How have I not heard of Elaine, Arkansas before?


It was yesterday, just yesterday, I read about the events that occurred there over 100 years ago. I attended respectable public schools, I went to two well-funded undergraduate universities, and I took courses in American history. I come from a blue-collar family with a deep devotion to unions and labor, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, land of the Wobblies, and was informally schooled in union history. I’ve long known who Joe Hill was. But Elaine, Arkansas? What was that about?

Well, as I learned only on 15 November 2021, just by chance, that in 1919 a group of black farmers, sharecroppers, met in a church to organize, form a union, and get better prices for their crops and hard work. Since this was intolerable to the wealthy white landowners who got rich off their labor, and since it was easy to inflame the poor whites in the region against their black neighbors, what followed was four days of slaughter.

When white leaders heard, they reacted with violence. Newspapers reported that white mobs, over four days, chased Black men, women and children, slaughtering them in Elaine and across the green farms and swamps of Phillips County.

All the Black farmers wanted were fair prices, but “that’s like the revolution has occurred because that threatens to shift the entire power structure of the South in the favor of Black farmers,” said Dr. Paul Ortiz, a history professor and director of the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program.

Historians say the massacre claimed five white lives and more than 200 Black lives, though the true number of Black deaths is unknown and some estimates put it much higher.

What? Furthermore, this was one incident in many which occurred over Red Summer, which I’d also never heard about. There were riots all across the Midwest and South, from Chicago, IL down to Port Arthur, TX. White people were rampaging. And I knew nothing about it.

Yesterday was humbling. I had no idea how ignorant I was. Sure, I’d heard of the Tulsa Massacre in 1921, but did not realize it was part of a vast evil wave of vicious, blatant racism.

But how? How could such horrific events by quietly buried?

White newspapers filled their front pages with sensational headlines about a Black uprising, ignoring the economic inequality at the core of the conflict.

As the U.S. has reckoned with its racist past, the 1919 Elaine Massacre — one of the deadliest acts of violence against Black people in American history — has drawn new attention, especially in the years surrounding its 100th anniversary. That year, hundreds of Black people were killed in at least 25 cities across the country, a violent siege today called “Red Summer.”

The cover-up orchestrated by Elaine’s wealthy white landowners and the government, aided by the white-centric reporting of white-owned newspapers, led to a scarcity of information about the massacre.

Headlines such as “VICIOUS BLACKS WERE PLANNING GREAT UPRISING” and “NEGROES HAVE BEEN AROUSED BY PROPAGANDA” were atop the front pages of the Arkansas Gazette on Oct. 3, 1919, and Oct. 4, 1919, respectively.

“NEGROES HAD PLOT TO RISE AGAINST WHITES, CHARGED,” read the front page of the Arkansas Democrat on the third day of the massacre.

Surely, the impartial American justice system would levy righteous retribution on the mob? Nope.

Despite the work of the Black press, white newspapers continued to perpetuate their false story. After hundreds of Black people were massacred, no white people were tried in their deaths.

Black people were rounded up, jailed in Helena and tortured until they confessed a role in the deaths of the five white people — part of a legal cover-up concocted by a committee of wealthy white farmers and businessmen appointed by the governor.

In the end, estimates range between 65-75 Black men were sentenced to long-term prison sentences and 12 were sentenced to death. A years-long legal battle fought by the NAACP resulted in two cases, one of which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (Moore v. Dempsey) while the other went to the Arkansas Supreme Court. The high courts agreed that the men’s due-process rights had been violated, and none of the 12 were executed.

Now I think of all the black people murdered in recent history, and it’s clear — this is the arc of our history. George Floyd could be murdered by an armed white thug on the most trivial of pretexts, and the press tells us that Floyd was “no angel”. Trayvon Martin can walk out to buy Skittles and come home to be shot to death by a vigilante…and we hear that he was “no angel”, either, and his murderer is acquitted. It’s all the same story, told over and over again, and echoed and reinforced by our incompetent, unprincipled media.

And so it goes.

