"Once everybody left, what were we left with?"
5 min read

"Once everybody left, what were we left with?"

"Once everybody left, what were we left with?"

102 years ago this month, white mobs organized by white elites and planters in Phillips County, Arkansas swarmed into Elaine and other rural Black sharecropping communities in the Arkansas Delta. An organizing attempt by Black sharecroppers and a potential lawsuit to secure fair prices for cotton had so threatened the power of white planters in Phillips County that, warning of "Negro insurrection," they called for immense violence against Black sharecroppers in the area, and indeed against any Black citizen the armed white mobs encountered.

In approximately two days of vigilante and state-sponsored violence, hundreds of Black people were killed, many likely buried in mass graves or their bodies thrown into the Mississippi River. Five white men died. More than a hundred Black men were jailed in the Phillips County Jail, not released until a white person vouched for them. The massacre led to an increase in migration of Black people away from the Arkansas Delta, and cost Black sharecroppers and their families hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in lost cotton profits.

I first encountered the Elaine Massacre in college (notably not in any of the history classes I took as a student at private or public schools in Arkansas). I wrote my undergraduate history thesis on the role white newspapers played in stirring up baseless fears of Black insurrection, in egging on and justifying the massacre. Accounts in local white newspapers were reprinted by national papers, including the New York Times, without attempts to verify the truth of what had actually happened. Black journalists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Walter White, by contrast, risked their lives to travel to Phillips County and report on the scene as they encountered it. Walter White narrowly escaped being lynched on his trip.

Over the last three years, I've tried to take the lessons I learned from reading all those century-old newspaper accounts with me as I've had the privilege to report on the community's ongoing work to reckon with the history of the massacre and move towards restorative justice and healing. This year, I attended and wrote about on the first annual Elaine Unity Fest, hosted by the Descendants of the Elaine Massacre of 1919, which was co-founded by Lisa Hicks Gilbert. You can read that story here.

Every time I report on Elaine, I'm struck again by how much interest there is in the history of what happened there compared to how little people are interested in solving the problems the city and county face today. It's reflected in which stories get the most traffic and are shared the most on social media; this brief account of the massacre from the Southern Exposure archives has received more attention, for example, than many of the stories we've published on fights for restorative justice in Elaine.

Ora Scaife Truitt, who has lived in Elaine for much of her life, put it to me like this last year:

"The centennial last year left a lot of emotions up in the air. It was like a wound had been opened, a bandage had been removed from a wound, and the wound was just left open ... The documentaries have been done, the articles have been written, the books have been written. They talked to the individuals here in Elaine, talked to the elderly that would talk. But once everybody left, what were we left with?"

There is a partial accounting of what was lost to Black people in Phillips County during the Elaine Massacre. In her pamphlet The Arkansas Race Riot, Wells-Barnett estimated the losses to the Elaine Twelve, who were sentenced to death in the aftermath of the massacre and sat in jail as their cotton crops were ready for harvesting:  

Ed Ware, 100 acres cotton; 100 bales at $225 per bale$22,500
Frank Hicks and Ed Hicks, 100 acres cotton; 100 bales at $225 per bale22,500
Albert Giles, 20 acres cotton; 20 bales at $225 per bale4,500
Joseph Fox, 20 acres cotton; 20 bales at $225 per bale4,500
Alfred Banks, 32 acres cotton; 32 bales at $225 per bale7,200
John Martin, 22 acres cotton; 22 bales at $225 per bale4,950
William Wordlaw, 16 acres cotton; 16 bales at $225 per bale3,600
Frank Moore, 14 acres cotton; 15 bales at $225 per bale3,150
Ed Coleman, 12 acres cotton; 12 bales at $225 per bale2,700
Will Knox, 10 acres cotton; 10 bales at $225 per bale2,250
Paul Hall, 40 acres cotton; 40 bales at $225 per bale9,000

Wells-Barnett estimated the losses to the more than 100 others who were jailed following the massacre at approximately $1 million in 1919 dollars. Their crops were, she writes, harvested and stolen for profit by white people in the area as the farmers sat in jail. More than 5,000 Black people left the Arkansas Delta in the decade following the massacre, out-migration likely hastened by fear that what had happened in 1919 could happen again.

So why, if we have a partial accounting of what was stolen and lost, are local and state governments and authorities so hesitant to begin to recoup the losses? Why are we — and by we I mean white people who are consumers of this history and constant onlookers to its ongoing impacts — so reticent to be part of the work towards restoration? One answer, I think, is that we're afraid of acknowledging that we have power and have profited from moments of massive injustice like this one. It is easier to acknowledge a moment in time than to think about its ongoing reverberations.

But ongoing resource inequities have clear historical roots in Southern histories of dispossession, violence, and decisions around resource allocation. One major way is infrastructure: A recent study found that rural Black southerners are twice as likely as rural white southerners to lack home internet access. Failing infrastructure—including wastewater systems—plagues Black Belt communities even as infrastructure projects for other communities threaten the economic futures of places like Africatown, Alabama. Health care access and outcomes are worse in the rural South's Black Belt than in many other rural areas in the country. These are fixable problems—with political will, collective action, and, most importantly, resource redistribution.

One of the things Lisa Hicks Gilbert—a descendant of Frank and Ed Hicks, whose names appear in the table above—hopes to bring to Elaine is a telemedicine clinic. Right now, people in Elaine have to drive at least half an hour to Marvell or Helena for doctors' visits, which is hard for people who don't have a car, don't have money for gas, or don't have an hour to spare round trip. She has the space, at the old Elaine High School, and a willing partner in the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. What they lack is funding and stable internet access. "We don't care where the money comes from," Terri Imus of UAMS told me. "A Walton or a Rockefeller, someone that's got some money that they need to give away, we'll take it."

If you happen to be a Rockefeller, a Walton, a government official, or someone else with access to the kind of capital that can fund these kinds of critical infrastructure projects, consider doing so. If you're just a normal person with a few extra dollars, there's a GoFundMe where you can contribute to the Descendants of the Elaine Massacre's ongoing work. And if you do nothing else, encounter this history in the context of the present, where it still lives.

Further Reading

Mastodon Mastodon