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The Ghosts of Elaine, Arkansas, 1919

In America’s bloody history of racial violence, the little-known Elaine Massacre may rank as the deadliest.
Arkansas State Archives/New York Review of Books

Historians do not know exactly how many people died during the bloodshed in Phillips County, but a very conservative estimate would place the number at well over a hundred. This is consistent with the account of a secretary of a nearby black fraternal order, who reported that he paid death benefits to 103 African Americans and that members of his lodge “knew personally” seventy-three other blacks who had died during the violence. The toll, however, may have been much higher.

A respected Arkansas journalist, himself a conventional Southern racist who firmly believed that “The negro… cannot under any circumstances become the social or political equal of the white man,” reported with sadness in 1925 that more than 800 blacks had been murdered. Recently, the Equal Justice Initiative, in its 2017 report “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” estimated that over two hundred African Americans died. If this is correct, it would make the Elaine Massacre the most lethal episode of racial violence in American history, with the possible exception of the much better-known Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, a murderous rampage that burned thirty-six city blocks to the ground, left thousands of black Tulsans homeless, and took the lives of between 100 and 300 people.

Both within and beyond Arkansas, most white people accepted that the killing of African Americans was a justified response to the black “insurrection.” Even as the white mob violence was still unfolding, the Gazette, the state’s leading newspaper, announced in a headline that “NEGROES PLAN TO KILL ALL WHITES.” (“Slaughter was to begin with 21 prominent white men as the first victims,” the article declared.) The national press took a similar approach. On October 3, The New York Times reported that “trouble [was] traced to socialist agitators.” Three days later, it published a story headlined “PLANNED MASSACRE OF WHITES TODAY: Negroes Seized in Arkansas Riots Confess to Widespread Plot Among Them.”

These “confessions,” however, were extracted under torture of the alleged plotters, and decisively refuted by on-the-scene reports from two major civil rights figures, the NAACP’s Walter White and the intrepid anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. White, an African-American whose blue eyes and white hair permitted him to pose as a white reporter, published a story in The Nation “‘Massacring Whites’ in Arkansas,” which concluded that “negro farmers had organized not to massacre, but to protest by peaceful and legal means against vicious exploitation by unscrupulous land owners and their agents.”


Sharecropping and Civil Rights

When sharecroppers attempted to unionize in 1919, the sheriff declared it an insurrection and called white vigilantes and federal troops to perpetrate a deadly backlash.