Healing the Land: Elaine

Representing the Will to Act: Community Gathers to Commemorate the 1919 Elaine Massacre
By Jessica Yamane, UALR Institute on Race and Ethnicity Intern; Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, Northeastern University School of Law

Elaine Water TowerOn Sunday, September 30, 2012, people filed into Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Elaine, Arkansas to commemorate the 1919 Elaine Riot and Massacre in the community’s first Healing of the Land Ceremony. The majority of the audience was comprised of individuals from Elaine or nearby Helena but several professors, preachers, and their families also drove in from Little Rock.

The Elaine Massacre was one of a number of massacres[1] that took place in 1919 at the end of WWI. It reflected a national tension that reverberated from the homecoming of African American soldiers. These soldiers had fought for the civil liberties of their countrymen abroad, and they refused to be relegated to a second-class status considering all they had sacrificed.

During “The Red Summer of 1919,” assaults on the black community by angry whites, took place in numerous cities in the United States, including Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Illinois; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Indianapolis, Indiana. Still, some historians believe that what happened in Elaine during the fall of 1919 was not only the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history but also one of the bloodiest racial conflicts in the history of the United States.

It appears that knowledge of African American sharecroppers’ efforts to obtain better prices for their cotton crops led whites to attack a meeting organized by the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. White landowners dominated the area, and black sharecroppers were commonly exploited for their labor. The infamous September 30 meeting that sparked the massacre was one of several that had been held that previous year. The sharecroppers received threats of violence, yet despite these threats they bravely persisted in conversations around how they could organize for better pay.[2]

This temerity proved to be too much. Three armed white local law enforcement officials came, disrupted the meeting, and provoked a shootout. This resulted in the deaths of two of the white men.

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[1] People still debate whether it is more accurate to use the term riot or massacre in describing the events that happened during the Red Summer of 1919.

[2] The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, Elaine Massacre, (Nov. 2, 2012, 10:44AM), http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=1102