|The twelve defendants sentenced to death.|
1919 was a hell of a year in America. In the wake of World War I long pent up tensions boiled to the surface from coast to coast. The decades long open class war between the employing class and the workers who demanded justice and equity through their labor unions which had been on partial abatement during war effort, reignited with a vengeance. Bloody strike erupted across the country—in the steel industry of the Northeast and Midwest; Chicago streetcar operators; harbor workers, tailors, tobacco workers, painters, streetcar operators in New York City, Western miners and lumberjacks, even Boston Police. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) despite being suppressed during the War and subject to nation-wide raids that summer was spreading a revolutionary brand of unionism, but even the stodgy American Federation of Labor (AFL) under pressure from their members was assuming a startling new militancy. Many workers took heart from the revolution in Russia—a General Strike closed Seattle and unions formed a soviet to manage it.
Employers, government, and the press reacted with predictable hysteria and a heavy hand. The great Red Scare on and with it the greatest repression of dissent, personal, and civil rights in American history conducted by every level of government and law enforcement from the fledgling Bureau of Investigation of the U.S. Justice Department, through state police and militia, down to municipal police, and county sheriff’s posses—all frequently working hand in glove with company gun thugs and vigilante mobs. Workers were shot, beaten, and tear gassed. They were locked out of jobs and fired en masse, replaced with scabs. They were kidnapped and forced to run gauntlets. Thousands were rounded up and jailed. Hundreds deported.
At the same time long suppressed racial tensions exploded. In cities like Chicago, Knoxville, and Washington, DC where Southern Blacks had flocked to find war work, the post-war recession pit the new arrivals against White workers. Deadly race riots broke out with White mobs attacking any Black they could find, burning neighborhoods and businesses. In the South there was a resurgence of resistance to the imposition of Jim Crow laws which had been restricting every aspect of black civic and economic life since the end of Reconstruction. When thousands of Black combat veterans of the Great War arrived back home they were less willing to bow down to White supremacy and many became leaders of resistance in their communities. This terrified the Southern White establishment. Lynching and night riding were on the rise as were wild rumors of Black insurrections that planned to kill all whites.
All of these forces came together in an Arkansas back water, a rural Delta cotton belt enclave where locally Black share croppers out-numbered the White farmers who employed them 40-1. On October 1, 1919 hundreds of members of a hastily raised posse and unorganized mobs from surrounding counties and from across the River in Mississippi began roaming the country around Elaine in Phillips County hunting and shooting down Blacks of all ages and sexes. The hunt continued for three days. Battle hardened Federal Troops called in to quell a “Black Insurrection” and separate and disarm both sides, joined in the general mayhem, adding a touch of military efficiency to the operation. The total Black death toll remains unknown but was at least 100 and local account put it at closer to 250 based on those who disappeared and were never found. Hundreds more were arrested, held in a virtual concentration camp until 122 were indicted. Twelve of these were sentenced to death by hanging.
Things had always been tough for share croppers in the Delta. But they were getting worse. The main problem was getting the settlements due them for the crops they raised for their landlords. The land owners took the cotton to market without the sharecroppers present. They sold it when convenient—often delaying months hoping from prices to rise—and would not pay their tenants until after that, or when convenient. Meanwhile tenants with no other source of income borrowed against their crop to make purchases of necessities at stores that accepted script, often owned by the farmers themselves. By Arkansas law a share cropper could not leave his land until this debt was paid.
The 1918 crops had generally gone to market in October. Most sharecroppers in the area were not paid until the following July meaning extra months of borrowing. Also the plantation owners generally did not provide either proof of the price paid on delivery, or itemized bills of what was owned from the stores. Sharecroppers were at the mercy of their landlords and held in something very close to slavery.
Local sharecroppers, spurred on by recently returned veterans began meeting secretly in the area during the late summer to discuss their options. They boiled down to two: a class action law suit against the owners or the formation of some kind of union. A law suit—even if the poor sharecroppers could find a lawyer—would be expensive, take a longtime to resolve exposing the plaintiffs to retaliation by the landlords, and have little chance of success in Arkansas courts. Organizing a union would be dangerous, but solidarity might offer some protection from retribution. They hoped.
Robert L. Hill of Winchester, Arkansas, himself a Black tenant farmer, had organized the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. Several lodges were secretly formed that summer in the Elaine area. In addition to representing the tenant farmers, it also sought to represent their wives and daughters who worked as cooks, maids, wet nurses, and “mammies” in plantation homes and in the homes of other local Whites.
The meeting called at Hoop Spur Church three miles from Elaine on September 29 was just the latest of the meetings. About 100 sharecroppers crowded into the remote church building. Organizers were aware that by now the Plantation owners had gotten wind of what was afoot. As a precaution against nightriders, armed guards were posted outside the building.
As the meeting was going on inside three men, Deputy Sheriff Charles Pratt; W. A. Adkins, a Missouri-Pacific Railroad detective, and a Black trustee from the Phillips County Jail, pulled up in a car outside the church. Some sort of confrontation occurred between the White men and the Black armed guards. A gunfight erupted. Who fired the first shot is unknown. In the end it didn’t even make a difference. When it was over Pratt was dead, Adkins wounded and the trustee was fleeing on foot to the County Seat at Helena. Knowing what was inevitably coming, the meeting quickly broke up and attendees scattered to their homes, many preparing to flee the area.
