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Season 1 / Episode 5
It’s been 100 years since more than 200 Black Americans were killed in a horrific act of racist violence against Black sharecroppers that took place in Elaine, Arkansas, and nearby settlements. There were four days of attacks in what is now known as the Elaine Massacre. The violence stemmed from sharecroppers unionizing to obtain fair prices for their cotton.
For the past six years, a committee of residents from Helena-West Helena and Little Rock worked to build a memorial in Phillips County to pay tribute to the hundreds who were killed in the massacre. The centennial anniversary combined with the memorial brought the massacre more into the national spotlight.
One name you’ll see quoted in articles about the Elaine massacre is Brian K. Mitchell, Ph.D., an assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Mitchell says to fully understand the complexities of what happened in 2019, you have to step back to the time immediately following the Civil War.
Slavery by Another Name
Phillips County is part of the Delta region of Arkansas where the soil is rich and crops grow abundantly.
“After the war, white plantation owners found themselves having to pay what had been the enslaved to work their fields,” Mitchell said. “This worked because federal troops were sent by the government to make sure that the slaves were paid and treated fairly.”
As soon as reconstruction ended and the federal troops left, plantation owners began trying to get the formerly enslaved back into a situation that was much akin to slavery. They did this, Mitchell said, by parceling up their plantations and allowing families who agreed to work that land, a place to live – which were the former slave shacks. The plantation owners would allow the workers to borrow from the company store (the plantation store). At harvest, the workers would receive a share of what was grown.
“A normal split was generally a 50/50 split,” Mitchell said. “However, this hardly ever happened. What would normally happen is sharecroppers would borrow money from the store as they needed food or supplies. At the end of the year, they had no choice but to sell all of the cotton that was produced to the plantation owner.”
The plantation owner set the price and kept the books. The lending rates were predatory. Mitchell says it wasn’t uncommon for sharecroppers to pay 300 percent in interest for a growing season. At the end of the growing season, the formerly enslaved received nothing. They’d be told that they were in debt and that they could pay off the debt by working the next year in hopes of making a profit.
In this way, plantation owners kept the sharecroppers perpetually in debt, generation after generation. And there were hardly any other options for them. Local police would enforce agreements and bring sharecroppers back and force them to work. For those who did leave, all their belongings (like livestock, vehicles, clothing and furniture) would be taken by the landlord.
“There was also the constant threat of intimidation and violence,” Mitchell said. “This intimidation was endemic to the sharecropping relationship and is at the heart of the Elaine Massacre. A number of sharecroppers being abused had just returned home from World War I.”
Agricultural Laborers Unionize
Frank Moore was a World War I veteran, sharecropper and one of the leaders working to unionize other sharecroppers to address unfair practices of plantation owners.
“He worked on the Archdale Farm,” Mitchell said. “He realized that when the cotton was planted and growing well and there was just a month or two to harvest, he and other sharecroppers were told they no longer had credit at the store. Many were forced to leave. They couldn’t eat or take care of their families, so they had to abandon their crops in the field.”
This meant Archdale got to keep all the money. Mitchell says he was actively trying to run off the sharecroppers by telling them they no longer had credit.
Frank continued to work by pulling resources together with the help of his neighbors. He eventually helped start the Progressive Farmers and Household Union. Members aimed to pool together resources to hire attorneys in hopes of suing the plantation owners.
The plantation owners got wind of their plans from other sharecroppers. On the evening of Sept. 30, when black families gathered at a church in Hoop Spur to talk about taking legal action, white men ambushed the meeting. There was a shootout. Two white men are injured.
“The narrative is different on each side,” Mitchell said. “ White newspapers maintain that the officers had accidentally made their way to the Hoop Spur Church. We now know that to be a lie. The Black narrative is that groups of white men came surrounded the church and fired in to the church to intimidate or kill the leaders.”
Nevertheless, two white men were injured. And as they were brought back to town, they claim they’d been attacked and that the farmers were planning a revolution to take over first Phillips County and then the entire South.
This false narrative was spread to neighboring counties and states and the governor’s office. Governor Charles Bough requested federal troops from the Department of War. They sent 500 soldiers. Hundreds of people pour in. The American Legion mobilized. The sheriff opened the armory and gave members of the American Legion guns. People came from Mississippi and Tennessee and neighboring counties.
“As Colonel Jenks, who was the commanding officer of the Army unit that was sent down, will write, ‘There are hundreds and hundreds of white men everywhere carrying guns.’ All of these people begin shooting, killing blacks. There are rumors that blacks are shot working in the fields and in their cabins. Blacks began hiding out in the swamp and marsh, hoping that someone will come and help them. When the soldiers arrive, they initially believe the soldiers are there to assist them. They come out with their hands up, and they’re shot.”
There is no reconciliation at the end of the massacre. The leaders of the union are arrested and charged with a variety of crimes, including night riding, a crime that had once been assessed on white terrorist groups that assaulted Blacks in the dead of the night.
“So [the Black unionizers] were charged with this crime once associated with groups like the KKK,” Mitchell said.
There’s often talk about reparations for the people of Elaine. While Mitchell believes they are owed something, he contends those reparations should go beyond the massacre.
When sharecropping was popular, plantation owners needed manual labor. They didn’t have mechanization like tractors and other technology. As large-scale farming became more mechanized, Black workers were no longer needed.
“Imagine you have a pair of manual hedge clippers and then you get an electric hedge clipper. You just put that manual hedge clipper back in your garage and forget about it. In essence, this is what happened across the rural South,” Mitchell said.
“Once mechanized farming happened, Blacks were just thrown to the side and forgotten. That’s a problem because they’re owed something for that when you talk about the wealth that was built. These farms, the property, the land, is still owned by the same families. And those families have now leased that land to corporate farms and are making lots of money. But the people they needed to work this land for centuries are no longer needed.”
Mitchell said food scarcity is an issue in Phillips County, Arkansas, which according to an article in The American Prospect, is the 15th poorest county in the U.S.
“Imagine being surrounded by farms, but none of it is food stuff for you. Imagine that.”
Mitchell says that alone is validation that the people of Elaine today are owed something.