Welcome to the second installment (of four) in J. Chester Johnson’s “Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre,” a revelatory account of one of the deadliest race massacres in American History. Though rarely discussed today, the massacre played an critical role in the evolution of civil rights. In this installment, Johnson recounts the events of the massacre itself, along with the first attempts by local authorities to cover it up.
–The Editors

Read Part I of “Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre.

 

The Times: Black, Red and White

A new, threatening world gripped the white planter class in the Arkansas Delta at the conclusion of World War I. African-American men, returning in consequential numbers from Europe, were different men than those who left the shores of the United States to fight. Europe had shown respect for black Americans, and many were decorated heroes. After risking their lives for this country, these African-Americans expected to be treated with greater fairness and equity upon their return. As an immediate concern to the planters, these African-American veterans knew how to take care of themselves and how to use firearms. However, as soon as these blacks set their feet back on home soil, whites were determined to make it clear that nothing, at all, had changed; maybe, it had even gotten worse in early 1919 with lynchings, shootings or burnings alive of African-American veterans and other blacks in places like Star City and El Dorado, Arkansas, and in near-by states of Louisiana and Mississippi.

At the same time, communism had just recently swept Russia and promoted a world-wide conquest; in the United States, did this mean vigorous unionization of farm workers, especially among African-Americans, who tilled the Arkansas Delta cotton fields? Fear of the radicalization of the African-American in this country, assumed at the inspiration of Bolshevist agitation, became rampant.

Racial confrontations broke out everywhere in the country during the summer of 1919: Chicago, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Nebraska, and as far west as Arizona–prompting the black poet, James Weldon Johnson, to coin a double entendre phrase for the nation’s upheaval, “The Red Summer of 1919.” Numerous journalists, in and out of the United States, believed the internal American conflict, at the time, constituted a race war.

Hoop Spur And “The Killing Fields”

During 1919, rumors and tense times pervaded the white citizens of Phillips County, Arkansas on the Mississippi River–home to many substantial cotton farms. Indeed, a committee, composed of County leaders and plutocrats most of whom lived in Helena, the County seat, had formed to monitor any potential problems that might surface among African-Americans. In fact, white planters heard from “spies” and other sources that a certain Robert Hill, a newly returned African-American veteran, living a few miles outside of Phillips County in Winchester, Arkansas, planned to organize black sharecroppers into a union–the Hoop Spur Lodge of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union. The union would give black sharecroppers enhanced leverage to bargain over cotton prices and to eliminate the “take it or leave it” power among the planters that had kept prices artificially low at which sharecroppers sold their cotton. There was a hot, disturbing rumor associated with the union’s organizational efforts that a list existed of white planters in Phillips County targeted for murder and that a black uprising could be forthcoming.

In truth, late into the evening on Tuesday, September 30, 1919, existing and prospective African-American members of a newly formed union and Robert Hill were meeting in the Hoop Spur church, right off of Highway 44, on the northern outskirts of the town of Elaine, some twenty miles southwest of Helena. In addition to the men present, women and infants attended–aggregating about 100 persons. At a little after 11:00 PM, a Model T Ford, whose passengers consisted of the Phillips County deputy sheriff, a security agent from MoPac, and a black “trustee” (prisoner from the county jail), pulled up next to a bridge that crossed the Govan Slough–within eyesight of the guards posted outside the church in case someone tried to interfere with the union proceedings. Within minutes, bullets streamed and whistled through the air and into the church, glass crashed–people inside fell to the floor and over each other, and some crawled out windows and began running into surrounding fields. Outside, next to the car, the MoPac agent lay dead with a load of buckshot in his belly and with another shot in his neck–the car riddled with bullets. The deputy sheriff–with a bullet wound to his knee–crawled to safety along the MoPac tracks, which, at that point, paralleled Highway 44; he would later climb aboard a passing train. The unharmed “trustee” walked to a nearby community. Mysteriously, the Hoop Spur church burned to the ground later that night, disguising the bullet shots that had sprayed the interior.