By the next morning the Phillips County Sheriff organized a posse to arrest or kill anyone involved in the meeting and shooting. The core posse was made up of local plantation owners, their overseers and White employees, local businessmen, and what lay-a-bouts could be quickly rounded up. As the day wore on, fueled by wild rumors and lurid newspaper headlines, hundreds more armed men poured into the area from surrounding counties and nearby Mississippi. If the posse had ever truly been a law enforcement body under the control of the Sheriff, it quickly deteriorated into a raving mob.
It was a hunting party. Blacks were shot down in their homes, whole families murdered. Many more chased down as they tried to escape on foot. Some were armed and there was occasional resistance. Five members of the mob were killed, but some of those were apparently struck by shots from their friends, many of whom had been drinking heavily through the day and following night.
|Gov. Brough and Army officer at Elaine.|
County authorities wired Governor Charles Hillman Brough for troops to help suppress a supposed insurrection. Brough was a Wilson progressive and like the President a former college professor with a PhD. He also echoed the Wilson administration’s near hysteria over the Red menace. In a speech in St. Louis during the War he said, “there existed no twilight zone in American patriotism” and called Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollete, who opposed the war, a Bolshevik leader. And he was an unabashed supporter of the Jim Crow system.
Brough pressed the War Department for troops, which somewhat reluctantly agreed to dispatch 500 men from Camp Pike near Little Rock. Most were Arkansas men awaiting discharge thus they were rather loosely organized for camp life, not in the cohesive units they were used to in France and serving under officers with whom they were unfamiliar and whom, as we shall see, soon lost control of the men.
The troops arrived on the seen during the day of October 2. Their official mission was to disarm and separate both sides and assist in the arrest of the perpetrators of a riot and members of an insurrectionary cabal. Many members of the mob were exhausted anyway and began to drift home, but others continued to arrive and join in the hunt. The troops, who were fed frightening rumors, joined the hunt themselves. Colonel Isaac Jenks, commander of the U.S. troops at Elaine, officially reported two Blacks killed by his troops, but the Memphis Press on reported that “Many Negroes are reported killed by the soldiers….”
This was later confirmed by an account by Sharpe Dunaway, of the Arkansas Gazette in 1925 who recalled that soldiers, “committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes, or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.”
At least the troops were more efficient than the posse/mob in making arrests. Over the next few days they rounded up hundreds of men, just about every still breathing Black man they could find, and placed them in an improvised bull pen near Helena. The troops conducted “intense interrogation of the suspects” which often amounted to beatings, torture, and threats family members.
|From the Arkansas Gazette.|
Meanwhile the Southern press was having a field day passing on the wildest of rumors. A headline in the Arkansas Gazette on October 3 screamed, “Negros Plan to Kill All Whites: Slaughter was to Begin with 21 Prominent Men.” E. M. Allen, a planter and real estate developer who became the spokesman for Phillips County's white power structure, told the Helena World on October 7, “The present trouble with the Negroes in Phillips County is not a race riot. It is a deliberately planned insurrection of the Negroes against the whites directed by an organization known as the ‘Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America,’ established for the purpose of banding Negroes together for the killing of white people.”
Even the New York Times was not immune from the hysteria. Under a headline that in part read, “Trouble traced to Socialist Agitators,” the paper breathlessly reported, “Additional evidence has been obtained of the activities of propagandists among the Negroes, and it is thought that a plot existed for a general uprising against the whites.” A white man had been arrested, the article added, and was “alleged to have been preaching social equality among the Negroes.” Of course no such White man was arrested—or ever existed.
The idea sprang from the assumption that Blacks were naturally too content with their lot and too stupid to organize themselves unless led astray and directed by devious revolutionists.
Governor Brough arrived personally on the scene in the company of the Federal troops. He consulted with a group of local leaders designated the Committee of Seven who passed on every rumor that they heard, or made up. The Governor appointed the same men to lead his own “investigation” not into what happened or the response to it, but on how to prevent future insurrections. The Governor told the press, “The situation at Elaine has been well handled and is absolutely under control. There is no danger of any lynching…. The white citizens of the county deserve unstinting praise for their actions in preventing mob violence.”
Violence wound down after three days, although there were sporadic shooting later, and more men were arrested when found in hiding. Official estimates of the number of Blacks killed hovered around 100. Local residents believed that the number was two to three times that. No one will ever know for sure. Most of the dead were buried quietly by their families, by who ever found their bodies, or mass unmarked graves dug by the troops.
Over the next few days some men who were vouched for by their employers were released from the bullpen. 285 were then transferred to the county Jail, which had a capacity of only 40. More torture was conducted, according to sworn affidavits by two posse members, T. K. Jones and H. F. Smiddy, in 1921, to extract confessions.
