Bloodshed dissolved one of the first African American unions
By DEBORAH A. MILES
It happened almost 100 years ago, when black sharecroppers in Arkansas attempted to form a union. It was a difficult time as they were straightjacketed with rigid racial codes and attitudes, enforced by Jim Crow laws, lynchings and racial segregation.
One of the sharecroppers, Robert Lee Hill, had a vision and the courage to try and advance the interests of African Americans, morally and intellectually. Hill claimed to have taken a correspondence course in detective training, and fancied himself as a detective. But some people identified him as a farm hand.
Regardless of his occupational title, he formed the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA), with Dr. V. E. Powell in Winchester, Drew County, in 1918.
The PFHUA grew steadily during the spring of 1919, as sharecroppers faced increasing debt with starvation wages, and complained of landlords stealing crops and possessions. The union had characteristics similar to that of a fraternal order, with secret passwords and special handshakes.
Hill organized and formed PFHUA chapters in nearly 20 counties. He enforced the idea that laborers should control their just earnings. The African American sharecroppers, many who were World War 1 veterans, decided to take advantage of the favorable economic conditions and sell the 1919 cotton crop for their own profit.
Each union member was tasked with recruiting an additional 25 members to create “lodges” where they could meet, share stories and strategies. PFHUA had seven lodges in the Elaine area, Phillips County, where members threatened the white landowner aristocracy.
The town’s people were 90 percent African American, all of them sharecroppers and laborers. Similar to many coal mining and steel forging towns across the country, a few white landowners in Elaine controlled most of the local economy.
PFHUA members took preliminary steps toward economic independence by hiring a Little Rock attorney, Ulysses S. Bratton, to sue the landlords for their fair share of the large fall cotton crop.
On the evening of September 30, 1919, more than 100 PFHUA union members attended a meeting at a church in Hoop Spur, just a few miles from Elaine. Knowing they were challenging white power, some of the union members came armed and patrolled the church. A car with three white people, including a local sheriff’s deputy and a member of the security force for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, arrived. A shootout began and the deputy was wounded and the rail security guard was killed.
The sheriff sent a posse to investigate, which amassed into a mob of nearly 1,000 white people from the areas surrounding Elaine, all looking to quell the “insurrection.” The local citizen mob began a slaughter of the African American residents of Elaine, using guns, lynchings and burning people alive, including women and children.
A panicked War Department sent 500 federal troops to the scene, spurred by imagined fear of union members spreading communism. They arrived October 2, just as the white mob began to dissolve. The troops continued to murder and torture the Elaine residents, to get “information.”
Most estimates, as what has become known as the Elaine Massacre (video), state that 237 African Americans and five white people had died.
After the violence, a grand jury, comprised of all-white local landlords and merchants, decided 122 African American men and women would be indicted in Arkansas, with 73 charged with murder. No whites were prosecuted.
Twelve men were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Six men won reversals of their conviction in state court, and the convictions of the remaining six defendants were eventually reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case, Moore v. Dempsey.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) helped fund and commission the defense team, and strengthened its reputation for working on behalf of African Americans. Walter F. White, the NAACP field secretary who had investigated the riot, gained national respect for his reporting on the massacre, including its high number of fatalities.
Hill escaped to Kansas during the first days of the riot. He was arrested, but the governor refused to extradite him to Arkansas to face charges.
In Eastern Arkansas, the PFHUA quickly dissolved after the massacre. The white residents, planters and businessmen in the area, heavily discouraged further black union activity through intimidation and more violence.