On this daySep 30, 1919

Hundreds of Black People Killed in Elaine, Arkansas, Massacre

Image | Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System

On the night of September 30, 1919, approximately 100 black farmers attended a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America at a church in Phillips County, Arkansas. Many of the farmers were sharecroppers on white-owned plantations in the area and the meeting was held to discuss ways they could organize to demand fairer payments for their crops.

Black labor unions such as the Progressive Farmers were deeply resented among white landowners throughout the country because unions threatened to weaken white aristocratic power. The union also made efforts to subvert racial divisions in labor relations and had hired a white attorney to negotiate with land owners for better cotton prices.

Knowing that black union organizing often attracted opposition, black men stood as armed guards around the church while the Phillips County meeting took place. When a group of white people from the Missouri-Pacific Railroad attempted to intrude and spy on the meeting, the guards held them back and a shootout erupted. At least two white men were killed, and enraged white mobs quickly formed.

The mobs descended on the nearby black town of Elaine, Arkansas, destroying homes and businesses and attacking anyone in their path. Terrified black residents, including women, children, and the elderly, fled their homes and hid for their lives in nearby woods and fields. A responding federal troop regiment claimed only two black people were killed but many reports challenged the white soldiers’ credibility and accused them of participating in the massacre. Today, historians estimate hundreds of black people were killed in the massacre.

When the violence was quelled, sixty-seven black people were arrested and charged with inciting violence, while dozens more faced other charges. No white attackers were prosecuted, but twelve black union members convicted of riot-related charges were sentenced to death. The NAACP represented the men on appeal and successfully obtained reversals of all of their death sentences.

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