October 31, 1919, the Phillips County grand jury charged 122 of the prisoners on charges ranging from murder to, without apparent irony, night riding, a hang-over statue from the Reconstruction Era, aimed at the Ku Klux Klan. The trials began the next week. White attorneys from Helena were appointed by Circuit Judge J. M. Jackson to represent the first twelve black men to go to trial. Attorney Jacob Fink, who was appointed to represent Frank Hicks, admitted to the jury that he had not interviewed any witnesses. He made no motion for a change of venue, nor did he challenge a single prospective juror, taking the first twelve called. By November 5, 1919, the first twelve black men given trials had been convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. As a result, sixty-five others quickly entered plea-bargains and accepted sentences of up to twenty-one years for second-degree murder. Others had their charges dismissed or ultimately were not prosecuted.
Meanwhile the case had stirred the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, the leading, and almost only, national civil rights organization. Field Secretary Walter White came to Elaine personally to investigate, at great risk to himself. White was mixed race with pale skin, blue eyes, and light hair. He easily passed as a White man. In this guise he interviewed local leaders and members of the posse and then met secretly with the families of those in jail and with some men in hiding. Word leaked out that there was a High Yellow from up North snooping around. White was warned and got on a train where a conductor confided in him about a, “damned yellow nigger passing for white and the boys are going to get him…when they get through with him he won’t pass for white no more!”
As soon as he was safely in the North White wrote articles which were published in the Chicago Daily News, which had provided him with the press credentials he used to interview White leaders; the Chicago Defender, the nation’s leading Black newspaper; The Nation, and the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis. It was the first time the sharecroppers’s side of the story was told along with revelations of the bloody massacre and persecution. Local authorities tried to have both the Defender and The Crisis banned from the mails.
|Defense attorney Scripio Aftricanus Jones.|
The NAACP launched a massive fundraising drive for a defense fund to handle appeals of the convicted men. They obtained as co-counsel Scipio Africanus Jones, Arkansas’s leading Black attorney and eighty year old Colonel George W. Murphy, a Confederate veteran, former Arkansas Attorney General, and unsuccessful candidate for Governor on the Progressive Party ticket. Despite his age Murphy was considered still one of the most able men at the state Bar.
Both lawyers performed heroically through a highly complex set of appeals in both state and Federal courts which dragged on for years. They won a reversal of the verdicts by the Arkansas Supreme Court in six of the twelve death penalty cases on the grounds that the jury had failed to specify whether the defendants were guilty of murder in the first or second degree. Those cases were accordingly sent back for retrial. These six became known as the Ware defendants.
The Supreme Court upheld the convictions of the other six who became known as the Moore defendants. In those cases the defense lawyers had argued that the convictions should be set aside because the use of torture and intimidation violated due process.
Several appeals were filed in various courts for both sets of defendants. Appeals in the state courts were uniformly unsuccessful. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that “the defendants' evidence of torture used to obtain confessions or mob intimidation, but the state simply argued that, even if true, this did not amount to a denial of due process.” Even a Federal Appeals court agreed.
The re-trial of the Ware defendants finally began on May 3, 1920. During the trials, Murphy became ill, and Jones became the principal counsel. Jones face enormous hostility, including court room packed with armed White men. He had to sleep secretly at a different black family’s house every night during the trials. Not unexpectedly despite his best efforts all six were convicted again and once more sentenced to death. However Gov. Brough stayed their executions until the Arkansas Supreme Court could again review the cases. Ultimately, the Ware defendants were freed by the Arkansas Supreme Court after two terms of court had passed. No attempt was made to retry the men.
Meanwhile the case of the Moore defendant finally landed in the United States Supreme Court which ruled that the original proceedings had been a mask, and that the state of Arkansas had not provided a corrective process that would have allowed the defendants to vindicate their constitutional right to due process of law on appeal. The High Court sent the case back to the State for a new hearing taking due process into account.
Beyond the immediate effect on the case, the Court decision was a landmark—for the first time it held that the Federal Constitutional protection of due process applied to the States as well and that Federal courts had jurisdiction to enforce it. Almost all subsequent civil rights cases before the court and many criminal cases were heard under this new standard.
Back in Arkansas Jones concluded that even with the order, a fair trial could not be obtained. But the State itself was growing weary of the complicated and expensive litigation and of mounting criticism from around the country. Jones elected to save his remaining clients by making a deal. In March of 1923 the men plead guilty to second-degree murder and a sentence of five years from the date they were first incarcerated in the Arkansas State Penitentiary.
Finally, on January 14, 1925, Governor Thomas McRae in his last hours in office before a sworn member of the Ku Klux Klan would take his place ordered the release of the Moore defendants by granting them indefinite furloughs. Jones arranged for them to be released under cover of darkness and immediately taken out of state, safely away from expected lynch mobs,
Within a month, Jones also obtained the release of the other defendants who had pled guilty or been convicted of lesser offenses.
Unlike other famous racial atrocities like the Tulsa race riot. Attempts to reconcile the Black and White communities around Elaine have failed. Many, if not most, local White residents, descendents of participants in the posses, mob, and trials, still believe that there was going to be a bloody resurrection and that their forbearers acted nobly and bravely to save their community.
A 2000 a conference on held at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena was acrimonious and bitter.