When author, historian, and lawyer Grif Stockley published “Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacre of 1919” in 2001, it renewed public interest in the 1919 Elaine Massacre, which is now known as the deadliest racial conflict in Arkansas history.
Dr. Brian Mitchell, an assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said there are still plenty of mysteries left to uncover surrounding the Elaine Massacre. After doing extensive research on the subject for the past six years, Mitchell joined Stockley and Dr. Guy Lancaster, editor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, as a co-author of the second edition of “Blood in Their Eyes.”
The new book, which was released by the University of Arkansas Press, comes 101 years after the Elaine Massacre began on Sept. 30, 1919. White law enforcement officers attempted to stop a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America at a church in Hoop Spur. Shots were fired. In the following days, a mob of an estimated 500 to 1,000 people went through Phillips County.
In the history world, Mitchell has developed a reputation for his ability to uncover information about the Elaine Massacre and other injustices in history. He said the most compelling information in the second version of “Blood in Their Eyes” is the new evidence of the event that triggered the Elaine Massacre.
“It’s becoming increasingly more evident that the story of black men trying to take over the county was created and planted as an excuse to explain the amount of violence and give the other sharecroppers the opportunity to keep quiet about what was happening,” Mitchell said. “It reminded sharecroppers who were being cheated that they could be killed or end up in prison for the rest of their lives if they spoke up.”
There have always been competing narratives surrounding the Elaine Massacre. White authorities claimed the Black population was planning a revolt. The Black sharecroppers said the white population carried out a massacre and murdered an unknown number of Black people, though experts have estimated the number to be between 100 and 300.
Some accounts claim that white law enforcement officers came across the union meeting in Hoop Spur unintentionally. However, Mitchell said new records uncovered in recent years show that the white men arriving at the union meeting that led to the deadly massacre was anything but unintentional.
“Early accounts of the massacre indicate the police officers involved in the Hoop Spur shooting arrived there totally by happenstance, that they were having car problems, and then there was a shootout,” Mitchell said. “That doesn’t hold water with a lot of the new information that we have.”
New evidence shows that the Black sharecroppers hired a Little Rock attorney named Ulysses Bratton to represent them. When their employers learned they were about to be sued, they got angry.
“We finally have proof, largely due to my research, that shows that the union members knew about the union meeting prior to the shooting at Hoop Spur,” Mitchell said. “That really changes the narrative. We also found evidence that the plantation owners had spies in the union.”
These new records include the minute book of American Legion Post 41 in Helena, which has records detailing the legion’s actions before and after the Elaine Massacre. Many of the American Legion members, who were World War I veterans, were deputized after the shootout at Hoop Spur, participated in the Elaine Massacre, and led an effort to ensure the execution of Black people arrested after the massacre.
An account of the American Legion meeting from Oct. 19, 1920, describes a report from the “committee handling question of securing execution of Negroes sentenced to die in connection with insurrection” as well as an approved motion to “demand execution of Negroes convicted” from the insurrection.
The new version of “Blood in Their Eyes” also details the injustices that occurred following the Elaine Massacre, when hundreds of Black people were rounded up and charged with crimes. The most famous of these became known as the Elaine 12. They were convicted of murder and sentenced to death for their alleged roles in the events of the Elaine Massacre. Attorney Scipio Jones rose to national prominence after successfully defending the Elaine 12 in a precedent-setting Supreme Court decision, Moore vs. Dempsey, that would later overturn their convictions.
Mitchell and his students at UA Little Rock have researched what happened to the Elaine 12 following their release from prison. They have been successful in locating the graves of six members of the Elaine 12. Mitchell created the Elaine 12 Foundation at UA Little Rock to raise money to place historic markers at the sites. In March, the first historic marker for a member of the Elaine 12 was placed at Little Rock National Cemetery, where Frank Moore, a World War I veteran, is buried.
Mitchell’s research for “Blood in Their Eyes” has taken him across the state, to Kansas, Missouri, and to Washington, D.C.
“It’s been a particularly hard thing to research,” he said. “When there is a massacre and people cover it up, it’s typically hard to find records.”
Mitchell has worked with U.S. Rep. French Hill to obtain a Purple Heart and other medals for the family of Pvt. Leroy Johnston, a World War I veteran who was killed in the Elaine Massacre with his three brothers just months after coming home from the war. Johnston earned several military honors for his service to his country, but did not receive them at the time of his discharge or death due to racial discrimination.
In another project, Mitchell has a new graphic history book coming out in February 2021, which tells the history of James Oscar Dunn, the country’s first black lieutenant governor and distant relative of Mitchell. “Monumental: Oscar Dunn and his Radical Fight in Reconstruction Louisiana” will be published by The Historic New Orleans Collections.