Some historians consider the Elaine Race Riots of 1919, also known as the Elaine Massacre, as the deadliest racial conflict in America. The centennial of the event has dredged up memories and renewed investigations of the riots, which left hundreds of Black people dead.
The root cause of the conflict in Phillips County, Ark. has been debated often, but most accounts point to the cocktail of white supremacy and the tug-of-war between farmers, white cotton farm owners and the growing specter of unionizing efforts as the impetus. Adding to this, Black residents in the area outnumbered whites by a fairly significant margin but fared far worse economically.
The first night of the massacre took place on September 30, 1919 at a local church where around 100 Black farmers met with the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. The farmers gathered to demand fair compensation for their cotton harvesting work, which inspired resistance from the white landowners who were opposed to unionizing. Further, these landowners heard an unconfirmed rumor that the gathering of farmers was the beginning of a Black uprising.
The landowners, with the help of the county sheriff, put together an armed posse of angry whites who headed to the church near the small town of Elaine. Between 500 to 1000 mob members attacked Black residents on sight fueled by rumors of the supposed insurrection, later discovered to be false. The truth was the Black farmers simply wanted to peacefully gather and examine pathways to fair compensation.
The riots ended on October 1, with an estimated 100 to 237 Blacks killed in comparison to five whites. Many of the dead remain unidentified, but the efforts of Ida B. Wells and the NAACP’s Walter White uncovered the names of some of those who perished.
Descendants of those who were lost and members of the historic Elaine Legacy Center have demanded both recognition by the state along with reparations, but little has been done to make that happen.
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