This Day in History 1919: “America First” Massacre of Blacks in Elaine, Arkansas

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas gives the following report on racist white mobs in 1919.

It starts by saying a small posse of armed white men showed up to violently disrupt a meeting of Blacks having a peaceful meeting. The white assailants were shot dead in the firefight:

Though accounts of who fired the first shots are in sharp conflict, a shootout in front of the church on the night of September 30, 1919, between the armed black guards around the church and three individuals whose vehicle was parked in front of the church resulted in the death of… a white security officer for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, and the wounding of… Phillips County’s white deputy sheriff.

It’s hard to believe anyone really thinks there could be a sharp conflict about responsibility, given a peaceful meeting was assaulted by a group of armed white men during the “Red Summer” of state-sponsored domestic terrorism against Blacks in America.

As W.E.B. Du Bois, cofounder of the NAACP, wrote about Black American sentiment at that time:

…we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land. We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy. We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States, or know the reason why.

Calling any Black man in that church meeting the aggressor on September 30, 1919 would be like claiming that it was the U.S. who fired the first shots in WWI, which is obviously impossible.

The best account of the incident I’ve read so far is from a paper in Montgomery, Alabama:

[Blacks] were the majority of the population, but control of the cotton industry was dominated by the white Phillips County cotton brokers, who low-balled wholesale prices. They also enacted a system designed to keep the black farmers in debt to maintain control of the community. In response, black farmers gathered at a church in Hoop Spur — a village outside of Elaine — to unionize.

It was a meeting about economics, to reduce debt and corruption in a market (“…by 1910…about 14% of farmers…”).

So why were whites so violently organized in response to a small peaceful assembly? More to the point, here’s what happened next, according to the Encyclopedia:

As soon as morning broke hundreds of armed white vigilantes swarmed from Mississippi and Arkansas to quickly kill as many Black Americans as they could. Somehow they had heard incredibly quickly that a violent racist conspiracy to stop Blacks from assembling had experienced a setback.

Even the Governor of Arkansas jumped to it, urgently demanding Wilson’s “America First” administration send U.S. troops without delay.

The federal government responded by officially marching 500 soldiers in from Little Rock (Camp Pike) to murder or round-up for torture local peaceful innocent Black farmers.

Source: ArkTimes. U.S. Soldiers from Camp Pike, Arkansas round-up peaceful innocent Black farmers for imprisonment and torture in the town of Elaine 1919.

The Encyclopedia continues:

Evidence shows that the mobs of whites slaughtered African Americans in and around Elaine. For example, H. F. Smiddy, one of the white witnesses to the massacre, swore in an eye-witness account in 1921 that “several hundred of them… began to hunt negroes and shotting [sic] them as they came to them.” Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the troops from Camp Pike engaged in indiscriminate killing of African Americans in the area… In 1925, Sharpe Dunaway, an employee of the Arkansas Gazette, alleged that soldiers in Elaine had “committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes, or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.” … anecdotal information suggests that U.S. troops also engaged in torture of African Americans to make them confess and give information.

The Governor gave a press conference following this tragedy, continuing the “sharp conflict” mindset, by claiming mob violence by white civilians was the prevention of mob violence.

The white citizens of the county deserve unstinting praise for their actions in preventing mob violence.

A murderous domestic terrorist group deserved praise from the government? Why?

He apparently meant Blacks were being shot dead on sight so no lynchings of them could be reported. Instead, historians have since clearly recorded Elaine as white mob violence killing innocent Blacks:

The violence even claimed those who had nothing to do with the [claimed targets by the white mobs], such as brothers David Augustine Elihue Johnston, Gibson Allen Johnston, Lewis Harrison Johnston, and Leroy Johnston, who were returning to Helena from a hunting trip when they were attacked and killed on October 2.

So these violent white mobs attacked Blacks without provocation, and then claimed it all was self-defense, which the Encyclopedia concludes rather starkly:

…the modern view of most historians of this crisis is that white mobs unjustifiably killed an undetermined number of African Americans. More controversial is the view that the military participated in the murder of blacks. Race relations in this area of Arkansas are currently quite strained for a number of reasons, including the events of 1919.

That strain is highlighted in an WBUR interview with two descendants, first a Black man who lost innocent family to the massacre:

Miller lost some of his ancestors during the massacre — four young black men who were ripped off a train and killed.

