The Elaine race riot, also called the Elaine massacre, began on September 30–October 1, 1919 at Hoop Spur in the vicinity of Elaine in rural Phillips County, Arkansas. With an estimated 100 to 237 blacks killed, along with five white men, it is considered the deadliest race riot in the state and one of the deadliest racial conflicts in all of United States history. Due to the widespread white mob attacks, in 2015 the Equal Justice Institute classified the black deaths as lynchings in their report on lynchings in the United States.
Located in the Arkansas Delta, the county had been developed for cotton plantations, worked by African-American slaves. In the early 20th century the population was still overwhelmingly black: African Americans outnumbered whites in the area around Elaine by a ten-to-one ratio, and by three-to-one in the county overall. Descendants of slaves, most blacks worked as sharecroppers. White landowners controlled the economic power, selling cotton on their own schedule, running high-priced plantation stores where farmers had to buy seed and supplies, and failing to itemize their settlement of accounts with sharecroppers.
The Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America had organized chapters in the Elaine area in 1918-19. On September 29, representatives met with about 100 black farmers at a church near Elaine to discuss how to obtain fairer settlements. Whites resisted union organizing and often spied on or disrupted such meetings. In a confrontation at the church, two whites were shot, one fatally. The sheriff called a posse and whites gathered to put down a rumored "black insurrection". Other whites entered Phillips County to join the action, making a mob of 500 to 1000 whites. They attacked blacks on sight across the county. The governor called in 500 federal troops, who arrested nearly 260 blacks and were accused of killing some. Over a three-day period, five white men were killed and an estimated 100-240 blacks, with some estimates of more than 800 blacks killed. 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. During appeals, the death penalty cases were separated. Six convictions (known as the Ware defendants) were overturned at the state level for technical trial details. These six defendants were retried in 1920 and convicted again, but on appeal the state supreme court overturned the verdicts, based on violations of the Due Process Clause and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, due to exclusion of blacks from the juries. The lower courts failed to retry the men within the two years required by Arkansas law, and the defense gained their release in 1923.
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 v. Dempsey (1923) ruling. Grounds were 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. This was a critical precedent for the "Supreme Court's strengthening of the requirements the Due Process Clause imposes on the conduct of state criminal trials."
The NAACP assisted the defendants in the appeals process, raising money to hire a defense team, which it helped direct. 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.
With Phillips County developed for cotton plantations in the antebellum era, its population was overwhelmingly black and descended from slaves: in Phillips County, African-Americans outnumbered whites by a ten-to-one ratio. In the Arkansas Delta around the time of the Great War, most black farmers were sharecroppers and illiterate, as were many poor whites.
The Democratic-dominated legislature had disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites in the 1890s by creating barriers to voter registration. It excluded them from the political system via the more complicated Election Law of 1891 and a poll tax amendment passed in 1892. The white-dominated legislature enacted Jim Crow laws that established racial segregation and institutionalized Democratic efforts to impose white supremacy. The decades around the turn of the century were the period of the highest rate of lynchings across the South.
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 landowner sold the crop whenever and however he saw fit. At the time of settlement, landowners generally never gave an itemized statement to the black sharecroppers of accounts owed, nor details of the money received for cotton and seed. The farmers were disadvantaged as many were illiterate. It was an unwritten law of the cotton country that the sharecroppers could not quit and leave a plantation until their debts were paid. The period of the year around accounts settlement was frequently the time of most lynchings of blacks throughout the South, especially if economic times were poor. Many Negroes in Phillips County whose cotton was sold in October 1918, did not get a settlement before July of the following year, and often amassed considerable debt at the plantation store before that time, as they had to buy supplies, including seed.
Black farmers began to organize in 1919 to try to negotiate better conditions, including fair accounting and timely payment of monies due them by white landowners. Robert L. Hill, a black farmer from Winchester, Arkansas, had founded the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, and was working with farmers throughout Phillips County. Its 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 tried to disrupt such organizing and threatened farmers. The union had hired a white law firm in the capital of Little Rock to represent the black farmers in getting fair settlements for their 1919 cotton crops before they were taken away for sale. The firm was headed by Ulysses S. Bratton, a native of Searcy County and former assistant federal district attorney.
