The University of Arkansas at Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture has launched a virtual exhibit to commemorate the 1919 Elaine Massacre, the deadliest racial conflict in Arkansas history.
The exhibit, “Elaine Race Massacre: Red Summer in Arkansas,” is an interactive experience based on historical resources, including photographs, scholarly essays, and educational resources that can be used by historians, teachers, and students.
“The Elaine project took well over a year to create,” said Dr. Deborah Baldwin, director of the Center for Arkansas History and Culture. “The 100th anniversary of the Elaine Massacre and the Red Summer took place last year, and we worked collaboratively with a variety of people at the university, the city of Little Rock, and partnering institutions to tell the history of Elaine Massacre and racial violence in Arkansas.”
Scholarly essays written by professors and historians shed light on racial violence in Arkansas and the world, sharecropping, black labor organization, a comparison of white and black newspaper coverage of the conflict, the exodus of the black population from Phillips County, and the implications of the Moore vs. Dempsey Supreme Court ruling in 1923. The landmark ruling freed the Elaine 12, a dozen sharecroppers who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death by an all-white jury following the Elaine Massacre.
In order to explore the effects of racial violence Arkansas during the 19th century, the exhibit includes a map that shows incidents of racial violence in the state from 1904 to the present. Racial conflict in the early 20th century, Jim Crow laws, and a lack of economic opportunities caused many black Arkansans to flee the state to cities in the north.
A second interactive map shows how the Great Migration caused a sharp decrease in the state’s black population between 1910 and 1980. In 1910, black people consisted of 28.1 percent of the state’s population, which dropped to 16.3 percent in 1980. Pulaski County’s 1910 black population of 40.9 percent dropped to 23.9 percent by 1980.
“What the center does best is to use primary source materials, mapping, and other educational materials and put them together in a fashion that gives people a good scope of the issue,” Baldwin said. “We do it well, and we do it via web exhibits that are very accessible to the general public, students, teachers, researchers, and historians.”
An unprecedented number of racial violence against black people occurred across the country during 1919, leading the violence to be called the Red Summer. The Elaine Massacre began on Sept. 30, 1919, when a group of law enforcement officers interrupted a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union at a church in Hoop Spur, near Elaine.
“The union’s goals were to help members obtain fair wages and treatment within the sharecropping system,” said Brian Mitchell, assistant professor of history at UA Little Rock who was one of the contributors to the exhibit. “The black farmers who joined the union believed that by combining their financial resources, they could afford to hire legal representation and sue their plantation owners for stolen wages and spurious accounting of their debts.”
Black sharecroppers met to discuss unionizing. In the confrontation, one of the officers was killed and a second wounded. Local telegraph operators contacted law enforcement in neighboring towns and the governor’s office. A mob of hundreds of white men poured into the county to suppress an alleged black revolt. At the end of the violence, five white men and an unknown number of black people were dead, though the number is estimated to be in the hundreds.
The virtual exhibit was made in partnership with the Arkansas Humanities Council and funded by a grant from the Democracy and the Informed Citizen Initiative by the Federation of State Humanities Council and a grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.