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What Happened in Elaine, AR?

By Dianne Rogers

There is a small town in Arkansas, named Elaine, after whom or what I don’t know. If it were a person, however, they surely wept or should have, at the massacre that took place in their namesake town on September 30, 1919. They may still be weeping at the versions of the event told before now; however, those versions, flawed as they may be, are better than the terrified silence that preceded them.

Prior accounts of the massacre claim that a group of Black sharecroppers (not quite true), upset with the system that deprived them of their portion of profits from the sale of cotton, met in a church on the evening of September 30, to strategize ways to take their cotton to out of county markets and obtain fair prices. Whites found out about the meeting and stormed the church, confident that an uprising was being planned. When they fired, the Black farmers and businessmen returned fire; a White man was killed.

When word got out about the “uprising,” White volunteers from surrounding counties, including soldiers and the governor of Arkansas, poured into Phillips County, with self-righteous murder in their hearts. In the ensuing chaos, Black men, women, and children were indiscriminately slaughtered; homes were set afire, and, surprise!-Black businesses in the town looted and burned. You see, Elaine was not just a poor Black town full of sharecroppers and day laborers. It was a thriving community, with businesses, schools, and churches; and many of the farmers were landowners, not sharecroppers. All these citizens of Elaine, some just back from serving in the Great War (WWI), were working together to obtain their idea of the American Dream.

It was shattered that day and in the following days, as vengeful Whites meted out their idea of justice and congratulated themselves upon their successful suppression of a race riot. To ensure that the correct “facts” were committed to the public record, the traumatized survivors were forced to silence, their lives, families, and whatever they had left threatened by persons who were adamant in their presentation of “alternative facts.” Due to this convenient packaging of a literal massacre as a race riot triggered by disgruntled sharecroppers, twelve Black men were originally convicted and slated for death. This is problematic to say the least, since the Black citizens of Elaine were the victims, not the perpetrators.

There is a lot of information on this shameful event; however, not all of it is exactly what happened. It’s time for the Voices of Elaine to be heard. These voices belong to the descendants, the children of the survivors, and they can be heard in person on February 4, at the Central Theatre, Hot Springs, AR. This is a very special opportunity to view the documentary film, We Have Just Begun-The 1919 Elaine Massacre and Dispossession, enjoy a box lunch on premise, followed by a keynote address by the Honorable Wendell Griffen, and culminating in a panel discussion with the descendants-the real Voices of Elaine. They are eager to share the truth with us, pleased to dispel the web of silence and inaccuracies that have exacerbated the pain and loss of that terrible event. Their story must be told; I know I want to hear it, and I hope you do, too.


"James" by Andrea Gluckman (Winner of Faces of American Agriculture)

"Motherland of Civil Rights" by Andrea Gluckman

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