Today, of course, the Republican party is animated by a fanatical desire to paper over our shame, to keep our kids ignorant of the systematic injustices perpetrated in this country by whiteness and white people for centuries. I also am the beneficiary of the historical crimes that bled black and brown people to give me some relative prosperity, but I have no desire to close my eyes to it — I want to know. It’s the only way we can end this cycle of oppression. All these complaints about CRT are nothing but attempts to blind us to the truth, and keep the hate going.

God damn it, I’m 64 years old and the media has succeeded in keeping me in the dark almost my entire life.

Comments

  1. R. L. Foster says

    Then there are the many stories of Black WW1 veterans who were murdered by White mobs upon their return home. The stories all read about the same. A Black vet comes home after serving in the war, asserts his rights as a free man, there is an altercation or perceived insult to a White woman, and then the lynching and gunfire ensues. They are perceived as a threat to the traditional, segregated southern way of life. Or the White dominated economic order. They became targets of local whites, who wanted them to return to their former subordinate positions.

    ‘Thank you for your service.’ Service to whom? The White socio-political order, that’s who. If I ever hear that smug, self-congratulatory refrain again I’ll effing scream.

  2. charles says

    fulcrumx #1 The lack of names of the whites involved is probably editorial decision of the local newspapers. Just as the uncertainty of the number of blacks murdered.

  3. tedw says

    You shouldn’t feel too bad about not knowing about a racist massacre that occurred half away across the country from you. Here in Augusta, GA few people know about the Hamburg massacre (http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2016/04/confederate-heritage-month-hamburg-and.html) even though it occurred right across the Savannah river from us and it helped launch the careers of several prominent South Carolina politicians. Including one of the most racist governors in South Carolina history (and that is saying something), “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman. Right-wing cancel culture has been hiding our racist history even as it was happening.

  4. KG says

    Why do those whites not have names in this post? – fulcrumx@1

    None of the 200+ black people massacred were named in the post either. Why did you ask speciifcally about the 5 whites? (As if I couldn’t guess.)

  5. says

    I always wonder how many of the whites involved in these atrocities went on to become mayors, congressmen, chiefs of police, and other “pillars of the community”; that’s why the identities of the perpetrators get buried. But their attitudes don’t change.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    A full year of U. S. history was a requirement in my high school. As I recall, it was almost exclusively about the wars “we” won, and I believe it stopped shortly after WWII. Ending slavery was mentioned as one of “many complex” reasons the Civil War was fought, but I had no idea that slavery was a common thing all the way back to the founding of the colonies, or that any place outside of the South had ever had it. Reconstruction and its ending? Not a word. Jim Crow? Never even heard the term. Redlining, segregation in the armed forces, or even the Negro Baseball League? Nope, nein, nyet. How about Martin Luther King Jr.? Even though he had been assasinated less than a decade before, he might as well have never been born according to my full year of U. S. history classes.

  7. Akira MacKenzie says

    …in 1919 a group of black farmers, sharecroppers, met in a church to organize, form a union, and get better prices for their crops and hard work.

    Average American Conservative: “AHA! You see! I told you that abolition, desegregation, civil rights, BLM, and CRT are all COMMUNISM IN DISGUISE! One day they’re drinking out of your water fountains and mixing races, the next they are seizing the means of productions and sending white Christian Americans to the gulags!!!”

  8. kestrel says

    I’m still furious at the lack of education I received in “history” class. It may as well have been called “Racist Shit that White People Want to Believe is True” class. Fortunately I also learned how to read and could find out for myself once I left school but still.

  9. says

    There’s a simple answer to “How could such horrific events [be] quietly buried?”:

    Because history is big, and complex, and no matter how important it is for indoctrination there will always be parts of the story left out. (And the less said about “US History” getting a full year and “World History” getting a semester if we’re lucky, the better.) Events that don’t fit with even well-meaning preconceived dominionist narratives — and that’s not a uniquely American phenomenon, you should see what’s taught in history classes for teenagers in the UK and Germany and Japan — get at best deemphasized and in all probability completely neglected.