In three hours, the county sheriff’s office had been informed of the deadly shootout; a few hours later, Helena posses of white men were deputized and on the hunt to crush the black insurrection, which County fathers now feared had begun with the gunfire at Hoop Spur. Mid-morning on October 1st, once past the Hoop Spur church, the Helena posses continued south a short distance and turned west on a dirt road where blacks were living–the shooting of the African-Americans commenced. In addition to the Helena posses, another one came from south to north from Elaine. Blacks hid in the woods, coppices and in the slough that ran roughly along Route 44. Several blacks emerged from the slough holding up their hands, but they were shot and killed. Other African-Americans simply ran, but they too were gunned down–frequently among lineated cotton rows–at the hands of the posses.

The map depicts important scenes of the Elaine Race Massacre. (Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies)

The map depicts important scenes of the Elaine Race Massacre.

According to the note to me from Robert Whitaker, author of On the Laps of Gods, which note appears later in this article, approximately 15-20 African-Americans were killed that first morning. Two additional whites also died–either from blacks shooting at posse members or from friendly fire by or between bands of white shooters.

Groups of whites started to arrive from close communities, Mississippi, Memphis, and other outside areas, and it is reported that those posses were responsible for much indiscriminate killing of blacks, including those who were simply working cotton fields in Phillips County, well away from Hoop Spur and unaware of the events.

Soon after noon on that day, October 1st, with the total tally of whites actually killed so far at three though reported to be four (the fourth turned out to be only a minor wound), a call went out from Phillips County to Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough for help; in turn, Brough sent a message to the nation’s war secretary indicating that four whites had been killed and African-Americans were ready to mass an attack. Specifically, the Governor requested authorization to use federal troops from nearby Camp Pike, thereby bypassing a required step for Governor Brough to first call out the Arkansas National Guard, but the war department quickly consented to the request, and the Governor and the federal troops were shortly on their way to Phillips County via McGehee. According to Whitaker in a following note, most of the African-Americans killed, as part of the Elaine Race Massacre, were slain by the federal troops, including the immolation of one African-American.

How many died in the massacre? There is plenty of documentation on the number of whites killed: Five–one security agent from MoPac, three locals, and a corporal with the federal soldiers. However, one meaningful aspect of the massacre still remains unknown and will undoubtedly remain unknown forever: How many African-Americans actually lost their lives in the massacre? A reporter from the Arkansas Gazette at the time estimated that over 850 blacks had died, but this figure is uniformly discredited as being too high. Possible deaths, among African-Americans, now range from as few as twenty-five, a figure which is discredited as being too low, to hundreds. To attempt to bring order to this chaos, created, in large part, by the necessity of looking retrospectively over nearly 100 years, Robert Whitaker in On the Laps of Gods developed a map entitled “The Killing Fields,” demonstrating, according to his best estimates, the location, the number of African-Americans who died as a result of individual attacks, and the responsible parties for those deaths. As a consequence of my own interest in this unresolved (and likely unresolvable) factor–that is, quantifying the African-Americans killed during the massacre–I reached out to Robert Whitaker to determine the extent to which he could even more specifically estimate or reaffirm the total deaths among African-Americans, based on “The Killing Fields” information that appeared in his book. He was especially cooperative and responded as follows:

. . . one of the military reports said that the military alone had killed 60 or so . . . When I was researching and writing, I spent a great deal of time and effort in mapping out–in time and space–the various reports of killings/shootings, etc. And when I put together that map, I felt confident that it was quite accurate. At first glance, the black and white versions of events seem totally disconnnected, but once I had this mapped out, I could see how–in instance after instance–whites and blacks were describing the same events, albeit with a different perspective.

I put together the map through a variety of sources: local maps at the time, local newspaper reports, the military reports, reports from the federal agents, and then from close attention to the testimony given in the legal case. What comes clear is this:

 The local posses out of Helena, which came that first morning, probably did kill only 15 to 20 blacks. And that became the number they reported in the news, as though that were the total number killed. The killing by the groups that came across from Memphis and other surrounding areas is much harder to count. There are sporadic accounts from whites that tell of various killing events, and I mapped out those best I could. But this part is indeed murky, and this killing went mostly unreported by the white press. Finally, there is the killing by the soldiers called out to put down the “riot.” The white newspapers told at the time that the soldiers restored the peace. But if you look at their own reports, they tell of opening fire with machine guns and of a significant number of blacks killed.