Second, a white man raised by one of the perpetrators:

And I grew up one county removed from Phillips County and I grew up knowing nothing about this. And I began to do research into it and I realized that a story that my own mother had told me about my grandfather…initially, when you’re confronted with that, you realize that maybe I can somehow reconcile the wonderful person that I knew, who cared for me so deeply, with this person who participated in the massacre. And over time, I realized I couldn’t do that…

This story about a Black family having four members “ripped off a train and killed” when they tried to leave town (remember at the start it was a white security officer for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad who fired shots at a church assembly)… must be put in context of a white man admitting his family would reveal exactly nothing about what really happened.

It brings us back to disinformation pushed by the Arkansas’ Governor.

Allegedly those four Black men were lynched:

Members of the Miller family, who supposedly tried to escape Elaine by train, were hanged from the tower that once stood on the stone columns, they said.

Their bodies were left for days, hanging from a water tower to ensure it was widely seen, while the Governor publicly declared no such thing happened. Try to reconcile how such imagery of lynchings must have affected Black farmers given the official government statement directly contradicting what everyone could plainly see.

Also consider this massacre in Arkansas was just two days after white mob violence also very publicly tortured and killed an innocent Back man in Nebraska.

A huge racist white mob on September 28, 1919 fired guns at government buildings and forced entry, then tortured, burned and dismembered Will Brown to create souvenirs out of his body parts.

Although Ms. Loebeck was unable to identify her assailant, police arrested Brown. Two days later a group of white youths gathered outside the Omaha courthouse. The crowd grew to 5000-15,000 spectators and began firing guns into the courthouse. They set it on fire. Mayor Edward Smith came out to calm the crowd and was hanged. (He was cut down before he could die and recovered in the hospital.) Police took prisoners to the roof of the fourth floor, but eventually members of the mob scaled the building and capture Will Brown. They beat him unconscious, stripped him naked, hanged him, dragged his body through the streets behind a car, poured gasoline on him, burned his body, and passed out souvenirs. They also posed for this photo, as the riot continued for several hours more.

September 28, 1919 just two days before white mobs swarmed rural Arkansas and indiscriminately murdered hundreds of innocent Blacks.

Is it really any wonder who fired the first shots on September 30th in Arkansas?

Or is it any wonder how domestic terrorism across Nebraska, Missouri and Arkansas were so coordinated denying Black Americans the right to assemble, speak or move freely?

For further reading on Arkansas denial see their entry in the Lynching Victims Memorial. Note: September 30, 1919 is missing.

Fundamentally the double-speak of the “America First” platform was implemented by the Arkansas government to destroy American prosperity based solely on race — domestic terror groups set about lynching Blacks, even ordering the government to help by sending the Army to also shoot and torture Blacks

Again, we should never forget a state Governor openly claimed he ordered murder of innocent Blacks to prevent them being lynched, even as lynching victims obviously were hung for days as everyone could plainly see.

This was not an isolated time or case. The state-sanctioned domestic terrorism of “America First” laid a foundation for the infamous 1921 Tulsa massacre that involved even more gruesome terror tactics (airplanes dropping napalm on Black property and mass murder of Blacks thrown into unmarked graves)… a blueprint used by Nazi Germany for genocide.

To be clear, when anyone today claims “America First” as their motto, they invoke a history of domestic terrorism — racist white mobs intent on mass murdering Black Americans.

Or, as it was phrased recently when Wisconsin laid a lynching victim headstone (160 years late):

…unfortunately all too common across this nation, where lawless mobs deputized themselves and inflicted egregious harm on Black individuals and communities…

The history being told here is very clear, even though intentionally hidden, and extremely relevant to today’s headlines.

For example, a brand new study of American police violence concludes with a chilling reference to the early 1990s:

…police were, on average, 3.5 times more likely to kill Black non-Hispanic people than white non-Hispanic people from 1980 to 2019. These trends follow a violent historical precedent. Policing in the United States traces its origins to slave patrols in the South, when authorities tasked young white men with controlling the movements of enslaved people, brutally beating people for breaking slave codes, or for simply doing something that the patrols disliked. At the turn of the twentieth century, modern police forces across the country adopted tactics that U.S. troops honed in the Philippine-American war to battle insurgents who were fighting for independence. Some veterans who became police officers brought back techniques that they learned overseas and used them to target racial and ethnic minority groups at home.

U.S. troops targeting racial and ethnic minority groups at home is exactly what the Arkansas Encyclopedia is talking about on the 30th of September 1919, even though nobody in Arkansas is talking about it.

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