Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Low Villains and Wickedness in High Places: Race and Class in the Elaine Riots

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Low Villains and Wickedness in High Places: Race and Class in the Elaine Riots

Article excerpt

PERHAPS NO EVENT IN THE HISTORY of the Arkansas delta has received as much attention and been the subject of more speculation than the Elaine Race Riot of 1919. Historians, struggling with a mass of rich but contradictory and even tainted evidence, have failed to arrive at a common narrative of events. One noted account amounts to little more than propaganda for the planter elite of Phillips County, while another, a contemporary essay written by a future black leader, focused on exposing the evils of the plantation system.1 As varied as their interpretations have been, however, virtually all share a common shortcoming. The only exception is to be found in a novel based on the Elaine riot by an Arkansas protege of Norman Mailer-and that book failed to find an American publisher.2

Competing interpretations of the riot emerged almost as soon as it had ended. Walter White, assistant secretary-and, later, executive secretary-of the NAACP, visited Phillips County incognito in mid October 1919 in order to secure material for an article he later published in The Nation. White's interest in the riot almost cost him his life. An African American who, with his blue eyes and blond hair, passed for white, he barely escaped a lynch mob that had discovered his true identity.3 White took exception to the official version of the riot embraced by white officials and published in Arkansas newspapers. This version insisted blacks intended to murder certain white planters and take their lands. Whites, it was said, had discovered the plot accidentally after two deputies whose car had broken down were fired upon by blacks attending a meeting of a sharecroppers' union at Hoop Spur church outside Elaine. Walter White countered that African Americans had organized the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America to sue planters for a fair settlement of their crops, that whites had fired into the church at Hoop Spur in order to disrupt a meeting of the union, and that blacks had returned fire only in self defense.4

However the incident really began, one deputized white official, W. A. Adkins, lay dead and another, Charles Pratt, was seriously wounded. Several days of brutal violence ensued. A posse was quickly raised and rushed to the scene. White men from other parts of Arkansas, as well as from Mississippi and Tennessee, joined in the hunt for the alleged "insurrectionists," some of whom fought back. Local white leaders wired Governor Charles Brough asking for federal troops from Camp Pike to restore law and order. Colonel Isaac C. Jenks commanded the 583 soldiers who were dispatched early in the morning of October 2 and were accompanied by Brough. Immediately upon his arrival, Jenks disarmed all blacks as well as white civilians and set about quelling the violence. Martial law was declared, and federal troops patrolled the streets of Elaine and Helena and scoured the countryside. By the time order was restored two days later, five whites and at least twenty-five blacks lay dead. Several hundred blacks were incarcerated in Elaine and Helena. When the Phillips County Grand Jury convened on October 27, 1919, over one hundred were still being held. In subsequent trials twelve were sentenced to death for first degree murder and another sixty-seven to prison terms. The white community celebrated the trials and convictions as evidence of the rule of law over mob violence.5

Most of the facts in the official version of the riot were disputed not only by Walter White but by lawyers who appealed the convictions of the twelve black men sentenced to death. Yet the official version showed some staying power. One account written forty years after the riot essentially reiterated it. In 1961 J. W. Butts and Dorothy James published "The Underlying Causes of the Elaine Riot of 1919," in this journal, arguing that a few disgruntled and misled African Americans hatched a plot to murder white planters and take their lands, that this "insurrection" was discovered before the conspirators could bring their plans to fruition, and that the white community responded reasonably given the situation. …

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