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On the evening of Sept. 30, 1919, black sharecroppers gathered in a church at Hoop Spur, a community three miles north of Elaine in Phillips County. They were attending a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America.

Guy Lancaster picks up the story from there in the latest release from Butler Center Books, The Elaine Massacre and Arkansas: A Century of Atrocity and Resistance, 1819-1919: "Their aim was to obtain better payments for the crops they were growing for local white planters. Knowing that such union activity put them at risk for violence, those attending the meeting stationed armed guards outside the church. What happened next remains the subject of speculation, but a shootout ensued between these guards and three individuals who had parked near the church. The shootout left W.A. Adkins, a white security officer for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, dead, and Charlie Pratt, a white deputy sheriff, wounded.

"Almost immediately, local whites began spreading rumors that African Americans were organizing an 'insurrection' to kill all the white people in Phillips County. By the next morning, the sheriff had gathered a posse to arrest members of the union, and as many as 1,000 armed whites were beginning to flood into the county, some from nearby locations in Arkansas but some also crossing the river from Mississippi. That same morning, county leaders telegraphed Gov. Charles H. Brough to request that troops be sent to the area, and Brough quickly ordered 500 soldiers from Camp Pike into Phillips County; the governor even accompanied them to the area to oversee their actions. Although the troops were meant to keep the peace and to prevent the sort of violence being perpetrated by these armed white mobs, some newspaper and anecdotal reports indicate that the soldiers participated in the massacre now going on in southern Phillips County."

The number of people killed isn't known, but Lancaster says the events "destroyed countless black lives in Arkansas and, as part of the so-called Red Summer of 1919, was but one event in a national wave of violence undertaken to shore up white supremacy."

I wrote about Lancaster earlier this year in a column concerning another book he edited, Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950. He's the editor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, a project of the Central Arkansas Library System's Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. And he's obviously not shy about taking on tough topics.

Historians came together to provide essays for the book. The Butler Center, the Arkansas State Archives and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Center for Arkansas History and Culture have joined forces to commemorate the coming centennial of what's now known as the Elaine Massacre.

"While many organizations and individuals are undertaking a variety of commemorative projects ... in Phillips County, we seek to add to these efforts by placing the massacre within a broader context of Arkansas history," Lancaster says. "Prior to Grif Stockley's 2001 monograph 'Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919,' the event had not attracted much scholarly and popular attention, especially compared with the more urban race riots of the Red Summer of 1919."

Robert Whitaker's 2008 book On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice that Remade a Nation drew national attention to the Elaine Massacre.

Stockley writes in his preface: "We can be optimistic about the future of scholarship in this area in part due to the diverse array of researchers--black and white, men and women--who have contributed to this volume. If the details of the Elaine Massacre, for the moment, remain beyond our grasp, at least the broader institution of white supremacy itself no longer lies outside the field of historical inquiry."

Lancaster says the book attempts to ensure that the Elaine Massacre is viewed in the proper context, "that it be presented not as singular, not as unique, not as an atrocity sui generis, without equal in the legacy of white supremacy in the United States, but rather as representing a continuum of history. The resistance to exploitation that led the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America to organize in the ... Arkansas Delta had roots in a long tradition of black collective organizing, as did violence, both official and vigilante, against black independence efforts."

Contributors to the book are Richard Buckelew of Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, retired Presbyterian College special collections librarian Nancy Snell Griffith, Matthew Hild of the University of West Georgia, Adrienne Jones of UALR, Kelly Houston Jones of Arkansas Tech University, Cherisse Jones-Branch of Arkansas State University, Brian Mitchell of UALR, William Pruden III of the Ravenscroft School in North Carolina and Steven Teske of the Butler Center.

"Slavery served as the foundational environment in which white suspicion of black activism and independence was institutionalized," Lancaster writes. "Whites in Arkansas may have been relatively complacent regarding the stability of their regime, but news of challenges to white supremacy regularly appeared in state and local newspapers. ... Although whites dismissed the possibility of black political consciousness, this media and cultural environment set the stage for the violent backlash to black independence during and after the Civil War."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 08/25/2018

Print Headline: Adding context to Elaine

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