Lynching in the Arkansas Delta: The Land of Paradox

Lynching in the Arkansas Delta: The Land of Paradox

By Andrea Price a_price1

The Arkansas Delta Region

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) just released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documents EJI’s multi-year investigation into lynching in twelve Southern states during the period between Reconstruction and World War II. Almost 4,000 lynchings occurred during this time.

As I dug into the report and read the county level numbers, Phillips County, AR had the most lynchings of any other county with 243. When I read this, I immediately thought of Elaine, AR a small community in the Arkansas Delta County of Phillips.

The Arkansas Delta is the land of plenty and the land of poverty. The land of racial harmony and the land of systemic racism. The land of bitter despair and the land of beacons of hope. The land of great stories and the land of buried histories. This land is truly the land of paradox.

My enslaved ancestors were brought from Maryland and Virginia to Kentucky and then to the banks of the Mississippi River in Phillips County, AR where they were taken to work on plantations in Ashley, Chicot, and Desha Counties in the southern part of the Arkansas Delta. My free ancestors came to Arkansas from Virginia and set up large farms in the Delta. For at least 9 generations, my family, both formerly enslaved and free, has called the Arkansas Delta home.

This region of the country has seen the best of times and the worst of times. The rich, fertile soil of the Delta was the ground that helped make cotton king and the slave labor that worked the land made the slave owners wealthy. This was truly the best of times for the slave owners and their families. Many descendants of the slave owners still control much of the economy and politics in the Delta, but since cotton is no longer king, the economy of the Delta is one of the most depressed in the United States.

Statistically, the best of times was and remains allusive for Black people in this region of the world. However, the sharing spirit that exists here stems from the necessity of sharing during slavery. This sharing spirit made my experience growing up in Drew County, AR during the 80’s and 90’s great and my experiences working throughout the Delta now exceptional. This land forces me to have a great understanding of the paradox of “systems” and what historically helped shape this region.

From Slavery to Sharecropping

After slavery ended, my ancestors’ slave owner, R. Tucker of Ashley County, decided to leave the United States and travel to Brazil to see if he could establish a slavery enterprise in Brazil. In letters to his family, he described how many of his fellow Americans were also in Brazil attempting to start “enterprises” too. (His descendants shared his letters with me.) To his dismay, this “business” idea wasn’t viable, so he returned to the states.

Tucker’s attempt to survive without slave labor wasn’t unique. In fact, it was common. A whole sector of the United States and world economy was turned upside down, so what was the world to do? With the economy in shambles, White landowners and newly free men and women were at a bifurcation point.

One unusual event that occurred during this time was a meeting between Black religious leaders and Military officials. Union General William Sherman and others met with 20 Black leaders to get ideas on what should happen to support formerly enslaved people. (Here is the transcript from that meeting.) According to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, this meeting represented “the first time in the history of this nation, the representatives of the government had gone to these poor debased people to ask them what they wanted for themselves.” Four days after the meeting, Field Order #15 granted reparations, 400,00 acres of land in 40-acre parcels, to newly freed Black people.

Unfortunately, this 400,000 acres of land wasn’t enough for everyone freed from enslavement and didn’t encompass the Arkansas Delta. As a result, many people stayed on the plantations where they were formerly enslaved and were forced into sharecropping/tenant farming where they rented small plots of land from White landowners in return for a portion of the crops the tenant farmers raised.

Many of my ancestors remained on the land Tucker owned, and some of my relatives currently reside on this land as landowners. My grandmother, Sarah Ambrose Smith, lived on tenant land until 1916 when her family moved to Tillar, Drew County, AR, another Delta county.

Sharecropping, Labor Organizing and the Elaine Massacre

Progressive Farmers
Progressive Farmers & Household Union of America. The Progressive Farmers & Household Union of America blank membership card, 1926 ?. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Robert Hill, whose story represents one of the buried stories of the Delta, lived near my grandmother in the small Delta community of Winchester, AR in Drew County. In 1918, he took a trip to Phillips County, AR, the place where my enslaved ancestors first arrived in Arkansas, and found that the sharecroppers there needed to organize. He, along with physician Dr. V.E. Powell, incorporated the Organization of Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America in Drew County as a labor organization for Black sharecroppers. This organization was designed “to advance the interests of the Negro, morally and intellectually, and to make him a better citizen and a better farmer.”