    And most dominionist narratives are not actually well meant. Consider who the President of the US was at the time of the events in Elaine… and remember that That Individual was the epitome of the American educational establishment before running for office.

    The problem with “survey courses” in the humanities and social sciences is that they often don’t acknowledge — not even to themselves — that they’re surveys. And when there are no follow-up electives even available in the course catalog of high-school education, it’s much worse; the fact that there’s only a single course in “US History” (lock step in the 16-17-year-old academic year) subtly states and reinforces that “this is all there is, at least until you go away to that egghead college and even then it’s not a requirement, and it will fit directly into this survey anyway so why bother?”

  10. Dennis K says

    @13 – RE the president at the time — I had to look it up. Curious that in the same month as this massacre, Wilson suffered an incapacitating stroke. Per wikipedia, “His wife and his doctor controlled Wilson, and no significant decisions were made.”

  11. moarscienceplz says

    @Dennis K #13
    While I doubt Wilson had a direct hand in any of these atrocities, he was a shocking racist. When he came into office, the US government was officially unsegregated (one of the few relics of Reconstruction not dismantled). Wilson swiftly acted to resegregate. Also, he held a special viewing of Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith’s film based on The Clansman in the White House. While these two examples that come to my mind may not persuade you that he was super racist even for a white male in the early 20th century, a good biography of him would.

  12. raven says

    About Woodrow Wilsonhttps://www.wilsoncenter.org › about-woodrow-wilson

    Wilson was born in 1856 in Staunton, Virginia (and named Thomas Woodrow Wilson). He grew up in Georgia and South Carolina during the suffering of the Civil War …

    Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia. Virginia was part of the southern rebellion and the capital of the Confederacy was Richmond, Virginia.

    He grew up in the deep south, Georgia and South Carolina, after the Civil war.
    He was a typical deep south white racist. Not at all surprising.

  13. says

    Clarification:

    I wasn’t trying to turn this into a “Woodrow Wilson was a racist and all-around crappy human being” (although that’s true). I was trying to point out how having an ardent racist in a position of power — both generally as President and as a guru of education (although he’d be mortally and personally offended at the term “guru,” as it comes from a non-Western culture, and that’s precisely why I said it that way) — infects both contemporary conversation of 1919 and how it is or, as in this instance, is not, covered in “basic” history and cultural conversation.

    That is, a racist at the top tends to cover up racism, which I believe was the original point. Whoda thunk?

  14. moarscienceplz says

    “He was a typical deep south white racist. Not at all surprising.”
    I don’t like this attitude because it lets a person off the hook for bad behavior simply because of where they were born. Samuel Clemens, AKA Mark Twain, grew up in a slave state and went on to write Huckleberry Finn. Charles Dickens, while he did himself experience discrimination due to poverty, nevertheless was considered a ‘gentleman’ and could have looked down on the truly desperately poor, wrote Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol.
    Being a southerner <> racist and being a northerner <> non-racist.

  15. says

    I don’t know about Elaine Arkansas in particular, but I learned about Red Summer et al in church.

    Okay, a lot of Christian types have told me that the Unitarian Fellowship where I went to Sunday School in the fifties and sixties was not a church, but whatever it was it was active in the Civil Rights movement and in consequence I learned a lot of things I would rather not have known about concerning violence directed against minorities–especially Black people and Native Americans–here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave™. Red Summer (they didn’t call it that) was also covered in my high school US History class (1967-8), though that may have been only in the supplementary reading.

    I hadn’t thought of any of this stuff as being particularly obscure, but I found that a lot of people seemed to have forgotten it, and during the seventies I toyed with the idea of writing a book on the subject, roughly covering events from 1898 (the Wilmington insurrection) to 1921 (Tulsa) at least. I quickly realized that what little I did know would fill several volumes, and what I didn’t know was vast and largely inaccessible to me, so I gave up on the idea for something more manageable.

