The 1919 Elaine Massacre Was a Violent Response to Black Sharecropper Organizing
Black sharecroppers organizing a union were slaughtered en masse 103 years ago this week in the Elaine Massacre. It was one of the US’s worst episodes of racist violence — and a reminder that Jim Crow was about keeping the masses divided and labor brutalized.
After the sun went down on Tuesday, September 30, 1919, black sharecroppers and their families descended upon the small church in Hoop Spur, outside of the eastern Arkansas town of Elaine, to attend the third-ever meeting of the local branch of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA).
The excitement and hope in the packed building were palpable. Union leaders likely led the group in rallying songs like “The Favor,” set to the tune of “Maryland, My Maryland.”
Yes everywhere throughout this land
The tillers of the soil must stand
And be a firm united band
Organize, Oh Organize!
To firmly stand against each wrong
Organize, Oh Organize!
Your only hope is union strong
Organize, Oh Organize!
Throughout the region, sharecroppers generally received payment just once a year, at harvest time. After paying for housing and land rent, as well as purchasing food and supplies at the plantation commissary, most sharecroppers found themselves barely breaking even or, worse yet, still in debt.
In previous years, cotton had only been selling for around 14 cents per pound. But in 1919, cotton was fetching over three times that amount, and landowners were raking in record profits. The time to act, the sharecroppers decided, was now.
The PFHUA, formed a year earlier by a black man named Robert L. Hill, had established itself in three small communities across the county. Their aims were bold in the Jim Crow South: “We Battle For The Rights Of Our Race. In Union Is Strength. We Champion the Moral, Material, Political, and Intellectual Interests of Our Race.”
Foremost on the union’s agenda was to break the chains of the tenant and landowner bond. Union members were encouraged to buy shares in a joint stock company, with the goal of one day buying their own land to farm. In nearby Ratio, five miles south of Elaine, members had enlisted a white lawyer named Ulysses S. Bratton to bring suit against their employer.
Although still in its infancy, the union was immediately recognized as a threat by those in power. Collective worker action, black self-organization — these were anathema to the planter class that presided over the South’s plutocratic, white-supremacist order, which kept the masses divided, wages low, and labor brutalized.
And the ruling class’s hysteria over organized black sharecroppers would soon trigger one of the worst episodes of racist, anti-labor violence in US history.
As the sharecroppers crowded into the Hoop Spur church that September night, frenzied conspiracy theories about a violent black insurrection had been spreading. As an Arkansas newspaper put it days later, reporting the crackpot rumors as fact: “NEGROES PLAN TO KILL ALL WHITES / SLAUGHTER WAS TO BEGIN WITH 21 PROMINENT MEN AS THE FIRST VICTIMS / ‘WE JUST BEGUN’ PASSWORD.”
At around 11 PM, three carloads of white men pulled up to the church, guns in tow. They began firing indiscriminately, buffeting the small structure with a fusillade of bullets. Men, women, and children were all felled in the once quiet Arkansas night.
As bullets pummeled the gathering, armed guards tasked with protecting it fired back, killing one white man, a Missouri Pacific railroad security officer. The toll was much higher for the sharecroppers: journalist Ida B. Wells estimated that eighty black people died that night, although the church and the bodies in it were set on fire shortly after, destroying any evidence.
But the terror was not over for those lucky enough to survive the ambush. Throughout the night, a mob led by a white farm manager continued to search for people hiding in the woods. By the morning, the county sheriff had deputized a posse of three hundred men, including American Legion members, many of them World War I veterans.
Hundreds of others rushed in from nearby towns like Helena and across the river in Mississippi, intent on joining the swelling vigilante posse. The black sharecroppers sought help from surrounding communities, and sharecroppers from a plantation west of Elaine joined the defensive line. But it was a bloodbath, with casualties overwhelmingly on the sharecropper side.
Troops were called in, ostensibly to help quell the violence. Armed with rifles and machine guns — and given orders to shoot anyone who resisted being rounded up — they only made matters worse.
Troops packed black residents into hot freight cars, one-room schoolhouses, and other makeshift stockades, freeing them only if their landlords or other leading white citizens vouched for them. In many cases, sharecroppers’ crops were harvested and sold, and their belongings were removed from the farms they worked while they were forced to languish in custody.
“It Is Not a Race Riot”
As the bloodletting continued, the local ruling class moved to cover it up. A group calling itself the “Committee of Seven” asked Governor Charles Hillman Brough for the authority to lead its own investigation and issue press updates. The committee was a who’s who of local elites: the county sheriff and his acting sheriff; a local judge; Helena’s mayor; prominent real estate investors and businessmen. One repeated the outlandish rumors of a black uprising while downplaying the massacre itself:
The present trouble with the Negroes in Phillips County is not a race riot. It is a deliberately planned insurrection of the Negroes against the whites directed by an organization known as the “Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America,” established for banding Negroes together for the killing of white people.
And yet no attacks had been carried out against white landowners or their families. The four white posse members who had lost their lives were killed by sharecroppers acting in self-defense. Estimates of the total number of black citizens killed ranged from one hundred to as many as seven hundred.
Reports describe bodies littering the landscape. The Memphis Press reported that “enraged citizens fired at the dead bodies of the negroes as they rode out of Helena toward Elaine” or dragged corpses behind their cars. Witnesses recounted stories of white people taking body parts, clothing, and other mementos from dead bodies, a chilling but common act after lynchings.