 It is the documentation for the killing by the military, which I write about in the On the Laps of Gods, that is the best evidence, in my opinion, that the total number of killed was above 100. So, I am confident that the map I drew accurately describes reports of killing fields in time and space. And that map does strongly support a total number killed above 100. I personally believe 300 is too high, however. That is because I think that the numbers reported for some of the killing fields, and, in particular, those where the killing was done by the outside posses, were exaggerated by some of the witnesses.

In addition to the reasons Whitaker describes above for difficulty in establishing a precise number of African-Americans killed in the massacre, there are other factors that make a clear calculation impossible. First, an obscurity prevails when such a long time passes between the acts and the search for a realistic record. Second, soon after the massacre, a sizeable group of African-American families and individuals apparently left Phillips County–taking their recollections of the massacre with them. Third, no one, at the time, seemed to have an inclination to take responsibility for documenting this aspect of the massacre. I have no reason to disagree with Whitaker’s view that the figure is “above 100”–with most of that figure attributable to the federal troops and their liberal use of machine gun weaponry. It is, at least, provocative and interesting to note, however, that both the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture and Grif Stockley refer to “hundreds” of African-Americans having perished in the Elaine Race Massacre.

The Threat of A Mob: Justice in Phillips County

Even while federal troops continued to “restore order” to Phillips County, African-Americans were being arrested and impounded–in the Elaine school building, the Phillips County jail annexed to the Courthouse, and buildings nearby both. But the County fathers had an immediate problem. A large number of blacks and a white lawyer, suspected of aiding the sharecroppers, were now held in the County jail, and a sizeable lynch mob had been forming on and off outside the Courthouse during the day on Thursday, October 2nd. County leaders held a deep concern that a mass lynching would further scar the image of Helena for future economic prospects, but, even more, multiple lynchings would surely cause an expanded, immediate, and substantial exodus of African-Americans out of the County–after all, the cotton needed to be picked. The doors of the Courthouse swung opened in the early evening, and the mob was invited inside – doors being locked behind them. At this point, County leaders and plutocrats cajoled the mob into foregoing any further violence; in turn, the mob received a promise from the County fathers that the guilty parties would be prosecuted and electrocuted with celerity. Based on these assurances, the mob dispersed and departed. The promise to a mob and the associated judicial and political proceedings in Phillips County and the State of Arkansas set a course that, in less than four years, concluded with a U. S. Supreme Court decision altering and guarding civil rights in the future.

The puissant center of Phillips County was the County seat, Helena. As the principal heart for the administration of justice in the County, the home for many of the white planters, the social and cultural fulcrum of the region, and, at the time, one of the larger cities in Arkansas, Helena had a key role in weaving the tapestry for the massacre in the aftermath of the violence. The trials of the African-Americans would be held there, black prisoners jailed there, and speeches by County fathers to the “lynching” mob were given there that conveyed assurance swift “justice” would be meted out against the black murderers and insurgents if the crowd just let justice run its course.

By the end of the week, the County fathers had another problem. The Elaine Race Massacre (referred to, at the time, by a series of different appellations) started to gain wide interest throughout Arkansas and the country with many inquiries coming into Helena. What could be said that made sense from the perspectives of the Governor and the County fathers? Further, before leaving Phillips County on Friday, Governor Brough had appointed a Committee of Seven, composed of the County Judge, the mayor of Helena, and prominent landowners, to investigate and decide on the African-Americans to be prosecuted. A story needed to be fashioned and transmitted to cogently satisfy relevant interests, and one finally evolved. On Tuesday night, September 30, the deputy sheriff and the MoPac security agent, not knowing that a union meeting was in progress, had simply stopped next to the Hoop Spur church to fix a tire and were ambushed by blacks, resulting in the death of the MoPac security agent and a bullet wound to the deputy sheriff. The following morning, posses dispersed to arrest the blacks responsible for the murder, but the whites had been overpowered by a more significant force of African-Americans with high-powered rifles. Posses from neighboring states and towns came to help, and federal troops joined in the efforts to quell the insurrection–blacks were waging war against whites in Phillips County. According to this story, a written list existed of twenty-one planters to be killed by the African-Americans, and the tale went on to relate that the initial counts of dead blacks had been seriously exaggerated–no more than fourteen actually died.

