An exhibit is now up in Mullins Library with materials related to the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919, during which some historians now estimate that 200 or more African Americans were killed. Items featured in the exhibit include newspaper clippings and photos from the Libraries’ Special Collections department related to those who witnessed the massacre or were involved in the response, including Arkansas Gov. Charles Brough, defense attorney Scipio Jones and prosecuting attorney John Elvis Miller.
“Special Collections strives to document the history and culture of Arkansas,” said Katrina Windon, collection management and processing unit head. “That includes, amidst heroic and inspiring stories, tragic and violent threads of history, as well. We commemorate the Elaine Massacre, 100 years on, to acknowledge its victims and its ongoing legacy, as historians continue to reevaluate the once-dominant narrative and community members continue to reckon with lasting impacts of racism and marginalization.”
The massacre began on the evening of Sept. 30 outside a church in Hoop Spur, a rural community near Elaine in Phillips County, Arkansas. Local African American sharecroppers had gathered at a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, formed largely in response to low wages and mounting debt that contributed to tension between the sharecroppers and landowners. Shots were fired near the church where the sharecroppers were gathered that evening, and the fire was returned, killing one white man.
Gov. Brough heard of the incident, and at his request, 500 federal troops were sent with orders to “shoot and kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately,” as reported by the Arkansas Democrat on Oct. 2. In the course of about a week, dozens if not hundreds of African American men, women and children were killed, as well as five white men. Local media at the time incorrectly reported that the massacre was the result of the African Americans’ plan to attack white planters — a claim that was debunked by journalists and investigators like NAACP member Walter White. Still, 12 black men were sentenced to death, though their verdicts were appealed by the NAACP, and none were ultimately executed.
The majority opinion issued by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the case Moore et al. v. Dempsey provided a new precedent, expanding the use of habeas corpus and stating that it was the Supreme Court’s duty to uphold the constitutional rights of citizens when a state failed to do so.
The exhibit will be on display and open to the public on the first level of Mullins Library through the end of October. Researchers interested in exploring other related materials in Special Collections are encouraged to contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The Diane D. Blair Center for Southern Politics and Society will host ‘Elaine at 100: Race, Labor, and Violence in the Lower Mississippi Valley’ in Little Rock Sept. 26-27.