One hundred years ago this week, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history unfolded in Elaine, Ark., a small town on the Mississippi. Details remain difficult to verify. The perpetrators suppressed coverage of the events, and the victims, terrified black families, had no one to turn for help. In fact, local police were complicit in the killing of untold numbers of African-Americans.
The Elaine massacre was among the worst instances of racial violence in American history, and it took place in a region, the Delta, that defined itself by its violence and oppression. One African-American, William Pickens, described the region as “the American Congo.” Elaine, though an isolated plantation region, was part of the broader social upheaval following World War I that came in the form of massive strikes and racial confrontations, both at home and abroad.
Elaine sits in Phillips County, on one of the many bends in the Mississippi, roughly 95 miles southwest of Memphis. There, in the early fall of 1919, a different struggle for democracy was taking place. Emboldened by their war experience, African-American veterans returned to the Delta to demand the full rights of citizenship and justice, not only before the law but also in their labors. In Phillips County, this struggle directly challenged planter dominance.
The town was at the center of a rapidly changing lumber and plantation economy known for harsh working conditions. Sharecroppers worked the land for a small share of the crop and were forced to sell their cotton to the landowners, who paid less than market prices. Workers also had to buy food, clothing, household wares, tools, seed and fertilizer at the plantation commissary, which charged exorbitant interest rates. It was a system intended to keep black people in debt and dependent upon planters. Legal disfranchisement stripped them of the vote and an ability to share in any benefits of citizenship.
But World War I brought changes to the Delta, as it did in Northern urban centers. Men and women migrated to Northern factories or joined the military, creating a labor shortage in the cotton fields and lumber mills. Women received domestic allotment checks from men in the military, giving them cash beyond the control of planters. Consequently, plantation owners and lumber mills had to pay higher wages to have the cotton picked or timber milled. Even worse from the planters’ perspective, the much-feared radical Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, were rumored to be organizing in the fields and mills.