Black History Tribute I

“Dedicated to those known and unknown who lost their lives in the Elaine Massacre” is inscribed on the memorial commemorating the incident that happened in 1919. It is located in Helena, Arkansas. facingsouth.org

On Sept. 30, 1919, a racial massacre in Elaine, Ark., took an unknown number of lives. Estimates range from 100 to as many as 237.

Many feel that, despite being a pivotal moment in the history of African Americans, the incident is mostly forgotten outside of Arkansas.

The incident began when African American sharecroppers, dissatisfied with what they considered unfairly low wages, hired a white attorney to help them argue for a fairer share of profits for their labor. 

During that night, a group of local white men fired shots into the church where the sharecroppers had meetings. In retaliation, the shots were returned by the sharecroppers in the church, killing a white man. 

When the small and racially divided town found out, rumors arose stating that the sharecroppers were planning an insurrection against white residents. Gov. Charles Brough ordered an army troop of 500 soldiers to put an end to the supposed uprising. The troops were joined by local whites, including members of law enforcement, who were told to shoot any black person who did not immediately obey the commands of the troops.

As a result, at least 200 black men, women and children died at the hands of these soldiers and white citizens.

Members of the black community were ordered to dig a mass grave to bury all the dead. That’s why no accurate account exists of how many blacks were killed. The grave remains unmarked today.

But all accounts agree that five white men died, and citizens wanted someone to be held responsible for their deaths. 

Thus, 112 black men were prosecuted, 73 charged with murder, and 12 were sentenced to death. The remaining were sent to prison. 

Fortunately, many of these charges were appealed and some of the death sentences were overturned. But Phillips County has yet to reach common ground about the matter. There are those today who say their families are deserving of restitution for the lives lost and property destroyed. 

Even the Elaine Massacre Memorial dedicated last year to commemorate the centennial of the incident was contentious.