The postwar summer of 1919 had already been marked by deadly race riots in more than three dozen cities across the country, including Chicago, Knoxville, Washington, DC, and Omaha, Nebraska. Competition for jobs and housing in crowded markets following World War I as veterans returned to society resulted in outbreaks of racial violence, usually of ethnic whites against blacks. Having served their country in the Great War, African-American veterans resisted racial discrimination and violence. In 1919 blacks vigorously fought back when their communities were attacked. Labor unrest and strikes took place in several cities as workers tried to organize. As industries hired blacks as strikebreakers in some cities, worker resentment against them increased.
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, near Elaine in Phillips County. Union advocates brought armed guards to protect the meeting. When two deputized white men and a black trustee arrived at the church, shots were exchanged. Railroad Policeman W.D. Adkins was killed and the other white man wounded; it was never determined who shot first.
According to Revolution in the Land: Southern Agriculture in the 20th Century (2002), in a section called "The Changing Face of Sharecropping and Tenancy":
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.
The parish sheriff called for a posse to capture suspects in the killing. Violence expanded beyond the church. Additional armed white men entered the county from outside to support the hunt and a mob formed of 500 to 1,000 armed men. Local whites requested help from Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough, citing a "Negro uprising". Sensational newspaper headlines published by the Little Rock Gazette and others reported that an "insurrection" was occurring, and that blacks had planned to murder white leaders.(See scanned Gazette headlines on this page)
Brough contacted the War Department and requested Federal troops. After considerable delay, nearly 600 U.S. troops arrived, finding the area in chaos. White men roamed the area randomly attacking and killing black men, women and children. Fighting in the area lasted for three days before the troops ended the violence. The federal troops disarmed both parties and arrested 285 black residents, putting them in stockades for investigation until being vouched for by their employers and protection.
An estimated 100 to 237 African Americans and five whites were killed, and more wounded. At least two and possibly more victims were killed by Federal troops. The exact number of blacks killed is unknown because of the wide rural area in which they were attacked, but estimates range from 100 to 237. Other estimates of the time ranged higher.
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, "Captive Negro Insurrectionists."
Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough appointed a Committee of Seven to investigate. The group was composed of prominent local white businessmen. Without talking to any of the black farmers, they concluded that the Sharecroppers' Union was a Socialist enterprise and "established for the purpose of banding negroes together for the killing of white people." This version by the white power structure has persisted in many histories of the riot.
The NAACP promptly released a statement from a contact in Arkansas providing another 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 report 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, from New York City to Elaine in October 1919 to investigate events. White was of mixed, majority-European ancestry; blond and blue-eyed, he could pass for white. He was granted credentials from the Chicago Daily News. He gained an interview with Governor Charles Hillman Brough, who gave him a letter of recommendation for other meetings with whites, as well as an autographed photograph.
White had been in Phillips County for a brief time when he learned there were rumors floating about him. 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 had time to talk 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. He "characterized the violence as an extreme response by white landowners to black unionization."
Governor Brough asked the United States Postal Service to prohibit the mailing of the Chicago Defender and Crisis to Arkansas, while local officials attempted to enjoin distribution of the Defender. Years later, White said in his memoir that people in Elaine told him that up to 200 blacks had been killed.
In October and November 1919, an all-white Arkansas state grand jury returned indictments against 122 blacks. Since most blacks had been disenfranchised by Arkansas' 1891 Election Law and 1892 poll tax amendment, which created barriers to voter registration, blacks as non-voters were excluded from juries. All-white juries rendered verdicts on the defendants in trials following the Elaine race riot.
Those blacks willing to testify against others and to work without shares for terms 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. A total of 73 suspects were charged with murder; other charges included conspiracy and insurrection.
The trials were held in 1920 in the county courthouse in Elaine, Phillips County. Mobs of armed whites milled around the courthouse. Some of the white 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 (who became known as the 'Arkansas Twelve' or 'Elaine Twelve') were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the electric chair, most of them as "accomplices" in the murder of Adkins at the church. The defense lawyer of one defendant did not interview any witnesses, ask for a change of venue, nor challenge any jurors. The trials of these twelve lasted less than an hour in many cases; the juries took fewer than ten minutes to deliberate before pronouncing each man guilty and sentencing them to death. The Arkansas Gazette applauded the trials as the triumph of the "rule of law," because none of the defendants was lynched. These men became known as the "Elaine Twelve."
After those convictions, 36 of the remaining defendants chose to plead guilty to second-degree murder rather than face trial. Sixty-seven other defendants were convicted of various charges and sentenced to terms up to 21 years.
