who came to Elaine imprisoned hundreds of African Americans in stockades.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Sheriff Kitchens insisted that no innocent person had been killed in the slaughter.

42. The Governor Insisted The Situation Had Been Handled Well

Some of the more powerful white citizens of Phillips County banded together to form a Committee of Seven, tasked with the job of investigating and disseminating information about what had happened in Elaine. The Committee of Seven spoke with Governor Brough, who soon came to visit Elaine to find out for himself the facts.

According to Governor Brough, “The situation at Elaine has been well handled and is absolutely under control. There is no danger of any lynching…. The white citizens of the county deserve unstinting praise for their actions in preventing mob violence.”

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
The Helena jail could only hold 48 people.

43. Nearly 300 African Americans Were Arrested

Of the hundreds who were placed in temporary stockades, the soldiers brought 285 African Americans to the nearby town of Helena, where they were held in the county jail. The jail only had room for 48 people, so the conditions were overcrowded and miserable.

According to the Chicago Daily News on October 19, the idea of a black revolution was “only a figment of the imagination of Arkansas whites and not based on fact.” But that fact would not be enough to save the imprisoned African Americans from what would come next.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Elaine was a small town, but the massacre there took the national spotlight.

44. They Were Tortured To Elicit False Confessions

In 1921, two members of the posse that the sheriff organized, H.F. Smiddy and T.K. Jones, swore in an affidavit that they and other whites had tortured the African Americans that were being held in the Helena jail. They wanted the African Americans to admit that they had been planning a revolution so that those confessions could be used against them at the upcoming trials, which would be a complete sham.

Attorney John Elvis Miller was appointed to preside over the prosecution at the upcoming trials. To represent the African Americans, the city of Helena appointed white attorneys. One of those attorneys, Jacob Fink, later admitted that he did not interview any witnesses.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
The trials would be a complete farce. don’

45. The Trials Began A Week Later

The only evidence that was used at the trials of the imprisoned African Americans was the confessions that had been given under torture. The attorneys did not interview any witnesses to find out what had actually happened. The trials occurred under the assumption that a black insurrection had indeed been planned by the members of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America.

On October 31, a month after the slaughter of hundreds of innocent African American men, women, and children, the judge handed down guilty verdicts to 122 men suspected of plotting the alleged insurrection.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
The massacre drew national attention to the racial tensions that caused the riots of 1919.

46. Then Came The Sentencing

A week after the trials began, on November 5, the judge issued a sentence for the first 12 of the African American men. They had all been convicted of murder – presumably the killing of the white man at the church – and were all sentenced to die in the electric chair.

Sixty-five other men who were on trial quickly attempted to enter into plea bargains for second-degree murder. They were given lighter sentences of 21 years in prison – a harsh punishment, given that there were no plans of a revolt, but at least they would escape with their own lives.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
The NAACP had formed a decade earlier.

47. The NAACP Got Involved To Halt The Death Sentences

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had formed a decade ago, in 1909, to promote civil liberties and social integration and advancement for African Americans. One of its most prominent offices was in New York City, a metropolitan area that had also been swept up in the race riots of the Red Summer.

The New York office of the NAACP immediately began coordinating with people in Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, to get the guilty verdicts reversed and the death sentences dropped. The 12 men who had been sentenced to death became known as the Elaine Twelve, and what would unfold around them would shape national politics.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Scipio Africanus Jones was one of the lawyers that got involved in the appeals process.

48. The NAACP Hired A Law Firm In Arkansas

George Murphy was the former attorney general of Arkansas and, having been a colonel in the Confederate army during the Civil War, was an unlikely partner for the NAACP in the fight to save the Elaine Twelve. But the NAACP hired his law firm as it began the process of appealing the convictions of the convicted men.

Scipio Africanus Jones coordinated with Murphy. Jones was an African American from the Little Rock area and one of the leading African American attorneys of his time. His work with Murphy in the appeals process would make him one of the most prominent members of the African American community.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
The case would go all the way to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

49. The Attorneys Appealed The Sentences

Jones and Murphy requested that the men receive a new trial, based on errors that had occurred in the initial trial. Governor Brough denied the request but did issue a stay of execution so that the Elaine Twelve would not be killed while there was pending litigation.

Jones and Murphy then appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. They were able to get new trials for the men, based on the error that at the initial hearing, the jurors did not have ballots that required them to select the degree of murder for which the men were being convicted.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
One group in the case would go to the US Supreme Court.

50. The Elaine Twelve Were Split Into Two Groups

The Ware group consisted of the first six defendants, whose guilty verdicts were successfully appealed because the ballots that the jurors used did not have an item to select the degree of murder. They had new trials secured, which the next year, in May of 1920.

The Moore group consisted of the other six defendants, whose guilty verdicts were affirmed. Jones and Murphy had to fight to save both groups of men through separate litigation tracks. The Moore group ultimately went to the US Supreme Court, which ruled that the original trial had been a sham.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Moore v Dempsey helped pave the way for future civil rights laws.

51. Both Groups Went To The Supreme Court

The state of Arkansas made no move to re-try the men in the Ware group, so Jones and Murphy took their cases to the Arkansas Supreme Court. The court ultimately freed them.

In the case of the Moore group, the lawyers went to the US Supreme Court in a case known as Moore vs. Dempsey. Jones began negotiations with the courts in Arkansas to have the men released. Ultimately, they pled guilty to second-degree murder, and the new governor, Thomas McRae, gave an indefinite stay of execution and allowed them to be released from prison.

Brutal Facts About Arkansas’ Elaine Massacre
Elaine, Arkansas today.

52. Some Still Believe The Massacre Was A Legitimate Means To Quell An Insurrection

The rural South is still plagued with racial tensions, which have come to fever pitches in cities like Ferguson, where new riots erupted over the failure to convict a police officer in the shooting death of an African American man.

In and around Elaine, Arkansas, there are members of the white community who believe that the sheriff and his posse acted within appropriate means to prevent a mass slaughter that the African American community was planning. The failure to remember and mourn the hundreds of innocent people who died means that another similar massacre could happen.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

“Sharecropping,” by editors. June 7, 2019.

“The Red Summer of 1919 in U.S. Cities,” by Femi Lewis. ThoughtCo. July 7, 2019.

“Reliving the brutal Elaine Massacre 100 years later” New York Post.

“Elaine Massacre of 1919.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas.