America’s Forgotten Mass Lynching: When 237 People Were Murdered In Arkansas

In 1919, in the wake of World War I, black sharecroppers unionized in Arkansas, unleashing a wave of white vigilantism and mass murder that left 237 people dead.

02.16.15 11:55 AM ET

The visits began in the fall of 1918, just as World War I ended. At his office in Little Rock, Arkansas, attorney Ulysses S. Bratton listened as African American sharecroppers from the Delta told stories of theft, exploitation, and endless debt. A man named Carter had tended 90 acres of cotton, only to have his landlord seize the entire crop and his possessions. From the town of Ratio, in Phillips County, Arkansas, a black farmer reported that a plantation manager refused to give sharecroppers an itemized account for their crop. Another sharecropper told of a landlord trying “to starve the people into selling the cotton at his own price. They ain’t allowing us down there room to move our feet except to go to the field.”

No one could know it at the time, but within a year these inauspicious meetings would lead to one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history. Initiated by whites, the violence—by any measure, a massacre—claimed the lives of 237 African Americans, according to a just released report from the Equal Justice Initiative. The death toll was unusually high, but the use of racial violence to subjugate blacks during this time was not uncommon. As the Equal Justice Initiative observes, “Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation—a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime.” This was certainly true of the massacre in Phillips County, Arkansas.

Bratton agreed to represent the cheated sharecroppers, who also joined a new union, the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. Its founder, a black Delta native named Robert Hill, had no prior organizing experience but plenty of ambition. “The union wants to know why it is that the laborers cannot control their just earnings which they work for,” Hill announced as he urged black sharecroppers to each recruit 25 prospective members to form a lodge. Hill was especially successful in Phillips County, where seven lodges were established in 1919.

It took a lot of courage to defy the Arkansas Delta’s white elite. Men such as E.M. “Mort” Allen controlled the local economy, government, law enforcement, and courts. Allen was a latter-day carpetbagger, a Northerner who had come to Arkansas in 1906 to make his fortune. He married well and formed a partnership with a wealthy businessman. Together they developed the town of Elaine, a hub for the thriving lumber industry. Allen and the county’s white landowners understood that their continued prosperity depended on the exploitation of black sharecroppers and laborers. In a county where more than 75 percent of the population was African American, this wasn’t a task to be taken lightly. In February 1919, the planters agreed to reduce the acreage of cotton in cultivation in anticipation of a postwar drop in demand. If they gave their tenants a fair settlement, their profits would shrink further. Allen spoke for the planters when he declared that “the old Southern methods are much the best,” and that the “Southern men can handle the negroes all right and peaceably.”

There was nothing “peaceable” about the methods used to demolish the sharecroppers’ union. Late on the night of September 30, 1919, the planters dispatched three men to break up a union meeting in a rough hewn black church at Hoop Spur, a crossroads three miles north of Elaine. Prepared for trouble, the sharecroppers had assigned six men to patrol outside the church. A verbal confrontation led to gunfire that fatally wounded one of the attackers. The union men dispersed, but not for long. Bracing for reprisals from their landlords, they rousted fellow sharecroppers from bed and formed self-defense forces.

The planters also mobilized. Sheriff Frank Kitchens deputized a massive white posse, even setting up a headquarters at the courthouse in the county seat of Helena to organize his recruits. Hundreds of white veterans, recently returned from military service in France, flocked to the courthouse. Dividing into small groups, the armed white men set out into the countryside to search for the sharecroppers. The posse believed that a black conspiracy to murder white planters had just been begun and that they must do whatever it took to put down the alleged uprising. The result was the killing of 237 African Americans.

None of the perpetrators—participants in mass murder—answered for their crimes. No one was charged, no trials were held, at least not of those who had killed blacks. In the early 20th century, state-sanctioned collective violence targeting African Americans was a common occurrence in the United States. 1919 was an especially bloody year. By September, the nation had already experienced seven major outbreaks of anti-black violence (commonly called “race riots”). Riots had flared in cities as different as Knoxville, Omaha, and Washington, D.C. In Chicago, a lakefront altercation between whites and blacks escalated into a week-long riot that took the lives of 38 men (23 black, 15 white). To restore order, Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden called in thousands of state militia.

The root cause of 1919’s violence was the reassertion of white supremacy after World War I. Disfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, and biased police forces and courts had stripped African Americans of many of their constitutional rights and created deepset economic, social, and political inequities. Blacks who defied the rules and traditions of white supremacy risked personal ruin (being banished from their hometowns was one punishment), bodily harm (beatings and whippings), and death. In just five months in 1919, from January to May, more than 20 lynch mobs murdered two dozen African Americans. One of these victims was a black veteran killed for refusing to stop wearing his Army uniform. Lynchers took pride in their actions, often posing for photographs at the scenes of their crimes; few were ever charged, let alone convicted. Mob violence helped protect the racial status quo.

