The co-executive directors of New Baptist Covenant, Hannah McMahan King and Dr. Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins, are heading to Elaine, Ark., this week to bear witness to the 100th anniversary of the Elaine Race Massacres of 1919.
On September 30, 1919, and in the days following, between 100 and 237 African Americans along with five white men were killed at Hoop Spur and in the vicinity of Elaine in rural Phillips County, Arkansas. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, “the Elaine Massacre was by far the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history and possibly one of the bloodiest racial conflicts in the history of the United States.”
It all started when white Arkansans, reacting against the self-determined agency of African Americans, took violent and vengeful action against them. Black sharecroppers, upset about their oppressively unfair low wages, had organized under the banner of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America to press for a fairer share of the profits of their labor in an exploitative sharecropping system. They met at the small Hoop Spur Church on the evening of September 30.
White landowners controlled the economy. They sold cotton on their own schedule, ran high-priced plantation stores where farmers had to buy seed and supplies, and settled accounts with sharecroppers in lump sums without listing items accrued against them. According to Francine Uenuma of the Smithsonian Institute, “there was very little recourse for African-American tenant farmers against this exploitation; instead there was an unwritten law that no African American could leave until his or her debt was paid off.”
At around 11 p.m. on that September night, a group of local white men fired shots into the church, attempting to intimidate the African Americans striving for self-determination. The shots were returned, and in the chaos and confusion one white man was killed. Whites quickly coalesced, spreading unfounded rumors that a black insurrection against the white citizens of Phillips County had been launched. And then, all hell broke loose. Within hours, under the auspices of then Governor Charles Brough, 500 soldiers from nearby Camp Pike were under orders to “shoot and kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately.”
Unfettered by military administration, an estimated 1,000 white males, mainly from neighboring Arkansas Delta communities but also from across the river in Mississippi and Tennessee, had by nightfall heeded the alarm and descended on Elaine. The killing was indiscriminate—men, women and children unfortunate enough to be in the surrounding area were slaughtered. What makes this particularly egregious is that with blood in their eyes, whites slaughtered a multitude of black people at random. Author, Grif Stockley says, “there has never been an admission from the government of the United States or from the state of Arkansas that any massacres took place. The cover-up of the activities of the military and white civilians began on October 1, 1919, and was so effective that the dimensions of this American tragedy will never be known.”
Up until six months ago, neither Wright-Riggins, a senior African-American adult male born and raised in California, nor McMahan King, a 30-something, white female born and raised in the South, had never even heard of Elaine, Ark., or the massacre that occurred there.
Born and raised in California of parents who had emigrated from the south, Wright-Riggins’ maternal grandparents and in-laws were from Arkansas and lived there from the mid 1800s through the first quarter of the 20th century and the 1960s respectively. Wright-Riggins commented, “One of the tragedies of the Elaine massacres is not only that they occurred but also that I and so many others were and are ignorant of them. I find it incredible that my forbearers elected not to remember or not to share this horrendous event in our history with succeeding generations. It is almost as though they thought that it was more beneficial for their children and grandchildren not to know our history.”
McMahan King is a child of the South, and spent most of her years growing up in North Carolina. As she recently came to learn about the massacre in Elaine, she commented, “Like much about southern white culture, Elaine seems to be a matter more murmured about than publicly scrutinized. It never ceases to amaze me how capable we are of creating psychological mechanisms to not notice our history.”
McMahan King and Wright-Riggins suspect and agree that there are degrees of emotional anxiety in both black and white communities that must be addressed if real reconciliation and healing is ever to occur. This is part and parcel of their pilgrimage to Elaine. Healing, they believe, requires both conversation, repentance, reconciliation and reparations. Thank you for your support of New Baptist Covenant. Please join the “Pilgrimage to Elaine” on the New Baptist Covenant Facebook Live Page on Saturday, September 28..