Columns » Jay Barth

Remembering Elaine


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U.S. Army troops escort African-American men taken prisoner during the Elaine Massacre. - ARKANSAS STATE ARCHIVES
  • Arkansas State Archives
  • U.S. Army troops escort African-American men taken prisoner during the Elaine Massacre.

A few years back, I wrote of the need for the Little Rock community to appropriately remember the brutal 1927 lynching of John Carter with a physical marker to educate current and future residents of the race-based violence in our past. Carter's lynching — the last known to have occurred in Little Rock — was once again noted in "Dream Land," the outstanding documentary on race in the state's capital city that recently aired on AETN. Still, no physical marker is yet present at Ninth and Broadway, the site of Carter's brutalization, which has haunted the Little Rock African-American community for decades.

As horrific as Carter's vigilante attack was, an even more expansive assault on the state's African-American community occurred in the East Arkansas community of Elaine a few years before. Elaine's 1919 race massacre marked, probably, the deadliest event of racial violence in U.S. history. In that Phillips County community, rumors began to spread that a number of white plantation owners were being targeted for killing as part of sharecropper union organizing efforts. After gunplay at a union organizing meeting, dozens of whites were deputized by the Phillips County sheriff to put down the imagined uprising; whites began to arrive from surrounding communities to assist. An appeal was made to Gov. Charles Brough for support and he asked Washington to allow him to direct federal troops to the scene (skipping the typical first step of activating the Arkansas National Guard). Evidence suggests that some African-Americans were killed by the federal troops, but that number remains unclear. The exact number of the total killed across the days of the massacre similarly remains imprecise but likely is more than 200 African Americans and five whites.

At the scene, Brough worked with local elites to develop a plan to prosecute several dozen African Americans for the violence in hopes of avoiding a mass lynching and to return some semblance of peace to Phillips County. Immediately, a dozen blacks involved with the union were identified by prosecutors and were quickly tried and sentenced to death. To their defense came Scipio Africanus Jones, the Little Rock-based African-American attorney. As six of the 12 neared electrocution at the state penitentiary, Jones threw a legal Hail Mary and the cases were accepted for review by the U.S. Supreme Court. There, in Moore v. Dempsey (1923), a majority on the court led by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes agreed with the NAACP's arguments and significantly expanded the meaning of the 14th Amendment's due process clause, setting the stage for further expansions of individual rights in the decades to come.

As Grif Stockley's excellent book "Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919" shows, the exact scope of the massacre at Elaine remains unclear; indeed, everything about Elaine — including the exact role of the state government in the violence — remains fuzzy. As we move toward the 100th anniversary of the massacre, it's time for the state of Arkansas to help bring clarity to the events at Elaine, to grapple fully with their short- and long-term impact on the state's black citizens, and to determine appropriate ways to acknowledge the race-based violence in Arkansas's past.

Such a move has clear precedent to our west. As the 75th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riots that destroyed the affluent black Greenwood neighborhood in 1921 approached, a bipartisan effort created the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. That entity thoroughly documented what happened during that Memorial Day weekend riot and its cost to human life and property (hundreds of black-owned businesses were destroyed or damaged). It concluded by recommending actions that the state of Oklahoma should take to partially compensate for state and local governments' role in the events, including payments to the riots' survivors and their decedents, creation of a special economic development zone in the Greenwood area and a memorial where remains of the victims could be reburied. While not all those recommendations came to pass, the state commission did bring about both reconciliation through acknowledgement of the state's past sins and ongoing education about those important events.

During the recent session of the General Assembly, Governor Hutchinson used a bit of political capital to gain passage of legislation severing Gen. Robert E. Lee from a joint state holiday celebration with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Attached to that legislation was a move to improve K-12 curriculum regarding the teaching about the civil rights movement. While both components of that legislation should be celebrated, movement to fully grapple with Elaine and to use that as an additional opportunity to teach Arkansans of all ages about the state's racial past should be similarly embraced and promoted by state leaders.


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