ELAINE — Main Street in this Arkansas Delta town is all but abandoned on a steamy Saturday afternoon in July. A photographer can stand in the middle of the street and take pictures of the aging storefronts and trademark birdhouses for long minutes before a black pickup truck cruises in from the west and slows to a stop.
“What y’all doing?” asks the driver, a middle-aged white man.
The answer makes him frown.
“It wasn’t really a massacre, you know. You folks are making too big a deal out of it. You’re just going to make Elaine look bad.”
No 21st century historian disputes that what happened 100 years ago was, in fact, a massacre. A monument that will be dedicated across the street from the Phillips County Courthouse in Helena on Sept. 29 is called the Elaine Massacre Memorial. Since the killing stretched over at least three days — starting on Sept. 30, 1919 — and involved separate waves of combatants, some historians refer to massacres, plural.
And it was a very big deal. A minimum of 20 people died, five of them white men whose identities were duly recorded and whose deaths were avenged by convicting scores of black men and sentencing 12 to death. The rest of the dead were black men, women and children, at least 15 people with estimates ranging into the hundreds.
Elaine’s place in civil rights history also looms large. The U.S. Supreme Court took a look at the sham “mob dominated” trials that followed the massacre and issued a ruling that seems self-evident today but was groundbreaking in 1923: The federal government would guarantee the constitutional right to due process when a state’s court system failed.
“The Moore v. Dempsey case was one of the first victories that the NAACP will have and one of the first blows against lynching in America,” Brian Mitchell, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and researcher of the Elaine massacre, said in a recent interview. “And [defense attorney] Scipio A. Jones is propelled to national stature, and, once the prisoners are released, he’s seen as one of the premier black lawyers in the United States after that point.”
Jones’ victory is celebrated on Main Street in Elaine today with a green space designated Turning Point Park.
The Red Summer
The Elaine massacre was nothing like an isolated case, although an accurate accounting of casualties might cement its place as the deadliest. There were so many “race clashes” — The New York Times’ catch-all term for 40 or more riots, massacres and lynchings from Connecticut to Nebraska — that the warm months of 1919 have come to be known as “The Red Summer.”
Some of the incidents that year were directly attributed to individual crimes like rape. But even those played out against a backdrop of labor unrest in an economy fundamentally changed by the conjunction of rapid industrialization and World War I. Industrialized Northern cities attracted an influx of black workers from the South, an estimated 500,000 during the war, in which the United States was fully engaged for only a year and a half. Returning veterans, white and black, were also attracted to the factory jobs; there was much truth in the 1919 vaudeville novelty hit “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”
But industrialization had not yet relieved the Arkansas Delta of its need for cheap, plentiful farm labor, and that’s what sparked the Elaine massacre. Phillips County was home to some 45,000 people — well over twice its current population — and a large majority were black. Cotton farming was the dominant industry, and while a few African Americans owned farms, most worked as sharecroppers on white-owned land.
In 1919, organizers from the Progressive Farmers & Household Union were holding surreptitious meetings with Phillips County sharecroppers. Their aim was to claim an equitable share of the profits from that season’s cotton — a bumper crop at elevated postwar prices.
“They could have gotten ahead,” Mitchell said. “They could have made thousands if they had been paid fairly — enough easily to go out and buy their own land and do [for themselves] what they had been doing for whites.” And that was particularly ominous at a time when black laborers were migrating north in droves. “Nobody likes to lose their labor,” Mitchell said.
There seems to be no dispute about this much of the story:
Late on the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 30, black sharecroppers, some of them WWI veterans, were meeting with union organizers at a rural church in the area known as Hoop Spur, about 3 miles north of Elaine. Three men arrived at the church at about 11 p.m. and a firefight broke out, leaving a white security officer for the Missouri Pacific Railroad dead and a white deputy sheriff wounded. The third man, a black trusty, was also wounded.
By the next morning, the sheriff had raised an all-white posse to arrest members of the union, and reports that the sharecroppers were planning an insurrection attracted hundreds of white volunteers from the Arkansas Delta — including from the newly formed and all-white American Legion Post at Helena — and even from across the river in Mississippi. Three white posse members were killed on Oct. 1.
Gov. Charles Hillman Brough (“Bruff”) received repeated requests for help from local law enforcement, and he got permission from Washington to move more than 500 white Army troops from Camp Pike in North Little Rock to Elaine. Brough and the troops, under the command of Col. Issac Jenks, arrived on Thursday morning, Oct. 2.
Jenks’ official report says one white soldier was killed, the last of the white fatalities.
Beyond that, almost every other major issue is unknown — like the number of black deaths and what happened to their bodies — or in dispute. Why were the three men at the Hoop Spur church property in the middle of the night? Who fired the first shot, and did the Camp Pike troops create more mayhem than they prevented?
“Negroes Plan to Kill All Whites” blared a headline in the Arkansas Gazette on Oct. 3, 1919. But there are holes in the official narrative, which had the white deputy, white security guard and black trusty saving white society after stopping to change a flat (or “take a leak”) and interrupting planning for an insurrection by black sharecroppers.
Mitchell’s research uncovered correspondence between E.M. Allen, president of the Business Men’s League of Helena, and Gov. Henry Allen of Kansas, who refused to extradite a fugitive union organizer back to stand trial in Phillips County. E.M. Allen’s letters, according to Mitchell, reveal that “he knew the whole time they were meeting, he knew why they were meeting, he had spies in the union. That these officers just happened to break down and walk to a church in the middle of nowhere and were shot at is very unlikely.”