The NAACP took on the task of organizing the defendants' appeals. For a time, the NAACP tried to conceal its role in the appeals, given the hostile reception to its reports 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 79-year-old Confederate veteran and former Attorney General for the State of Arkansas. Moorfield Storey, descended from Boston abolitionists and founding president of the NAACP since 1909, became part of the team when the Moore cases went to the Supreme Court. He had been president of the American Bar Association in 1895.
The defendants' lawyers obtained reversal of the verdicts by the Arkansas Supreme Court in six of the twelve death penalty cases, known as the Ware defendants. 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 (known as Ware et al.) were sent back to the lower court for retrial. The lower court retried the defendants beginning on May 3, 1920. On the third day of the trials, Murphy collapsed in the courtroom.
Scipio Jones had to carry most of the responsibility for the remaining trials. The all-white juries quickly convicted the six defendants of second-degree murder and sentenced them to 12 years each in prison. Jones appealed these convictions, which were overturned by the State Supreme Court. It found that the exclusion of blacks from the juries resulted in a lack of due process for the defendants, according to the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the death sentences of Moore and the other five defendants, known as the Moore defendants. It rejected the challenge to the all-white juries as untimely, and found 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, in fact complied only in form. They argued that the accused had not been adequately defended and 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 district 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 Arkansas Supreme Court, his action postponed the execution date long enough to permit the defendants to seek habeas corpus relief in Federal court.
U.S. District Judge Jacob Trieber issued another writ. The State of Arkansas defended the convictions from a narrowly legalistic position, based on the US Supreme Court's earlier decision in Frank v. Mangum (1915). It did not dispute the defendants' evidence of torture used to obtain confessions nor of mob intimidation at the trial, but the state argued that, even if true, these elements did not amount to a denial of due process. The United States district court agreed, denying the writ, but it found 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 these six 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 as required by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. 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 to second-degree murder. 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 in 1925, 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. He arranged for these men to be quickly escorted out of state to prevent their being lynched.
The Supreme Court's decision marked the beginning of an era in which the Supreme Court gave closer scrutiny to criminal justice cases and reviewed state actions against the Due Process Clause and the Bill of Rights. 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 investigation and report contributed to his advancing in the organization. He later was selected as executive secretary of the NAACP, essentially the chief operating officer, and served in this position for decades, leading the organization in additional legal challenges and civil rights activism.
"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 1919-25, 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 Arkansas Encyclopedia of History and Culture notes that estimates of African-American deaths range into the "hundreds."
Since the late 20th century, researchers have begun to investigate the Elaine race riot more thoroughly. For decades, the riot and numerous murders were too painful to be discussed openly in the region. The wide-scale violence ended union organizing among black farmers. White oppression continued, threatening every black family. Historian Robert Whitaker says, "As with many racial histories of this kind," it was “one of those shameful events best not talked about.”
Another reason for silence was that the second Ku Klux Klan began to be active in Arkansas in 1921, concentrating in black-majority areas. It used intimidation and attacks to keep blacks suppressed. Author Richard Wright grew up in Phillips County and discusses it in his autobiography Black Boy. He wrote that when he questioned his mother about why their people didn’t fight back, "the fear that was in her made her slap me into silence."
A 1961 article, "Underlying Causes of the Elaine Riot," claimed that blacks were planning an insurrection, based on interviews with whites who had been alive at the time, and that they were fairly treated by planters of the area. It repeated rumors of 1919 that certain planters were targeted for murder. This view has been generally discounted by historians publishing since the late 20th century.
In early 2000 a conference on the Elaine riot was held at the Delta Cultural Center in the county seat of Helena, Arkansas. It was an effort to review the facts but did not result in "closure" for the people of Phillips County. The Associated Press spoke with author Grif Shockley, who has published a book on the riot. He said that in 2000, there were still two versions of the riot, which he characterized as the "white" version, related to their idea that the union planned an attack on whites, and a "black" version, related to farmers' efforts to gain fair settlements of their crops. Shockley said there "was plenty of evidence to say whites attacked blacks indiscriminately." Local electoral offices were divided between the races in West Helena and the county.
In 1996 the Oklahoma legislature had authorized a state commission to address the facts and aftermath of the destructive Tulsa race riot of 1921. After interviews, hearings, and research, the Commission delivered its final report in 2001.Wormser, Richard, director. The Elaine Riot: Tragedy & Triumph. VHS Documentary. Little Rock: Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, 2002.