A century ago this year, a wave of anti-black racial violence washed over the entire United States. The blood shed that summer earned it the moniker of “Red Summer.” One of the deadliest race riots that year, and in the nation’s history, happened near the small town of Elaine, Arkansas.
On September 30, 1919, a group of Black sharecroppers met at a church in Hoop Spur, just north of Elaine. They were members of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union. The purpose of the meeting was to organize for fair prices on the cotton they picked.
Year after year, these sharecroppers labored with their backs hunched over in endless fields of cotton. They toiled with the sun beating down from above with the heat and humidity from the earth and flora baking them from below. Yet for their labors they received a fraction of what the cotton was actually worth on the “free” market.
No one knows who shot first. A shoot out occurred when white men–one a deputy sheriff and the other a security officer for the Missouri-Pacific railroad company–showed up outside the church. The black armed guards who had taken posts outside while the meeting proceeded fired volleys back and forth. By the end, one of the white men lay dead and the other was wounded.
Word quickly spread in white communities in the surrounding area that black people planned to stage an uprising. One newspaper headline at the time read, “General Massacre of Whites Planned by Arkansas Blacks.” White men from around the state assembled in posses to quell the supposed insurrection.
Over the course of the next several days white people–very likely including U.S. troops who had been called in from Camp Pike–killed black sharecroppers indiscriminately. The exact number of murders may never be known, but most historians put the count at around 200 black children, women, and men killed. Five white people died.
The injustice didn’t stop when the bullets did. White men rounded up hundreds of black people for incarceration. After a farce of a trial, jurors found twelve black men–known as the Elaine 12–guilty of murder and sentenced them to death. Fortunately, a judge stayed the order and after their cases wound a circuitous path through several courts all of the men avoided execution.
For decades this history has been hidden, downplayed, or distorted. Finally, though, a memorial to the victims of the Elaine Massacre has been dedicated.
It stands in the shadow of the courthouse where posses gathered and the white leaders made plans to persecute and kill black sharecroppers. The graceful black structure reminds viewers of the black skin that served as an excuse to exploit, maim, and murder generations of African-descended people.
An inscription on the memorial reads “Dedicated to those known and unknown who lost their lives in the Elaine Massacre.” The very anonymity of the dead speaks to the devaluing of black lives that has been a hallmark of U.S. history in a society organized around white supremacy.
Brian Miller, the chief federal judge of the U.S. District of Eastern Arkansas, spoke at the grand opening of the memorial on September 29, 2019. Four of his great uncles were among those murdered in the Elaine Massacre.
Miller pointed out the significance of the location. Although the memorial sits 35 miles from Elaine, much of what led to the massacre happened in downtown Helena on the very same block where the memorial now stands.
The three men who showed up at the church that night in 1919 met on the same block where the memorial is located. A mob formed in the center of the town on the same block. The black people who were arrested, beaten and tortured were held in the jail on the same block. The courthouse where the jury convicted the Elaine 12 and another courthouse where a judge put a hold on their deaths were both on that block.
Miller concluded his remarks by noting the importance of returning to the place of so much pain and prejudice. But hinted that healing may yet happen.
“We return to this block to remember and honor those who were killed. We return in hope.”