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OPINION | REX NELSON: The violent Delta

by Rex Nelson | September 14, 2022 at 3:34 a.m.

The 1919 Elaine massacre--in which white mobs killed an unknown number of Black farmers in Phillips County--has finally begun to receive the attention it deserves from historians. The exact number of people murdered that fall in the cotton fields of the Arkansas Delta will never be known. Their story, however, must not be forgotten.

Earlier this year, the University of Arkansas Press released "Race, Labor and Violence in the Delta," a collection of essays written in 2019 to mark the centennial of the massacre. Edited by Michael Pierce and Calvin White Jr., this is an important collection for those who want to understand how plantation owners began seeking cheap labor after slavery ended.

Sharecropping and tenant farming in those days often was little more than a system of peonage that exploited both poor white and Black farmers. I've written multiple columns through the years about what happened in the Elaine area, but this book put things in a broader context for me. Pierce and White, associate professors of history at the University of Arkansas, did a masterful job combining disparate essays into a coherent whole.

"With the support of other white social classes, white ruling elites had crushed Black freedom after the Civil War through lynching, rape, night-riding, disfranchisement and segregation," writes Michael Honey, a Radcliffe/Harvard Institute and Guggenheim fellow whose six books have won numerous awards. "In 1919, the plantation ruling class used oppressive laws, lynching and vigilante violence to stop African Americans from getting ahead. The price of cotton shot sky high during the Great War.

"White landlords, merchants and cotton factors controlled the market for sales and stood to gain millions if they could just keep the Black workers who planted, tended and harvested the cotton from getting a fair share. Those farm workers meeting in the Hoop Spur church did so on the eve of the cotton harvest and planned on either getting higher prices for the cotton they picked from local white elites, or going around them entirely to take their cotton to market somewhere else. Pure greed set the local white ruling class against them."

Honey contends that the context for what happened in east Arkansas was international in nature.

"Widespread white paranoia and anger against Black progress raged in an America in the grip of an anti-labor and anti-communist fervor sustained by the mass media, the military and the federal government," he writes. "The Russian Revolution and upheavals in Europe, the Seattle General Strike and union unrest everywhere at the end of World War I precipitated a massive propaganda campaign by the media and government against socialists, the left, unions, immigrants, Latinos and African Americans.

"Mass jailing and deportations by federal, state and local governments largely crushed civil rights, civil liberties and the American left during and beyond the war's end. On the West Coast, anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant violence helped to destroy organizing by Filipinos, Asian Americans and Pacific islanders."

Black workers, according to Honey, weren't about to abandon the progress despite violence across the country that summer.

"The riots, which we might more accurately call pogroms, set white workers and especially white immigrants against Black workers, who were sometimes brought in by employers to break strikes," he writes. "As historians document, racial conflict killed off a national strike of 350,000 steelworkers, the interracial organizing of packinghouse workers in Chicago, Black union organizing and the promising beginnings of an interracial labor movement.

"All of this set the stage for both the Elaine Massacre and continuing Black resistance. In Elaine and nearby Helena, Black soldiers returning from World War I had weapons and knew how to use them. It was the time of the 'New Negro' proletarianization and the Black Great Migration to the North, and the struggles for Black racial uplift everywhere."

Among the noted Arkansas historians who contributed essays to the book are Cherisse Jones-Branch of Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, Jeannie Whayne of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, John Kirk of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Guy Lancaster of the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

"The Elaine story continues to reverberate through Delta communities," Honey writes in his epilogue. "In Elaine and Helena, on the 100-year anniversary of the massacre, both white and Black residents organized in different ways to acknowledge the hellish events that occurred on the last weekend of September 1919. As scholars, we are also once more re-evaluating what it all means.

"Noticeably, Elaine has not recovered from this horrendous event. Under the impact of agricultural mechanization, jobs are gone. A little more than 500 people ... live in a place where median household income is estimated at between $16,000 and $19,000. Traveling the back roads of eastern Arkansas, one can readily see the plantation cotton economy has been replaced by mechanized soybean farming, leaving generations of people who used to do the work without work to do."

Noting that the "ghosts of the evil Red Summer of 1919 still haunt the land," Honey says it's important for historians to ensure that "the next generation does not continue to believe the white supremacy myths, or the lies about what happened, created by those who carried out the murders."


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.


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