Hundreds of African Americans died in a little known spate of white mob violence that spread in cities and towns across the nation a century ago. The bloodshed of 1919 doesn’t get much of a mention in history classes.
J. Chester Johnson never heard about the mass killing of black people in Elaine, Arkansas.He is now co-chair of a committee overseeing construction of a memorial honoring those killed in 1919. The memorial is set to be unveiled in September.
Others want to focus instead on reparations to account for what they say was theft of black-owned land in the wake of the killings.
“It was literally a war on this area. People wanted the property that was almost all black-owned,” said Mary Olson, president of the Elaine Legacy Center, a community center that works to preserve the area’s civil rights history. Some residents are calling for descendants of the victims to receive compensation for what their families lost.
On the evening of Sept. 30, 1919, as black sharecroppers had gathered at a small church in Hoop Spur, an unincorporated area about 2½ miles north of Elaine. The sharecroppers, wanting to be paid better and treated more fairly, were meeting with union organizers when a deputy sheriff and a railroad security officer — both white — arrived. Fighting and gunfire erupted. Whites angered that the sharecroppers were organizing went on a rampage. Over several days, mobs from the surrounding area and neighboring states killed men, women and children. More than 200 black men, women and children were killed. Hundreds of black people were arrested and jailed, many of them tortured into giving incriminating testimony. Some were forced to flee Arkansas and had their land stolen.
Elaine is still highly segregated: White residents live predominantly on the south side and black residents on the north side.
“...there’s still racial tension here because we’re still divided,” said James White, director of the Legacy Center whose grandmother told him about black residents hiding in swamps to escape. “One hundred years later, it’s the same old game, just a different day,” he said, reflecting on the disparity between those that hold power in Phillips County and the poor black residents of Elaine. “It’s hate in this town ... and black people are still afraid” of talking about the massacre.
On a hot July day in 1919, a black 17-year-old swimming in Lake Michigan drifted in a dangerous direction — toward the white section of a Chicago beach. White beachgoers, angry at Eugene Williams’ intrusion, hurled rocks at him. One struck him in the head, and he drowned. After Williams’ body was pulled from the water on July 27, a group of black witnesses pointed to a white man they accused of throwing rocks, but police refused to arrest him. A crowd gathered and a black man was arrested instead. Fighting broke out along the beach and spread from there. White mobs raided black neighborhoods on the South Side, burning homes and attacking people. Black residents, determined to hold their ground, fought back. So began a week of riots that would kill 38 people — 23 of them black, 15 of them white — and leave more than 500 people injured.
Tensions had been building along with the Great Migration, the shift of Southern blacks to Northern cities as they fled life under Jim Crow — a system of oppressive laws that perpetuated racism, inequality and brutality. Many white workers saw the influx of black people as a threat to their livelihoods.
“Even if Eugene Williams had not been hit on the head by a rock, almost certainly, racial violence would’ve taken place in Chicago on a massive scale,” said Brad Hunt, vice president for research and academic programs at Chicago’s Newberry Library.
Racially restrictive covenants gave way to messaging from homeowners’ associations discouraging members from selling to black families — all to keep certain Chicago neighborhoods white and to concentrate the African American population in the city’s “black belt,” a string of neighborhoods on the South Side. The boundaries of the black belt will eventually expand — particularly after World War II during a second wave of migration from the South.