Elaine Race RiotThe Elaine Race Riot was a deadly 1919 race riot in the town of Elaine in Phillips County, Arkansas which gained national attention and spurred a major U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Exaggerated 1919 Newspaper Headline
Black tenant farmers (sharecroppers) were holding a union meeting at the Hoop Spur Church in Elaine, Arkansas before dawn on 1 October 1919. Many of the African-American sharecroppers had not been paid fair shares for the products they grew and wanted to join the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America and were also discussing filing a class action lawsuit against their landlords. Union members advocating for the union brought armed guards to protect the meeting. A white deputy sheriff and a railroad worker, both armed, arrived at the meeting place and a fight broke out. In the ensuing gunfire the deputy sheriff was wounded and the railroad worker was killed.
The violence expanded beyond the meeting place and fighting in the area lasted for two days. Word traveled to neighboring States through hyperventilated newspaper reports that an 'insurrection' was occurring, which brought additional armed men into the county from outside to support the white citizens.
Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough received a request for help from are whites citing a 'negro uprising'. Brough contacted the War Department and requested federal troops which were granted. After considerable delay, approximately 600 US troops arrived and found the town in chaos. The troops made their way to the area of the Hoop Spur Church where they had an exchange of gunfire with black farmers in the woods. Over the next few days the troops disarmed both parties and arrested several hundred black residents.
During this time several African-American and white citizens were killed and more wounded. At least two were killed by federal troops. The exact numbers of dead amongst the African-Americans is unknown but estimates range from as low as 25 to as high as 800.
In October and November of 1919, a grand jury, which included no African-Americans, handed down indictments against 122 blacks. These charges included 73 charges of murder and charges of conspiracy and insurrection.
The trials were attended by an adverse crowd and the lawyers for the defense did not subpoena witnesses for the defense and did not allow their clients to testify. Twelve of the defendants were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Their trials lasted approximately 20 minutes.
In years to come, Scipio Africanus Jones, an African-American attorney from Arkansas would successfully guide the appeals of the 12 men to the Supreme Court and gain national attention. Six of the men's convictions were dismissed in 1923 after the Supreme Court ruled that the men had not received due process. The other six men went back to trial and received sentences of 12 years but received an executive pardon from the Governor of Arkansas and were released.
In recent years, researchers have begun to investigate the riot in Elaine as well as the similar Tulsa Race Riot which occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. In early 2000 a conference on the Elaine Riot was held in Helena, Arkansas at the Delta Cultural Center.