What made 1919 unique was the armed resistance that black Americans mounted against white mobs trying to keep them “in their place.” During the United States’ brief but transformative involvement in World War I, almost 370,000 black men served in the military, most of them in the Army. On the homefront, African American men and women bought war bonds, volunteered for the Red Cross, and worked in defense factories. They were fighting to make the world safe for democracy, as President Woodrow Wilson defined the war’s purpose, yet they didn’t have equal rights and opportunities at home. When the war ended, African Americans resolved to make America safe for democracy. In May 1919, civil rights activist and prolific writer W.E.B. Du Bois declared, “We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.”

Whether they had served in the military or not, African Americans answered Du Bois’s clarion call. When a white mob in Longview, Texas, tried to seize a black man named S.L. Jones to lynch him for insulting the honor of a white woman, a self-defense force organized by Jones’s friends opened fire, dispersing the mob and saving Jones’s life. When police in Chicago failed to stop white gangs from attacking blacks, veterans of the 370th Regiment, 93rd  Division (an all-black unit recently returned from France) put on their uniforms, armed themselves, and took to the streets. And when white servicemen and veterans joined with civilians to form mobs in Washington, D.C., hundreds of black Washingtonians lined the streets of Uptown (now called Shaw) to prevent these mobs from marauding in the neighborhood known for its black-owned businesses and theaters.

The Arkansas sharecroppers who stood up against the white planters of Phillips County were a major part of black resistance during 1919. Their courage came with heavy costs. As word of the trouble spread, white vigilantes from Mississippi crossed the river and began attacking blacks. The posse organized by Sheriff Kitchens scoured the canebrakes and fields, firing on blacks. Meanwhile, Arkansas Gov. Charles Brough cabled the War Department to request the deployment of infantry units. Almost 600 white troops and officers soon arrived from Camp Pike. Told that a black uprising was underway, the soldiers rounded up African Americans and, like the Mississippi vigilantes and local posse, killed indiscriminately. A special agent for the Missouri Pacific Railroad who led a force of approximately 50 white men later said the Mississippi mob “shot and killed men, women and children without regard to whether they were guilty or innocent of any connection with the killing of anybody, or whether members of the union or not.” One of the county’s richest white men, Gerard Lambert, observed soldiers shoot a black man who had tried to run from a hiding place. Let that “be a lesson,” the troops told blacks who were also present. Vigilantes killed a black woman, pulled her dress over her head, and left her body on a road, another brutal “lesson” of what happened when African Americans forgot their “place.”

The sharecroppers did the best they could to defend themselves and their families and neighbors. A group of sharecroppers and a black veteran in uniform shot back when part of the posse opened fire. Hearing the shots, union member Frank Moore rallied the men with him. “Let’s go help them people out,” he shouted. But the sharecroppers were outgunned and outmanned. By October 3, most had been captured and jailed. Sheriff’s deputies and special agents for the Missouri Pacific Railroad tortured them to extract false confessions to a conspiracy to murder whites. Rigged trials brought swift convictions and death sentences for 12 men whose only crime was their attempt to obtain fair earnings for their labor. Protracted appeals, supported by the NAACP, resulted in a Supreme Court decision (Moore v. Dempsey, 1923) that helped free the men. The ruling also established the federal government’s obligation to ensure that state trial proceedings preserve the Constitution’s guarantee of due process and equal protection of the laws, a standard the Arkansas trials certainly had not met.

This legal victory couldn’t give back the lives of the black residents killed by the posse, vigilantes, and troops in Phillips County. The death toll of 237 reported by the Equal Justice Initiative is a new figure, based on extensive research. In 1919, sources as varied as the NAACP and the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) estimated the number of killed African Americans at 25 to 80. Writer Robert Whitaker, who has identified 22 separate killing sites of African Americans during the massacre, put the death toll at more than 100. NAACP official Walter White, who risked his life in October 1919 to investigate the killings, stated that the “number of Negroes killed during the riot is unknown and probably never will be known.” In contrast, just four whites died, all of them posse members; one or two may have died as a result of friendly fire.

Say the number of African Americans killed in Phillips County in 1919 was 25. Or 80. Or 237. The very fact that, almost one hundred years after the massacre, we are still trying to pinpoint the death toll should lead us to a larger reckoning: coming to terms with one of the most violent years in the nation’s history, bloodshed that resulted from efforts to make America safe for democracy.