Terrible events that happened 100 years ago can be upsetting. We discover that some famous name we know from public buildings or shallow history quizzes belonged to a guy who did a really bad thing. That's a little shocking, and it shakes how we see those buildings.
They look less solid.
But then we start to make connections between events. We recognize that "awful" doesn't come out of nowhere. Floods washed away the happy farm because rain fell, but rain fell because clouds built up, and clouds built up because of continent-wide and worldwide currents of influence in the air.
This fall will mark 100 years since the Elaine Massacre, aka the Elaine Race Riots, which bloodied Phillips County in September 1919. There will be commemorations as the day approaches, so we've been talking about it in the office. Reading the issues of the Arkansas Gazette published a century ago in search of this week's Old News, I noticed context in nearly every issue. But what really struck me was a series of badly reproduced press service photos.
One was a dark, distance shot of a crowd identified as a mob. Another image was so muddy it might have been disembodied shirts in a field behind two houses. But it was 12 white men throwing stones at a black man's house moments before, the caption said, that man was hit and killed on the stairway of his home.
These were news photos from race riots on the South Side of Chicago — hideous violence in late July 1919.
The image that inspires today's Old News appeared in the Aug. 3, 1919, Gazette under the caption "Negro Running Away From a Mob of White Men, During the Recent Race Rioting in Chicago." In the foreground, a woman hurries past while, behind her, a man runs all-out, possibly dodging a third figure.
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Black Southerners moved to Chicago in large numbers during the first World War to work for military contractors and essential industries, like stockyards. With the peace came layoffs, the closing of Army bases, and more than 2 million former soldiers, wave after wave, who needed jobs.
Historians report that black veterans who had endured hardships and horrors to fight for democracy did not accept unfair wages — or disrespect from white guys who also couldn't get jobs.
And we can imagine that emotions were intensified in all the shattered hearts, white and black, whose consoling support system of loved ones died during the influenza pandemic of 1918.
But it's easier to document that food and clothing were expensive, and all kinds of goods were in short supply.
Coffee escalated to 10 cents a cup. Shoe manufacturers raised their prices. Fashion forecasters predicted higher hemlines and higher costs.
The price of milk rose from 14 cents a quart to 15 cents, and pie manufacturers demanded more for fresh-fruit pies, from 35 to 40 cents each.
The U.S. Department of Labor released figures documenting a massive increase in the cost of 22 then-basic foods: sirloin steak, round steak, rib roast, chuck roast, plate boiling beef, pork chops, bacon, ham, hens, fresh milk, butter, cheese, lard, eggs, bread, flour, cornmeal, rice, potatoes, sugar, tea and coffee. The Gazette reported:
While the percent of increase in 1918 was high, it was even higher in June, 1919. The highest prevailing prices on the 22 articles were in the Atlantic coast cities, which were slightly higher than the cities on the Pacific coast, while the rate of increase was virtually the same throughout the nation.
The "high cost of living" was joked about, but it was no joke. The cost of feeding the 22 basics to one Little Rock family for one year was $637.53, according to the Labor figures — 79% more than the same items had cost in 1913.
In Chicago, streetcar drivers went on strike by parking tractor-driven vehicles in the streets. There were other strikes as well, unrest up and down the line, and these were blamed by press and pulpit on "Bolsheviks" and "Socialistic parties." Nevertheless, about 1,800 shopmen walked off the job at the Missouri Pacific railroad plant in North Little Rock during a rail strike that spread across the nation.
So you couldn't afford anything; you couldn't get anything, and you couldn't go anywhere else.
President Woodrow Wilson railed against profiteers he said were hoarding goods to inflate prices. The U.S. Attorney General filed antitrust suits against meatpackers Armour, Swift, Morris, Wilson, Cudahy.
And drought gripped the South.
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On Aug. 1, the Chicago Herald and Examiner telegrammed Southern governors with a question that sounds like a hoax. The letter reportedly received by Arkansas Gov. Charles Brough read:
"Many negroes who came here for war work are anxious to return South if the South needs them. Their spokesman asked us to inquire how many your state can absorb. They are of the more industrial class, distinct from the bad element responsible for the difficulties here. Please rush answer, our expense."
Brough did not reply.
Bishop J.M. Conner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Little Rock was asked by the New York World to comment on Chicago's riots.
The bishop sent a telegram: "I would advise the colored people to take no stock in Bolshevism, the Socialistic party, or violence of any kind, but to line up with the better class of white people for the good of all concerned. We are passing through a very crucial period when the least that might be said may be misconstrued and thereby cause trouble. We appeal to the conservative element to remain on guard."
Meanwhile, unfortunately no hoax, U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Caraway of Arkansas stood up in Congress to propose two bills: one to prohibit black men from enlisting, force the discharge of all black men already serving and prohibit the appointment of any black man to a military academy. His second bill was to prohibit intermarriage in the District of Columbia. These ugly proposals were reported far and wide.
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The Chicago riots were too awful to joke about, but the Gazette's editorial paragrapher gave it a go anyway, as though racial unrest wasn't "a thing" in Arkansas, too — which it was:
July 31: "Between the race riot and the [street car] strike just now seems a good time for 2,000,000 Chicago people to take a vacation."
"The South may be ignorant, but we imagine the Chicago Tribune is willing to confess now that South knows a thing or two about dwelling in peace with the negro that Chicago doesn't know."
Aug. 4: "Chicago is now trying to find the Mrs. O'Leary's cow of race riots."
"Even if Chicago isn't much on art it gave the country a thrilling study in black and white."
This was two months before the deadliest racial violence that has ever happened in Arkansas happened in Phillips County. From Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, 1919, five white people were killed and white mobs murdered an unknown number of black people in and around Elaine, with some estimates of the innocents slaughtered in the hundreds.
The world war was over, but summer 1919 was not a peacetime. It was the kind of time when reason succumbs to reasons.
Style on 08/05/2019
Print Headline: Peacetime not so peaceful in 1919