Citizens in the state of Arkansas recount one of the worst race massacres in U.S. history, one that took place one hundred years ago on the same day John Brown University’s first classes began.
On Sept. 30, 1919, a mass race riot in southern Arkansas left an unknown number—ranging from 200-800 black residents—and five white residents dead. To consider this issue from today’s perspective, a panel gathered on Feb. 8, 2019, in Elaine, Ark., to tell the stories and understand events.
Citizens in the small Arkansas town are working to uncover the truth of what happened a hundred years ago. According to WREG, a Memphis, Tenn., television station, this massacre is considered the “most bloody and horrific massacres in American history.” Today, the Elaine Truth Telling Commission is one outlet that is considering the racial histories and tensions that were present in Arkansas.
According to KATV, “the Elaine Truth Telling Commission is part of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a cross section of progressive African-American faith leaders engaging in the legacy of the faith community’s engagement in issues of social justice. Commissioners, including pastors, professors, judges and musicians were there to listen and make sure the black perspective of history isn’t forgotten or ignored.”
Even after 100 years, it is still important to understand issues such as these, JBU junior Rachel Hauch said. “Context is so important when it comes to understanding current issues. People are inevitably shaped by past events, and most events are tied to physical locations,” Hauch said. “Even though we may not be able to see the extent of this influence, the current state of racial relations in places like Siloam Springs, or even the state of Arkansas as a whole, is the result of countless decisions made in the past. We learn invaluable lessons from our history, both good and bad—’those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ after all.”
James White, Elaine-native and developer of the Elaine Legacy Center, told KATV that “it’s just sad that a hundred years have been gone passed by and we’re still there … we’re still struggling.”
In 1919, after the end of World War I, citizens across the U.S. instigated race riots throughout the country as soldiers transitioned back to life in the states. With all the conflict, civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson called this period the “Red Summer.” According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “Red Summer refers to a series of approximately 25 ‘anti-black riots’ that erupted in major cities throughout the nation in 1919,” including Tulsa, Okla., and Elaine.
The massacre in Elaine started when African Americans of the area attended a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America in order to “obtain better payments for their cotton crops from the white plantation owners who dominated the area during the Jim Crow era,” according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Over 120 men, women, and children were at the church for the meeting. According to a statement made by Frank Moore on Oct. 1, 1919, “there were four or five automobiles of white people within about forty or fifty yards from the church … [who] stopped and started shooting into the church on us and killed some of us.”
After one white man was killed, “all hell broke loose, and by the following morning the local white sheriff sent out a call to all white Mississippians and Arkansans to come to their aid and ‘hunt Mr. Nigger in his lair.’ White men in cars, trucks and on foot fired at every black person they saw: men, women and children. As Arkansas historian Michael Dougan stated, ‘If it was black and moving, it was target practice’ … Historical estimates of African-American deaths on that day in Elaine range between 270 and 856,” according to the Humanist Magazine.
Additionally, the Smithsonian Magazine reported that the “Arkansas’ Governor Charles Brough called for 500 soldiers from nearby Camp Pike to … round up’ the ‘heavily armed negroes.’ The troops were ‘under order to shoot to kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately.’ They went well beyond that, banding together with local vigilantes … the killing was indiscriminate—men, women and children unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity were slaughtered. Amidst the violence, five whites died, but for those deaths, someone would have to be held accountable.”
Twelve African Americans were put on trial for the deaths of these men and the lower courts found them guilty. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People fought to take these trials to the Supreme Court. Finally, on Feb. 23, 1926, the Court voted 6-2 in favor of the black men. After the ruling, all 12 of them were eventually freed by the Arkansas courts.
History major Andrew Bohlender said in order to move forward in race relations, we need to look at these historical events. “If you look at the country today and race relations today, you would have no basis for how any of this formed [without history]. It’s all about the failure of reconstruction and segregation and the failure of the American government and the American people to actually enact the laws that were actually supposed to protect African Americans from abuse after they were freed on paper.”
Bohlender said to learn about the past mistakes it is essential that we look “at the systems that created segregated communities and isolated them by not allowing access to equal education, equal job opportunities. Knowing how people thought back in those days, whether that be ten years ago or 200 years ago” gives us a broader picture of the country.
Junior Liz Pace said that issues such as the Elaine Massacre needs to be discussed because “for our African American brothers and sisters, that’s their story, that’s where they came,” Pace said.
Today, on JBU’s campus, students are not just learning about the 100 years of JBU’s operation, but also about the history of America and the world’s racial issues. Junior Callie Owensby is taking a class called African Civilization where she said the most important lesson she has learned is the importance of humility.
“A lot of African history is simply not discussed because it does not put white Europeans and Americans in a very positive light. We must have a posture of humility and be willing to hear and acknowledge the hard things,” Owensby said. “As we have studied, our class has noted how much of African history is told by white people. We should be seeking, not just to hear, but to really listen to, diverse voices. Even if what they have to say makes us uncomfortable or convicts us, we must be willing to learn and understand.”
Although the Elaine Massacre was one of the deadliest in the nation, it is not the only issue of race relations Arkansas citizens must consider. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, the state of Arkansas had one of the highest per capita rates of lynching by total population and by African American population.
“Just like any other tragedy in our country’s history … it’s important that students learn about it,” Bohlender said. “People who don’t know the past of something can’t fully understand the issue. If you can’t fully understand the issue, then you’re not going to approach it with the right solutions. You’re not going to have the full story.”