The Elaine Race Riot, also called the Elaine Massacre, occurred in the town of Elaine in Phillips County, Arkansas, in the Arkansas Delta, where sharecropping by African-American farmers was prevalent on plantations of white landowners.
Approximately 100 African-American farmers, led by Robert L. Hill, the founder of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, met at a church in Hoop Spur in Phillips County, nearby Elaine. The purpose was “to obtain better payments for their cotton crops from the white plantation owners who dominated the area during the Jim Crow era. African-American sharecroppers were often exploited in their efforts to collect payment for their cotton crops.”
Many more African-Americans than whites died as a result of the violence. 5 whites and between 100 and 200 African-Americans were killed.
79 African Americans were charged with crimes and tried and convicted, with 12 sentenced to death, and the remainder accepting terms of up to 21 years. Appeals of the death penalty cases went to the U.S. Supreme Court where the high court ruled in favor of an expansion of federal oversight of state treatment of defendants’ rights.
The summer of 1919 had been marked by deadly race riots in numerous major cities across the country, including Chicago, Knoxville, and Washington, DC. In addition, postwar tensions were high because of labor unrest across the country. Added to labor tensions were racial ones — in Phillips County, a plantation area of the Mississippi Delta since before the Civil War, African-Americans outnumbered whites by ten to one. Whites feared resistance to their domination. They also wanted African-Americans out of the country or dead.
THE PRESS INVOLVEMENT: A dispatch from Helena, Arkansas, to the New York Times datelined October 1 said: “Returning members of the [white] posse brought numerous stories and rumors, through all of which ran the belief that the rioting was due to propaganda distributed among the negroes by white men.”
The next day’s report added detail: “Additional evidence has been obtained of the activities of propagandists among the negroes, and it is thought that a plot existed for a general uprising against the whites.” A white man had been arrested and was “alleged to have been preaching social equality among the negroes.” Part of the headline was: “Trouble traced to Socialist Agitators.”
A few days later a Western Newspaper Union dispatch captioned a photo using the words “Captive Negro Insurrectionists.”