Even black residents with no union association became targets of the mob. Four African American brothers — local dentist D. A. E. Johnston, Oklahoma physician Louis Johnston, car dealership owner Gibson Johnston, and their war hero brother Leroy Johnston — had been on a recreational hunting trip when the slaughter began. When they returned to town on October 2, they were stopped by a mob and forced into a vehicle against their will. According to Ida B. Wells, the brothers were murdered by a man named Amos Jarman, Helena postmaster and Phillips County commissioner. Their bodies remained on the side of the road for days, left as a warning to all who passed.
The mass murder stretched through the week, as local elites continued to churn out obfuscating propaganda. On October 7, the Committee of Seven published a circular urging people to get back to work, claiming that no “innocent Negro has been arrested.” The flyer instructed, “All you have to do is remain at work as if nothing has happened.”
While local white papers downplayed the violence and tried to point fingers at Socialist agitators, black publications outside the region pressed for more details. Walter White, then a field secretary for the NAACP, went undercover and wrote several articles for the Crisis and Chicago Daily News about workers’ conditions in Arkansas. Ida B. Wells reported on the massacre for the Chicago Defender, later publishing a report of her own challenging the distorted picture coming out of eastern Arkansas.
The Aftermath of the Massacre
The violence in Elaine rounded out what civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson dubbed the “Red Summer.” Over six months, roughly four dozen locations across the United States were rocked by racist outbreaks, from race riots in large cities like Washington and Chicago to lynchings and other forms of violence in small communities — the brothers tarred and feathered in the college town of Orono, Maine; the church and meeting lodge shot up and burned in Cadwell, Georgia; the lynching advertised ahead of time in the local newspaper, with thousands in attendance, in Ellisville, Mississippi.
While circumstances varied, certain details were consistent across the episodes — namely, angry white mobs, often inflamed by competition over jobs and housing, violently enforcing the color line. Elaine had additional similarities to other events that summer, including the involvement of both black and white soldiers recently returned from the war, the destruction of black community gathering places, and rumors of left-wing involvement and black Bolshevism.
The trials in Elaine began almost immediately, mere weeks after the unrest. But of the nearly three hundred people arrested, all were black. One hundred and twenty-two were charged with crimes, ranging from murder to night-riding. In the end, over one hundred cases were sent forward, even though the jail’s capacity was only one-quarter that size. Interviews with prisoners after the fact reveal that many were beaten to get them to confess to joining a murderous insurrection. Although the accused were given legal representation, the white lawyers made no efforts to meet their clients, challenge jury members, interview or call witnesses, or otherwise attempt to make any case for innocence.
The “Elaine Twelve,” as they were known, were tried for murder in the first degree. The men were split into two groups: Frank Moore, Frank and Ed Hicks, Joe Knox, Paul Hall, and Ed Coleman were known as the Moore defendants. Alfred Banks, Ed Ware, William Wordlaw, Albert Giles, Joe Fox, and John Martin were called the Ware defendants.
Deliberating just minutes per case, the juries found all twelve guilty. Half were sentenced to death by electric chair on December 27, the other half on January 2. Legal maneuvering by both sides drew the case out for years, however, delaying the executions.
The NAACP organized the defendants’ appeal, hiring noted black lawyer Scipio Africanus Jones and former Arkansas attorney general George W. Murphy to lead the case. In August 1921, two witnesses changed their earlier testimonies, admitting they had intimidated and tortured the men to get them to confess.
The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 6–2 that mob intimidation and the defendants’ rushed trials deprived the men of the due process guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment. It was a landmark legal victory for civil rights, establishing precedence for wider use of federal writs of habeas corpus to oversee state court convictions that involved violations of citizens’ federal constitutional rights.
While the sharecroppers union was crushed by the Elaine Massacre, other unions had success organizing black sharecroppers and farmers. Between 1931 and 1936, the Alabama Sharecroppers Union made headway in organizing black tenant farmers in the region. With the support of the Communist Party, the largely black-led organization fought to boost wages, improve working and living conditions, and secure nine-month public education for black children.
Around the same time, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union was founded about one hundred miles north of Elaine at a one-room schoolhouse in Tyronza, Arkansas. At its height, in 1938, the union claimed over thirty thousand members across Southern states, with over three hundred locals.
In 2019, one day shy of the one hundredth anniversary of the Elaine Massacre, a memorial was dedicated to its victims across from the county courthouse in Helena. The former Elaine elementary school is now the Elaine Legacy Center, which speaks of reparations and healing to a community that is still split on how to remember the violence.
Before the center opened, it was a victim of arson. Other attempts to memorialize this brutal moment in local history have also been met with pushback: a local willow tree planted as a symbol of peace was summarily chopped down in the dark of night before it had a chance to properly take root.
Yet the Elaine Massacre is a crucial event to remember — not only as perhaps “the bloodiest racial conflict” in US history, but as a window into the economic underpinnings of Jim Crow tyranny. Black disenfranchisement and white-supremacist terror rested on a fetid bed of debt peonage and coerced labor that kept wages low and the plantations running.
After the massacre, the sharecroppers who survived were left with no money, no housing, and no jobs. Their only choices were to, as the Committee of Seven recommended, put their heads down and find other landlords to toil for, or, as many black sharecroppers in the Delta decided, join the Great Migration to northern cities.
But the memory of their resistance didn’t die out. As tenant farmers and sharecroppers organized in the 1930s, as civil rights activists organized in the 1960s, as even Amazon workers and poultry workers organize below the Mason-Dixon today, they carry with them those brave sharecroppers who stood up to racial tyranny and the planter class in the depths of the Jim Crow South.