Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"We Have Just Begun": Black Organizing and White Response in the Arkansas Delta, 1919

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"We Have Just Begun": Black Organizing and White Response in the Arkansas Delta, 1919

Article excerpt

ON THE LAST NIGHT OF SEPTEMBER 1919, Phillips County deputy sheriff Charles Pratt and two assistants traveled twenty miles south out of Helena, Arkansas, in apparent pursuit of a bootlegger. Shortly after stopping-reportedly to repair a flat tire-in front of a small church at Hoop Spur, just north of the town of Elaine, a shot rang out, followed quickly by a volley of gunfire. Inside the church, a group of black farmers was meeting to consider plans to demand a better price for their cotton and a fairer settlement from their landlords. Many had recently joined the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, a local group that had organized chapters of black workers in several Phillips County communities. Interrupted in their discussions by the shooting and believing their union to be under attack, the men hastened to the windows, loaded their weapons, and joined the fray.1

After receiving news of the initial clash at Hoop Spur, public officials, local businessmen, and plantation owners in Helena organized a campaign to crush the black union. Their efforts, aided by the intervention of more than five hundred federal troops, marked the bloodiest clash of a tumultuous year of racial violence and labor strife in the United States.2 Joining armed posses from three states, the troops raided homes, chased sharecroppers into the woods,jailed and interrogated hundreds of black men and women, and forced hundreds more back to work in the fields and sawmills. Army reports acknowledged twenty-five African Americans were killed. Unofficial reports place the death toll much higher.3 In the aftermath of the "Elaine Race Riot," sixty-seven African Americans were hurriedly sentenced to prison terms for their participation in a purported rebellion and twelve were condemned to death for the murder of five white people who died in the fighting. All the sentences were overturned after a highly-- publicized five-year legal battle that reached the United States Supreme Court.4

Looking back across eighty years, the attempt by African American workers to organize a union in the Arkansas delta might appear foolhardy, even self-destructive, given the overwhelming political, social, and economic power of the white elites. It would be easy to fall back upon popular stereotypes of black southerners in explaining the surprising upsurge of militancy in Phillips County. Their efforts might be dismissed as the tragic result of the assumed rural isolation, ignorance, and naivete of black delta farmers. Similarly, it would be easy to rely on popular representations of white southerners to explain the murderous reaction of Phillips County whites. Most contemporaneous press accounts and some historical treatments have considered the events in such a way. The southern press presumed that gullible sharecroppers had been duped into a money-making scheme by either Robert L. Hill, a charismatic black union organizer, or U. S. Bratton, a white attorney who had provided legal assistance to some of the union members.5 The national black press and liberal magazines emphasized the viciousness of the posses and law enforcement officials, but offered little to explain the motivations of Phillips County whites. Attempting to build popular support for the legal defense of the accused sharecroppers, these publications described the black men as simple and guileless victims of a racist hysteria.6 Much of the subsequent scholarship on Elaine, including two books and a half-dozen articles, has not proceeded much beyond these characterizations. The black farmers are portrayed as passive victims while whites remain a monolithic mob of reactionary hatemongers.

The stereotypes, however, obscure the very distinctive conditions shaping the actions of both blacks and whites in Phillips County in 1919. At the end of the First World War, county residents confronted radically changing economic and social conditions. Under these circumstances, blacks and whites developed conflicting visions of Phillips County's future and their role in it. …

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