Little Rock lawyer and historian Grif Stockley wrote a groundbreaking history of the massacres — he used the plural — in 2001. In “Blood in Their Eyes,” he notes that a book published just six years after the killings by an itinerant newspaper reporter named Louis Sharpe Dunaway would put an astonishing and specific number — unattributed to any source — on the carnage: “856 dead negro bodies with a wounded list probably five times greater.”
Among the few African American dead identified by name were Helena dentist D.A.E. Johnston and his three brothers. Johnston’s wife was the daughter of a prominent black businessman, A.H. Miller, and the great-aunt of U.S. District Judge Brian Miller and his brother, Kyle Miller, director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage’s Delta Cultural Center at Helena.
“When we were kids, our daddy would make references to it,” Kyle Miller said earlier this month. But it was Stockley’s book that filled in the gaps of the family tragedy and was “very much appreciated and very satisfying.”
In fact, Stockley’s research found several versions of the Johnston brothers’ deaths. In the official version reported in the Helena World, Johnston, the dentist and businessman, was an unlikely sharecropper union ringleader who killed a member of the white posse named O.C. Lilly, and Johnston and his brothers were immediately executed by other posse members in self-defense.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, then just 10 years old, received a very different report, Stockley wrote. In it, the Johnston brothers were returning from a hunting trip when they learned of the rampage. Rather than risk encountering white vigilantes on the road, they boarded a train for Helena. They were subsequently pulled off the train by a white mob, shackled and placed in an automobile. It was there, according to the NAACP version, that Dr. Johnston managed to grab Lilly’s pistol and shoot him to death. “The officers and the mob then shot the [Johnston brothers] literally to pieces,” the NAACP manuscript recounted.
In still another version reported by legendary African American journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the Johnstons were passive victims shot to death while in the custody of the white posse. The bodies of at least two of the Johnston brothers were photographed where they were deposited in a ditch and were subsequently ransomed by their family, Kyle Miller said.
But even the final resting place of the Johnston brothers isn’t known, according to Mitchell, the UA Little Rock professor. “We know ballpark [but] there’s not a single grave of an African American who was killed that we know definitely,” he said.
The Legal Fight
A telling detail of the criminal justice system in the Arkansas Delta in 1919 is the fact that Gov. Brough sought to persuade Gov. Allen of Kansas to extradite labor organizer Robert Hill by assuring him that there was “no danger of lynching.” Gov. Allen replied that he wasn’t worried about lynching but about an “equally unfortunate thing” — that Hill would be “tried by passion and racial bitterness.”
(This correspondence is documented in a chapter Mitchell wrote for a 2018 book called “The Elaine Massacre & Arkansas,” edited by Guy Lancaster, editor of the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas.)
It was just such trials, by all-white juries, that resulted in a dozen men being sentenced to death for the murders of four white men, Lilly’s death having been blamed on the dead Johnston brothers. Another 36 men pleaded guilty to second-degree murder rather than risk the death penalty, while scores more were convicted of lesser crimes — including the crime of attending a union meeting.
True to Brough’s word, none of the convicted was lynched. But neither were they executed. Their trials were so faulty, even by 1919 standards, that six of the condemned men were ultimately set free because the state failed to retry them within two years after their convictions were overturned on appeal — for the second time.
The remaining six, known as the Moore defendants, were the beneficiaries of NAACP-funded representation, led by Scipio Jones of Little Rock, and a groundbreaking decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, written for the majority by the legendary Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Here is a section in which Holmes describes the convictions, barely a month after the massacre, which the ruling overturned:
“On November 3 the petitioners were brought into Court, informed that a certain lawyer was appointed their counsel and were placed on trial before a white jury — blacks being systematically excluded from both grand and petit juries. The Court and neighborhood were thronged with an adverse crowd that threatened the most dangerous consequences to anyone interfering with the desired result. The counsel did not venture to demand a delay or a change of venue, to challenge a juryman or to ask for separate trials. He had had no preliminary consultation with the accused, called no witnesses for the defence although they could have been produced, and did not put the defendants on the stand. The trial lasted about three-quarters of an hour and in less than five minutes the jury brought in a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. According to the allegations and affidavits there never was a chance for the petitioners to be acquitted; no juryman could have voted for an acquittal and continued to live in Phillips County and if any prisoner by any chance had been acquitted by a jury he could not have escaped the mob.”
Brough’s successor as governor, Thomas McRae, furloughed the Moore defendants in 1925. They were never retried.
At 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 29, one day shy of the centennial of the start of the violence, the privately funded Elaine Massacre Memorial will be unveiled at 622 Walnut St. in Helena, across the street from the Phillips County Courthouse.
Kyle Miller, a member of the Elaine Massacre Memorial Committee, confirmed that the plan to commemorate such a dark chapter in history met resistance from people who, like the pickup driver, fear that it will be unflattering to Elaine.
“Initially we did,” he said. “But we felt like the good of it outweighs the flak. And we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”
The memorial was designed by Amoz Eckerson of Helena. An announcement of the dedication ceremony explains the purpose: “The memorial honors those who died and provides a permanent place for mourning, healing, and reconciliation.”
While Brian Mitchell, the history professor, dreams of a state-funded search for artifacts and remains, Miller believes the memorial itself could coax long-buried information out of the descendants of participants and witnesses.
“I think people are going to start coming forward,” he said. “You can’t keep thinking it’s going to go away.”
Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series of business history feature stories. Suggestions for future Fifth Monday articles are welcome. Please contact Gwen Moritz at GMoritz@ABPG.com.