September 30, 2019
The Forgotten History of America’s Worst Racial MassacreRoundup
tags: civil rights, World War I, African American history, Arkansas, twentieth century, Racial History
Dr. Woodruff is a historian and the author of “American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta.”
One hundred years ago this week, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history unfolded in Elaine, Ark., a small town on the Mississippi. Details remain difficult to verify. The perpetrators suppressed coverage of the events, and the victims, terrified black families, had no one to turn for help. In fact, local police were complicit in the killing of untold numbers of African-Americans.
The Elaine massacre was among the worst instances of racial violence in American history, and it took place in a region, the Delta, that defined itself by its violence and oppression. One African-American, William Pickens, described the region as “the American Congo.” Elaine, though an isolated plantation region, was part of the broader social upheaval following World War I that came in the form of massive strikes and racial confrontations, both at home and abroad.
Late in the evening of Sept. 30, black sharecropper families gathered in the Hoop Spur church near Elaine. They came to discuss membership in an organization called the Progressive Farmers and Household Union, which would help them secure a fair price for the cotton they picked and to buy land. They aimed to hire a lawyer to represent them with the landlords. The 1919 cotton crop was the most profitable in history and they stood to make a good amount of money.
At 11 p.m., a band of white men shot into the church. Black guards returned the fire, killing a white agent of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. News of the shooting quickly reached the county seat of Helena. Soon, word spread that blacks were attacking whites in Elaine. By early morning Oct. 1, the sheriff sent white veterans from the American Legion post to suppress what he deemed an insurrection.
Calls went out to the governor for federal troops. Telephone lines to Elaine were cut. Throughout the day at least 1,000 white vigilantes came from all over the state and from Mississippi to join plantation owners, their managers, sheriffs, deputies and the veterans to put down what they called an uprising. It was effectively an invasion. By day’s end, countless black women, men and children had been slaughtered.
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