black memory matters: the red summer’s elaine massacre

September 30, 2019
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On September 30, 1919, U.S. history and world events converged on the small town of Elaine, Arkansas. It was the beginning of the Elaine Massacre, the largest single massacre of African-Americans in the history of the U.S.

Red Summer and the Elaine Massacre

During the preceding months, the summer of 1919 came to be called “Red Summer.” Bolshevism and Communism were spreading throughout Russia and Europe. Workers worldwide were agitating and demanding better wages and working conditions. In the U.S. worker demands were feared to be the work of foreign ideologies and a threat to the capitalist system.

The large number of Black veterans returning in the aftermath of WWI presented another problem. The recognition of their valiant and heroic service during the war actually angered many white Americans. The veterans returned with a broader world view, one in which they had a rightful place in society. Black soldiers were treated much more equitably in Europe than in the U.S., and they came back expecting more from the laws in America. They also returned with the mindset to fight for those changes.

Coinciding with this new resolve of returning Black veterans and with Red Summer, the summer of 1919 saw no less than 25 racially motivated riots initiated by whites across the U.S. in cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.

African-American lynched by white mob in Omaha, Nebraska, September 28, 1919 … the “Red Summer” (photo: Chicago Tribune 1919)

On September 30, 1919, a group of about 100 Black farmers and sharecroppers hosted prominent white lawyer Ulysses Bratton at a church meeting in Hoop Spur, Phillips County, near Elaine, Arkansas. The group wanted to unionize so that they could receive better payments for their cotton crops.

As Megan Ming Francis explains in Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State, “The farmers hoped Bratton’s presence would bring more pressure to bear through the courts. Aware of the dangers – the atmosphere was tense after racially motivated violence in the area – some of the farmers were armed with rifles.” The organizer of the meeting, Robert Hill, an African-American war veteran, had armed guards surrounding the church to stop any violence and intelligence-gathering by whites.

At around 11:30 a shoot-out began in front of the church with three people who had been parked in a car across the street. No one is sure who fired the first shot. When the shoot-out ended a white security officer named W.A. Adkins from the Missouri Pacific Railroad lay dead, and Charles Pratt, a Phillips County Deputy Sheriff, lay wounded.

U.S. History and the Elaine Massacre 

After the Civil War, much of the South lay in ruins, and with no laws firmly in place, former slaves were at the mercy of bitter former masters, Confederate soldiers and slavery sympathizers. Incidents of countless indiscriminate killings were covered in local newspapers as “isolated incidents.” Instead of punishing and imprisoning Confederate sympathizers and former soldiers, President Andrew Johnson, a former slaveholder from Tennessee, went about pardoning nearly every former Confederate who made a request. Finally Northern legislators, fed up with the news they were hearing from the South, sent in federal troops and instituted Reconstruction, which lasted from 1868 to 1876.

Some progress was made during Reconstruction, but after the federal troops left the South in 1876, the Southern legislatures and governments were taken over by former Confederates and plunged the Black population into nearly complete subjugation. Slavery was replaced by something nearly as predatory: sharecropping. In Phillips County, the area that encompassed Elaine, land-owners demanded obscene percentages of the profits from sharecroppers, without ever presenting them detailed accounting, trapping them with supposed debts. “There was very little recourse for African-American tenant farmers against this exploitation; instead there was an unwritten law that no African-American could leave until his or her debt was paid off,” writes Francis.

After the shoot-out outside the Hoop Spur church meeting, rumors spread. Expressing fears fanned by the Red Summer, local whites said that the sharecroppers had joined the Communist-inspired Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA). After a summer of race riots, white town leaders like E.M. Allen, a planter and real estate developer, posited that Black sharecroppers were organizing with the express purpose of “killing white people.” In a county where Blacks outnumbered whites 10 to 1, this sent panic through the area.

The white reaction revealed just how fearsome the threat of organization by Black sharecroppers and farmers was, reflecting how much whites could lose if sharecroppers were able to unionize labor in Elaine, Arkansas. The Southern economy was almost completely dependent on predatory sharecropping, and Elaine’s white residents and businesses were completely dependent on labor stolen from sharecroppers, just as it had been during slavery. White people’s violent reaction to Blacks organizing was directly in proportion to their fears of loss of social control and economic power, and to the magnitude of what they had stolen.

