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Elaine, Arkansas Riot (1919)

African Americans Indicted For Participating in the
Elaine, Arkansas Riot
"Image Ownership: Public Domain"
One of the last of the major riots of the “Red Summer” of 1919, the race riot in Elaine, Arkansas was also one of the deadliest. Though exact numbers are unknown, it is estimated over 200 African Americans were killed along with five whites during the white hysteria of a pending insurrection of black sharecroppers. Also known as the “Elain Massacre,” the violence, terror, and concerted effort to drive out blacks were so jarring that Ida B. Wells, a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) published a short book on the riot in 1920. It was also widely reported in African American newspapers like the Chicago Defender and generated several public campaigns to address the fallout.

On the night of September 30, 1919, approximately 100 African Americans, mostly sharecroppers on the plantations of white landowners, attended a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America at a church. They hoped to organize to obtain better payments for their cotton crops. Aware of the fears of Communist influence on blacks that helped contribute to racial violence throughout the nation earlier that year, the union posted armed guards around the church to prevent disruption and infiltration.

During the meeting, three individuals pulled up to the front of the church. One of the men asked the black guards “going coon hunting, boys?” and gunfire erupted after the guards made no response. Though sharp debate exists as to who fired first, the black guards shot to death a white security officer from the Missouri-Pacific railroad, W.A. Atkins, and injured Charles Pratt, the county’s white deputy sheriff.

The next morning, a posse was sent to arrest the suspects. Though they encountered little opposition from the black community, the fact that blacks outnumbered whites ten to one in this area resulted in great fear of an “insurrection.” The concerned whites formed a mob numbering up to 1,000 armed men, many of whom came from the surrounding counties and as far away as Mississippi and Tennessee.  The mob upon reaching Elaine began killing blacks and ransacking their homes. As word of the attack spread within the Elaine African American community, some residents fled while others armed themselves in defense. The mob then turned its attention to disarming those blacks who fought back.

Meanwhile, local white newspapers reported deliberately planned black uprisings, further inflaming tensions. By October 2, U.S. Army troops arrived in Elaine and the white mobs began to disperse. Federal troops and remaining citizens rounded up and placed several hundred blacks in temporary stockades. Reports of torture occurred, and the men were not released until they had been vouched for by their white employers.

In the end, 122 blacks but no whites were charged for various crimes related to the riots. Their court-appointed lawyers did little in their defense despite investigation and involvement by the NAACP. The first 12 men given trials were executed for first degree murder. As a result, 65 others entered plea bargains and accepted up to 21 years for second degree murder. The NAACP and other rights groups worked towards retrials and release of the “Elaine Twelve,” eventually winning their release, the last of whom were set free on January 14, 1925.

Sources:
Becky Givan, "Elaine, Arkansas Race Riot of 1919," Global Mappings: A Political Atlas of the African Diaspora, Institute for Diasporic Studies at Northwestern University, http://diaspora.northwestern.edu/mbin/WebObjects/DiasporaX.woa/wa/displayArticle?atomid=603; Walter C. Rucker and James Nathaniel Upton, Encyclopedia of American Race Riots: Greenwood Milestones in African American History, Vol. 1 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 2007); Grif Stockley, "Elaine Massacre," Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=1102.

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University of Washington, Seattle

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