A Rural Town Confronts its Buried History of Mass Killings of Black Americans

Teresa Krug,The Guardian

Charlie McClain was surprised to learn that he was related to one of the Elaine Twelve.

It came out when McClain, 58, asked his mother earlier this year about the largely forgotten mass killings in his Arkansas Delta home town a century ago, when white mobs murdered scores of African Americans, but only a dozen black men were ever prosecuted for any crime during the disturbances.

“When I got off the phone, I went back and looked at my notes, and I recognized the name: Paul Hall,” McClain said.

In this 1919 photo provided by the Chicago History Museum, armed national guard and African American men stand on a sidewalk during race riots in Chicago. Photograph: Chicago History Museum/AP

The Elaine Twelve were a group of black defendants sentenced to death for what transpired in the autumn of 1919, after an all-white jury found them guilty within eight minutes. Black witnesses later testified that they had been tortured into giving false testimonies and the 12 were eventually released – though no white people were ever charged for any crime.

“It was a kangaroo trial,” said Audrey Evans, a retired federal judge, who is part of the planning committee for the Elaine Massacre Memorial in nearby Helena. They are now preparing to commemorate the town’s bloody and largely forgotten past.

What happened a century ago is still a point of contention, but the general consensus today is this: a white mob, upset over African Americans organizing to demand fair wages, descended upon a church in the township of Hoop Spur, just up the road from Elaine, on 31 September 1919.

A shot was fired – by which “side” is still up for debate – and a white man was killed. News of a “black insurrection” spread to neighboring communities and hundreds more white men poured in, including federal troops, the Arkansas governor, Charles Brough, and newly deputized soldiers from the American Legion.

The violence spread beyond the church to more communities, and African Americans were killed in their homes and streets. There’s a commonly told story of a family who were off celebrating their son’s return from the first world war, who were pulled off of a train on their way home and killed.

In the end, hundreds of African Americans were reportedly killed. The most frequently touted number is 237, but some observers say the number could be more than 800, which would make it the deadliest massacre of African Americans in US history.

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