On October 2nd, Arkansas Governor Charles Brough called out 500 WWI battle-hardened National Guard troops from nearby Camp Pike to “round up the heavily armed negroes.” The troops were “under order to shoot to kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately,” according to the order given by Brough. Troops were joined by  500-1000 armed whites from surrounding counties and Mississippi. (This was much like the recent scene in Ferguson, Missouri where armed vigilante groups like the Oath Keepers joined the National Guard during escalating protests about the killing of Michael Brown.)

In 1919, the white town leaders claimed that “Black residents had been in revolt,” organized by the PFHUA “for the purpose of killing white people.” NAACP Field Secretary Walter White disputed the allegations. Founded just ten years earlier, the fledgling NAACP hired White in 1918 to investigate lynching and riots in the South. White, a man of color who could pass for white, infiltrated the scene as a member of the press. He reported in the Chicago Daily News on October 19, 1919 that the belief there had been an insurrection was “only a figment of the imagination of Arkansas whites and not based on fact.” He said, “White men in Helena, [Arkansas] told me that more than one hundred Negroes were killed.”

By the end of the two days of fighting more than 200 Black men, women and children had been killed, many by trigger-happy National Guard. Only five white people were killed. Nearly 300 Black people were rounded-up by early October. One hundred and twenty-two Black people were charged with crimes ranging from murder to “nightriding.” Tried in Helena, Arkansas, by November 5th the first twelve Black men were convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. They would come to be known as the Elaine Twelve.
Having been tortured into false confessions and seeing the one-sided justice being handed out, sixty-five other defendants entered into plea bargain deals and accepted sentences of up to 21 years for second degree murder. The rest of the charges were dismissed or not prosecuted. In 1921, in a sworn affidavit, two members of the Phillips County posse admitted that they committed acts of torture at the Phillips County jail and named others who had also participated in the torture.

No one was ever charged in the death of over 200 Black Americans.

The Power of Organization and the Elaine Massacre

In Little Rock, Arkansas and in the New York office of the NAACP, the fight against the convictions of the Elaine Twelve began immediately. In Little Rock, leading attorney Scipio Africanus Jones and the Black community began to raise money for their defense. The NAACP hired the firm of George C. Murphy.

The defense of the “Elaine Twelve” followed two tracks. Six of the defendants were called the Ware Defendants. They were ultimately freed by the Arkansas Supreme Court after a re-trial in 1920.

The other six were known as the Moore Defendants. Their case went to the Supreme Court in Moore v. Dempsey 1923. The court ruled that: that the original proceedings in Helena had been a “mask,” and that the state of Arkansas had not provided “a corrective process” that would have allowed the defendants to vindicate their constitutional right to due process of law on appeal. In short, the mob-dominated trial had robbed them of due process under the 14th Amendment.

Attorney Scipio Africanus Jones stands with defendants (back row) Ed Hicks, Frank Hicks, Frank Moore, (seated) J.C. Knox, Ed Coleman and Paul Hall. (Photo: Butler Center for Arkansas Studies of the Central Arkansas Library System)

Instead of pursuing a new trial, in 1923 Scipio Jones negotiated the Moore Defendants’ release. He negotiated a plea deal that the men serve five years from the date of their first incarceration at Arkansas State Penitentiary after pleading guilty to second-degree murder. In 1925, Arkansas Governor Thomas Rae released all six of the Moore Defendants.

One hundred years after the Elaine Massacre and Red Summer, the power of organization remains evident. The Red Summer inspired wage and labor gains throughout the U.S. In cities like Chicago and Washington D.C., President Woodrow Wilson publicly blamed whites for instigating the violence. Wilson and Congress instituted some congressional legislation to foster more racial harmony. The Red Summer also signaled to America that black Americans were now more willing than ever to fight for their rights. The fledgling NAACP, with the success of legal battles like Moore v. Dempsey, gained prestige and experience it would bring to bear in later legal fights for civil rights, such as Brown v Board of Education.

In Elaine and throughout the country, heroic Black veterans and Black prosperity was seen as a threat to the white power structure and the exploitive economy of both the South and the North.

The Elaine Massacre helps highlight the present-day backlash to people of color asserting their rights. The present day election of Trump is a backlash that shows the fear and violent hatred by many white Americans to eight years of America’s first Black President. The reaction and violent hatred by some of Trump’s constituents shows how powerfully threatening proposed changes are, and reinforce the need to persevere in the face of this unfounded fear.