1919 Elaine Massacre

Against the Current, No. 204, January/February 2020

Paul Ortiz

THE HORRIFIC WAVE of anti-Black riots and pogroms that took place between 1917-23 were part of a violent response on the part of capital to Black economic and political gains in landownership, education, and political organization in the era of the Great Migration.

Seizing the opportunities afforded by rising cotton prices during World War I, African American farmers across the South — tenants, sharecroppers and small farm owners — began organizing.

Day laborers struck for higher wages and formed local unions. In Florida, farm workers joined a statewide voter registration movement. Black farmers in Phillips County, Arkansas created the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America in order to market their cotton cooperatively as well as to bypass the power of white plantation owners and acquire more land of their own.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett conducted a careful investigation of the 1919 Elaine Massacre. She uncovered a seething race and class warfare waged planters and business leaders determined to keep African Americans impoverished and landless.

The Progressive Farmers’ union, in Wells-Barnett’s analysis, represented a “Declaration of Economic Independence, and the first united blow for economic liberty struck by the Negroes of the South. That was their crime and it had to be avenged!”

Phillips County planters recruited white military veterans, American Legion members and gunmen from the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta to crush Black organizing and to drive African American land owners off of their lands.  Governor Charles H. Brough called in hundreds of federal troops who were characterized as “a rolling killing machine.” Together, white military and paramilitary forces massacred hundreds of African American farmers.

Local people and organizers with the Elaine Legacy Center created the Weeping Willow Memorial to commemorate the victims of the massacre in 2019. Months after the memorial was dedicated, vandals destroyed it; the Elaine Legacy Center members believe this should be investigated as a hate crime. Weeks earlier, a group of University of Mississippi students photographed themselves in front of an Emmett Till historical marker that had been vandalized near Glendora where Till had been tortured and murdered in 1955.


Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta

Paul Ortiz, An African American and Latinx History of the United States

January-February 2020, ATC 204

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