Anyone familiar with the massacre knew this version to be fabricated. Indeed, the U. S. Justice Department immediately disseminated several agents, arriving on Friday, October 3rd, to uncover the truth about the deadly conflict. The report that came back to Justice contained a completely different story from the “official,” local one: There had been no planned slaughter of whites by the African-Americans, and the number of blacks killed had actually been many times greater than fourteen. However, operating under the Woodrow Wilson Administration’s policies regarding African-Americans, the Justice Department simply allowed the report to be innocuously filed away; in point of fact, a local Justice Department official, involved in the investigation, even offered comments, at the time, supportive of the local version.

Now came a difficult phase: The prosecution of the African-American union and other leaders in accordance with the County fathers’ story. Prisoners in the County Courthouse, the blacks to appear in court needed to be “convinced.” To receive the desired testimony, City and County law enforcement officers, the black “trustee,” and MoPac security agents would invoke various techniques, including conversation, severe whipping, suffocation, and visits to an electric chair with the current increased until pain couldn’t be sustained, to persuade the prisoners of the “official,” local account. After one, two or three sessions of treatment, most African-Americans could be counted upon to adhere to the version requested, though some blacks still chose to adopt refractory stands instead.

The legal proceedings for those accused were, as an understatement, speedy. Interrogations of the prisoners started on Saturday, October 4th, with a report being issued two days later. Then began the determination of which of the three hundred, imprisoned black men should be indicted for murder–it took just a few days to dispose of those decisions. On Monday, October 27th, the grand jury convened, and the trials commenced on Monday, November 3rd. In advance, County leaders and plutocrats developed the list of lawyers who would serve as prosecutors, and the judge, overseeing the trials, decided on defense counsel for the African-American sharecroppers. Though well credentialed, attorneys for the defense often asked questions that reinforced or improved the prosecutors’ positions, or they didn’t follow up on questions at all. Moreover, the jury box included law enforcement officers and men who took part in the posses that went to Elaine. The trials themselves were also handled with dispatch, and jury verdicts with even more haste–juries often returning decisions in as little time as two minutes.

On November 21st, just eighteen days after the first trial began and less than seven weeks after the massacre, seventy-four convicted, shackled, black prisoners boarded a train–sixty-two headed to Cummins State Farm for lesser crimes, such as second degree murder, assault to kill, and “night riding,” and twelve led on their way to The Walls, a prison located just out of Little Rock, where the Elaine Twelve were scheduled to be electrocuted for murder – six on December 27th and the other six on January 2nd. Thus far, County fathers had lived up to their promise to the lynch mob.

At this moment, however, a new figure enters the drama, and the County fathers could not have possibly envisioned the role this black attorney from Little Rock would play in determining the ultimate conclusion to the Elaine Race Massacre.

 

Part 3 of the 4-part “Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre”
will be posted this Friday.

 

Copyright © 2012 by J. Chester Johnson

J. Chester Johnson

J. CHESTER JOHNSON has written verse for over forty years. His work received praise from writers and poets spanning several decades–from, among others, Allen Tate and Nobel Laureate I. B. Singer to current, well-known poets, such as Molly Peacock and Major Jackson, who commented, regarding Johnson’s most recent volume, St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems: “Undoubtedly, this is a work headed for literary permanence in our collective ear.” In his twenties, Johnson served with W. H. Auden as the two poets for the retranslation of the Psalms, as now contained in The Book of Common Prayer. For the last ten years, “St. Paul’s Chapel,” the signature poem for his recent book of verse, has been the memento card for the approximately 30,000 weekly visitors to the Chapel, which was the relief center for the recovery workers at Ground Zero following 9/11. He and his wife, Freda, live in New York City and have two children.

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