Elaine is one of those places that’s out of sight and out of mind for most Arkansans. The small town in Phillips County has seen its population decline from 1,210 in 1970 to 636 in the 2010 census. This area once was part of the vast network of streams, swamps and bottomland hardwoods that covered the Arkansas Delta. For the past century, the economy has been driven by row-crop agriculture.
“When Arkansas became a state in 1836, the area of present-day Elaine was still swampland,” Steven Teske writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It was designated as such by the Swamp and Overflow Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1850. Silas Craig and John Martin purchased Phillips County land from the state of Arkansas under the provisions of that act, and the land passed through several owners—including the state of Arkansas a second time due to unpaid taxes—but was only slightly developed. …
“Around 1892, state geologist John Casper Branner predicted to Fort Smith investor Harry Kelley that the swampland of Phillips County would become the richest part of the state. This prediction noted that silt from river flooding created fertile farmland through the area. Branner said that three things were needed to develop the land— effective flood control through the building of levees, railroad transportation and clearing of the timber. Beginning in 1892, Kelley purchased land in the promising area. Eventually he came to own—alone or through partners—about 35,000 acres.” As the timber was harvested, the Howe Lumber Co., Chicago Mill & Lumber Co., New Madrid Hoop Co. and Acme Cooperage Co. became major employers.
In 1919, an event occurred that should have put Elaine in the history books forever. The Progressive Farmers & Household Union was holding meetings across the Delta in an attempt to obtain better prices for the cotton grown by tenant farmers. There was a Sept. 30 shooting at a meeting in a community three miles north of Elaine known as Hoop Spur. A white security officer for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad was killed, and a sheriff’s deputy was injured. Rumors spread that blacks were planning a violent uprising against white plantation owners. Whites from Helena and even farther away (some came from Mississippi) took up arms. A number of blacks were killed in the days that followed. Some accounts say the death toll reached into the hundreds.
Gov. Charles Brough sent 500 soldiers to Phillips County from Camp Pike in North Little Rock. Once the violence ended, 77 blacks were tried and sentenced for various crimes. No whites were sentenced. It was the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history and perhaps the bloodiest racial conflict in U.S. history.
For decades, however, it wasn’t talked about in Arkansas. Few Arkansans had heard about the carnage until 2001 when the University of Arkansas Press published a book by Grif Stockley titled
Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919. Now, 16 years following the publication of Stockley’s well-researched book, Arkansans again need to be educated about what happened in 1919.
On a Thursday last month, those interested in learning about what Stockley refers to as the Elaine Massacre filled the Ron Robinson Theater in downtown Little Rock to hear about a planned documentary by filmmakers Natalie Zimmerman and Michael Wilson to be titled Elaine. The event was promoted as a “screening of clips,” though only a short trailer was shown. Most of the hour consisted of a panel discussion. Wilson talked about the current Delta while using pejorative terms such as “industrial farming” and made a plea for radical, totally unrealistic modern efforts such as reparations.
Therein lies the problem. People need to be educated about the atrocities that occurred. But if the documentary enters the realm of 21st century leftist politics, it will turn off those who most need to see it. In an era of deep political divisions, such an approach will further divide rather than enlighten.
The Red Echo Group and Wilson’s Social Satisfaction Studio are trying to raise $60,000 to finish the film. Their literature says they want to bring “national and international awareness to the conflict in Elaine— it’s [sic] race, class and labor dimensions, and the true scope and legacy of the subsequent massacre.”
The summer of 1919 was marked by racial conflicts across the country in cities from Washington to Chicago.
Stockley writes: “With labor conflicts escalating through the country at the end of World War I, government and business interpreted the demands of labor increasingly as the work of foreign ideologies, such as Bolshevism, that threatened the foundation of the American economy. Thrown into the highly combustible mix was the return to the United States of black soldiers who often exhibited a less submissive attitude within the Jim Crow society around then. Unions such as the Progressive Farmers represented a threat not only to the tenet of white supremacy but also to the basic concepts of capitalism. Although the United States was on the winning side of World War I, supporters of American capitalism found in communism a new menace to their security.”
Arkansans must know what happened at Elaine in the fall of 1919. If the tone of last month’s comments at the Ron Robinson Theater are an indication of where the current film is headed, though, it will fall short of its educational goals. That’s unfortunate.