    If you want to get a taste of the material on the subject that’s out there, I suggest looking at the articles in the category Racially motivated violence against African Americans on Wikipedia. The articles vary greatly in quality, but most of them contain references to books, articles, or websites with information on the topic.

  16. says

    I went to a series of pretty liberal schools, public and private, and I never heard of any of those pogroms either. I remember one history book spending several paragraphs extolling the magnanimous gentleman Robert E. Lee because he politely surrendered instead of ordering his army to go into guerilla-warfare mode — but said nothing at all about the Confederate officers who DID create a guerrilla/terrorist organization, the KKK. The book admitted that the Klan existed, and did some bad things, and there was still racism and Jim Crow and an end of Reconstruction; but it said absolutely nothing more specific than that. It did acknowledge Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, but avoided the gory details of what they were fighting against. It was kind of like “Slavery was abolished after the Civil War, and America got better as a result, but also Reconstruction was stopped and reversed, with consequences we’re not going to discuss, and then there was a civil-rights movement in response to all the injustices that people all just kinda forgot about until King showed up.”

  17. raven says

    I went to a series of pretty liberal schools, public and private, and I never heard of any of those pogroms either.

    I went to a series of all public schools but they were at least well funded and reasonably good for being public schools.

    I also never heard anything about any of the Black pogroms. There might have been a little bit about the Tulsa massacre but it was so long ago, who knows.

    The whole American History was superficial and didn’t cover much of the real history. About nothing about how North America was somehow occupied by the Native Americans and somehow they just sort of got out of the way. The Civil War was State’s Rights and they might have had something about slavery.
    The roundup and internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps wasn’t mentioned during World War II.
    The Vietnam war was going full on when I was in high school. The school tiptoed around that subject as quietly as they could. Because there were student demonstrations everywhere. They really just wanted to keep a lid on things by that point.

    It wasn’t American history. It was an American History Fairytales for small children.

    We also didn’t have anything about evolution in science classes either. Evolution was always in the back of the textbooks and the teachers never seemed to get that far. The only reason I learned anything about it was because I was always bored and actually…read the textbook.

  18. says

    Simple. American history, as taught in American schools, is heavily censored and deliberately presented to make white folks look… well… at least “less awful”. A whole lot of important stuff is left out in the name of WHITE American history.

  19. Walter Solomon says

    The Red Summer wasn’t even the first of such waves of mass, racial violence in 20th Century America.

    About a decade before, there were the Johnson-Jeffries riots of 1910. They weren’t really “riots” of course. What they were was mass, anti-Black racial violence triggered, by all things, a Black man, Jack Johnson, becoming heavyweight boxing champion by beating “The Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries.

  20. kayden says

    I had heard about the massacres in Arkansas before but never knew the details. This is the first time I’m reading the specifics about what actually happened. Wow. Heartbreaking. Absolutely no justice at all. Makes you wonder how Blacks in Arkansas feel knowing that this ugly blight has never been acknowledged by their fellow White state residents.

  21. anat says

    Jaws @13:

    And the less said about “US History” getting a full year and “World History” getting a semester if we’re lucky, the better.

    I guess things are improving with all the newer standards because my son had 3 semesters of ‘world’ and 2 of ‘US’ plus a semester of Civics (not sure what the break-down of middle school social studies was). And ‘World’ wasn’t all about white people either. But why do they wait until 6th grade to start teaching anything about the broader world?

  22. unclefrogy says

    in light of the discussion the other day about history this demonstrates the selectivity of history rather clearly.
    I never knew the details but do not doubt that there are many such stories that have been carefully ignored by the chroniclers

  23. says

    Anat @30:

    Must be pretty recent; that was both the description of my own high school in the 1970s and my sons’ in the late 2000s (of course, they went to high school in East Central Redneckistan… just because there’s a Big Ten school in town doesn’t mean the region’s politics aren’t dominated by white privilege and the worship of the glorious American Farm). The year US/semester world is also the current description for several major-metro-area school districts.

    So your son is sort of lucky. Now if they’ll just teach that those other nonwhite languages are worthy, too…

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