Hill and Powell helped organize farmers in Phillips County and on September 30, 1919 between 100 and 200 Black farmers and other citizens from Phillips County met at Hoop Spur Church located a couple of miles away from Elaine, AR. This meeting was designed to promote cooperative economics for Black farmers and encourage legal representation to ensure farmers’ were compensated fairly. Word got out that this meeting was taking place, so armed guards posted outside of the church to protect the attendees.

There are many, recorded accounts, given by mostly White reporters, of the tragic events that happened during this meeting, but what is clear is a shootout occurred during the meeting, the church was burned down that night, and one of the worst race riots in the history of America took place starting the night of this meeting and continuing until October 7, 1919.

Black people made up roughly 90% of Phillips County during this time. Immediately after the incident at Hoop Spur Church, the White residents solicited the help of between 500 and 1,000 White residents of Mississippi (just across the river), Tennessee and other counties in Arkansas to quell the “insurrection” of Black people in Phillips County. The bloody events that followed are engrained in the fabric of the Delta and are etched in history as the “Elaine Massacre”.

100’s of Black people in Elaine were killed (there is no official number but some estimates are over 200) via lynching and other forms of murder, the authorities arrested almost 300. This all happened during one week. Twelve of the arrestees were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. George W. Murphy, a white attorney, and Scipio Jones represented the twelve, while Jones alone negotiated on behalf of about 60 others sentenced to prison terms. The 12 were eventually freed.Arkansas Race Riots

Ida B. Wells, an anti-lynching advocate, learned of the Elaine Massacre and travelled to Phillips County.She disguised herself as a relative of some of those imprisoned after the Massacre and entered the jail with some of the relatives of the imprisoned. It was during this time that she recorded first-hand accounts of what happened in Elaine. She even wrote and published The Arkansas Race Riot that chronicled the events in Elaine from the perspective of the persecuted. One of the accounts is from John Martin:

“I was at Hoop Spur Church that night to lodge meeting. I do know that four or five automobiles full of white men came about fifty yards from the church and put the lights out, then started shooting in the church with about 200 head of, men, women and children. I was on the outside of the church and saw this for myself. Then I ran after they started firing in on the church. I don’t know if anybody got killed at, all. I went home and stayed home that night, then the white people was sending word that they was going to kill all the black people, then I run back in the woods and hid two days then the soldiers came then, I made it to them. I was carried in Elaine and put in the school house and I was there eight days. Then I was brought to Helena and put in jail and whipped near to death and was put in an electric chair to make me lie on other Negroes. It was not the union that brought this trouble; it was our crops. They took everything I had, twenty-two acres of cotton, three acres of corn. All that was taken from me and my people. Also all my household goods. Clothes and all. All my hogs, chickens and everything my people had. I was whipped twice in jail. These white people know that they started this trouble. This union was only for a blind. We were threatened before this union was there to make us leave our crops.”

The Aftermath

The Elaine Massacre left very little doubt about the dangers of Black people challenging the White power structure and capitalism. Almost 100 years later, the thick, but often unacknowledged, residue left from the lynching and violence that occurred throughout the Delta, specifically Phillips County, has weighed down attempts at real progression for the region.

Those who serve this region have to understand the history that has made the Delta a paradoxical place. Community development and change work in this region is difficult, partly because of the weight of the region’s past and the structures that continue to morph to favor the those in the region who have traditionally had control. Those of us who live in and serve this region can’t forget to remember what has made the Delta what it is: the good, the bad and the ugly.

If we don’t understand the fundamental conflict and challenges in the Delta and from whence they come, then we unfortunately limit ourselves in its resolution. Lynching was one of the most outwardly expressions of hate and the spirits of the “Strange Fruit” still swing as those of us who are sons and daughters of this region work to make it better. Let us not forget Phillips County. Let us know forget our history. Let us not forget that despite the atrocities that have shaped the Delta, that the hope of our ancestors and those who lost their lives through terrorism and lynching live in us.

The 12 men sentenced to death after the Elaine Massacre.
The 12 men sentenced to death after the Elaine Massacre.

For more information about the Elaine Massacre:

Stockley, Grif. Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2001.

Taylor, Kieran. “‘We Have Just Begun’: Black Organizing and White Response in the Arkansas Delta, 1919.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 58 (Autumn 1999): 265–284.