September 30, 1919 – Massacre of African American Farmers in Elaine, Arkansas

On this date in history, Robert L. Hill, an African-American sharecropper and political activist, held a meeting at a small church with approximately 100 other black farmers in Elaine, Arkansas in Phillips County. He wanted to establish a chapter of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America to fight for better pay and higher cotton prices.

African Americans outnumbered whites in the area around Elaine by a ten-to-one ratio, and by three-to-one in the county overall. But, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, white landowners controlled the economy, selling cotton on their own schedule, running high-priced plantation stores where farmers had to buy seed and supplies, and settling accounts with sharecroppers in lump sums, without listing items.

As the Encyclopedia article points out:

Unions such as the Progressive Farmers represented a threat not only to the tenet of white supremacy but also to the basic concepts of capitalism. Although the United States was on the winning side of World War I, supporters of American capitalism found in communism a new menace to their security. . . . The threat of ‘Bolshevism’ seemed to be everywhere: not only in the labor strikes led by the radical Industrial Workers of the World but also in the cotton fields of Arkansas.”

Phillips County, Arkansas

Union members brought armed guards to protect the meeting. A white deputy sheriff and a railroad detective, both armed, arrived at the meeting place and a fight broke out at about 11 p.m. In the ensuing gunfire the deputy sheriff was wounded and the railroad worker was killed. Accounts differ as to whether whites or blacks fired the first shot. The violence expanded beyond the meeting place and fighting in the area lasted for three days. Word traveled to neighboring states through exaggerated newspaper reports that an ‘insurrection’ was occurring, which brought additional armed men into the county from outside to support the white citizens.

The next morning, the Phillips County sheriff sent out a posse to arrest those suspected of being involved in the shooting. White fear led an estimated 500-1,000 armed white people from surrounding areas to help put down this black “insurrection.”

The whites attacked blacks on sight across the county. The governor called in 500 federal troops, who arrested nearly 260 blacks and were accused of torturing and killing some. Over a three-day period, fatalities included an 100-240 blacks, with some estimates of more than 800, as well as five white men. The events have been subject to debate, especially the total of black deaths.

The only men prosecuted for these events were 122 African Americans, with 73 charged with murder. Twelve were quickly convicted and sentenced to death by all-white juries for murder of the white deputy at the church. Others were convicted of lesser charges and sentenced to prison. Six convictions (known as the Ware defendants) were overturned at the state level for technical trial details.

Elaine Defendants, Helena, Phillips County, Ark., ca. 1910, (Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, Central Arkansas Library System)

The six other death penalty cases (known as Moore et al.) ultimately reached the United States Supreme Court. The Court overturned the convictions in the Moore et al. v. Dempsey (1923) ruling. The Court cited the failure of the trial court to provide due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, as the trials had been dominated by adverse publicity and the presence of armed white mobs threatening the jury. It was the first case in the twentieth century that came before the Court concerning the justice given to African-Americans in the South. This was a critical precedent for the Supreme Court’s strengthening of the requirements imposed by the Due Process Clause on the conduct of state criminal trials.

When the cases were remanded to the state court, the six ‘Moore’ defendants settled with the lower court on lesser charges and were sentenced to time already served. Governor Thomas Chipman McRae freed these six men in 1925 in the closing days of his administration. The NAACP helped them leave the state safely.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas has a good list of resources about the riots. Ida B. Wells produced a booklet called “The Elaine Riot” which can be read online here. You can also refer to our analysis of the Supreme Court case of Moore v. Dempsey, here.

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