‘We want our land back’: for descendants of the Elaine massacre, history is far from settled

·22-min read

The history of the race massacre in Elaine, Arkansas, has always been contested.

It is widely accepted that in 1919, a group of white men, with the backing of federal troops, tortured and killed scores of Black residents – the exact number is disputed but assumed to number at least in the hundreds – who were starting to organize against the exploitation of their labor. The massacre came at the tail end of what would become known as the “red summer”, a season of racial terror fueled by white resentment of the strides Black people were making across the country.

Red Summer teaser

But at the time, even these basic contours of what happened in Elaine were stricken from the official record. Local authorities spun a tale of a suppressed sharecropper insurrection designed to seize the land of the area’s white planters. As Ida B Wells, the pioneering journalist and anti-lynching advocate would report, more than 100 Black men and women were indicted in this conspiracy theory. Twelve men were sentenced to death, their convictions ultimately overturned by the supreme court.

Other details remain subject to disagreement. The massacre is widely understood to have targeted Black sharecroppers holding a union meeting to discuss how to get fair cotton prices from the white people whose land they worked. But some descendants say this narrative obscures Black landowners in Elaine who were dispossessed through an orchestrated operation to cut down their growing prosperity. Richard Wright echoes this theme in his autobiography Black Boy, when he recounts the 1916 lynching of his uncle in Elaine, targeted because of resentment over his flourishing liquor business. “In a way,” Wright’s daughter Julia tells the Guardian, “Uncle Hoskins was one of the many canaries in the mineshaft of the Elaine massacre to come.”

Paul Ortiz, director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida, says oral histories passed down through the generations should be viewed as authoritatively as primary records. “The scholarly consensus is that written records are subject to the same strengths and weaknesses as human memory,” he said. “State records of anti-Black massacres are often not dependable because they were generated by law enforcement agencies and officials who actually participated in the violence.”

To add to the public record, we collected some of those oral histories and are sharing them here.

‘Our people became poor overnight and are still poor’

My grandfather was born in 1888. He came here to buy land south of Elaine. He owned 20 acres in Ferguson when the white people in 1919 destroyed everything and took the land. Many scattered and we never saw them again.

There is a lot of attention being given to what happened here now because of Tulsa. People want people to believe it was all about sharecroppers being killed by white farmers. This is not true.

Our people were doing well here before 1919: owning our own land, selling our own crops, teaching in schools, running businesses. Like in Tulsa, the massacre happened here because we were doing well. They sent people from Helena and neighboring states to Elaine to murder and lynch us. They changed our deeds in the courthouse and did whatever they needed to do to get us out of the way so they could take our land. There were some sharecroppers here, but many of us were families, like mine, who owned land.

My people were strong in character. My grandfather could read, write and run his own business. I want my grandchildren to have the same character he had. I want my grandkids to know their ancestors owned land, had their own businesses and built a strong, caring community.

Our people became poor overnight and are still poor. After 1919, there was no more wealth for African Americans here. We want our land back, the land our people once owned.

As in Tulsa, many more died here than researchers report. Our people didn’t show up in written statistics but they live on in the oral stories we are passing from one generation to the next. The oral history of mass grave locations, bodies buried in the Mississippi River or burned, would put the number of dead in the thousands rather than the 200 researchers can find in printed records.

We descendants who are still living on the killing fields of 1919 are using our history of racial terror and murder as a foundation on which to bring above average incomes and wealth accumulation to everyone in Elaine. We aren’t there yet but we have new businesses, a building being restored for a museum and welcome center and oral historians helping us get the truth out to the world. We are creating a center of rural Delta arts, music, culture, education and spirituality, where we can demonstrate how Americans can become violence-free and equal. We are building equity out of reparations. Our reparations are coming from the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC) and from families whose relatives enslaved us and now want to apologize, not in words but in action. We see a new Elaine coming where everyone will benefit.

We have always talked about the massacre here, but not in schools or to outsiders. Outsiders take our stories and twist them to fit what today’s white power structures want them to say. Our parents and grandparents wanted us to know what happened so they shared at home. They wanted us to know we were and are a proud people who want the best for ourselves and everyone else.

– James White, director of the Elaine Legacy Center

‘The hushed memory of Silas’s fate runs through my father’s writings’

I am the elder daughter of Richard Wright. My father dedicated his 1945 autobiography, Black Boy, to “Ellen and Julia, who will always live in my heart”. Ellen, my mother, has since died.

Transmission of the experience of racial hatred and horror is a strange thing. In my father’s case, there was no body after his Uncle Silas Hoskins’ 1916 lynching. It is as if he buried his uncle in the pages of chapter 2 of Black Boy for me to find the paper grave when I was emotionally ready to do so. Richard Wright was eight at the time he came face to face with white terror.

I believe the loss of his Uncle Silas Hoskins in Elaine, Arkansas, was central to my father’s determination to become a writer. Uncle Silas was why Richard, as a boy, had enough to eat for the first time since he could remember. My father notes in chapter 1 how his acute, daily hunger had become linked to the desertion of his father. By bringing protection and enough food to the house for the first time, Uncle Silas had in many ways replaced that absentee father – only to be plucked silently and mysteriously from this black child’s environment.

The hushed memory of Silas’s fate runs through my father’s writings – from Long Black Song in Uncle Tom’s Children, to the poem Between The World and Me, to The Long Dream, written two years prior to his death in Paris, where he was in exile, in 1960.

In Black Boy, you can feel my father reliving an unmourned pain: “There was no funeral. There was no music. There was no period of mourning. There were no flowers. There were only silence, quiet weeping, whispers and fear.”

Later, as my father also writes in Black Boy, he learned “that Uncle Hoskins had been killed by whites who had long coveted his flourishing liquor business. He had been threatened with death and warned many times to leave, but he had wanted to hold on a while longer to amass more money.”

The late Fred Hoskins, Silas’s son, wrote to my father in 1945: “My grandmother made a trip to Elaine to find out about my father’s death. As you said, no one knew where he was buried. If I remember right she was told that my father was killed because he was too bigoty (sic) and lived too well for a [n-word] and was killed by a deputy sheriff.”

In a way, Uncle Hoskins was one of the many canaries in the mineshaft of the Elaine massacre to come.

The words in chapter 2 that most reverberate for me are this outcry of the eight-year-old to his mother: “Why had we not fought back?” Richard’s mother fearfully slapped him into silence but those words are my unquiet legacy.

For nearly 50 years I have been a journalist advocating against the violation of human rights and prisoner rights in particular. In the most carceralized country in the world, our death rows railroad a disproportionate number of blacks and ethnic minorities to hi-tech lynchings because of the dominating narratives of sheriffs and the inordinate power of police unions. Today, chokeholds have replaced nooses in so many of our cities.

– Julia Wright, 79, writer and anti-death penalty activist

‘I feel she had been programmed not to mention the massacre’

I spent all of my childhood in Elaine, graduating near the top of my class in 1980. I loved studying history, yet I never heard anything about the massacre until I was in my early 30s.

One day my brother Jimmy casually mentioned something about a “massacre in Elaine.” I asked what he meant and he went on to explain. I was really stunned that something like this had happened on the land and soil we lived and worked on all our adolescent years and we had no clue. Mind-boggling!

Over the years, my mom would mention something about “them people taking daddy’s land back in the early part of the 20th century.” She’d lament that our economic situation would be very different if they hadn’t “stolen our land.” I heard this hundreds of times . As a kid I’d ask “what land”, and she’d say something about “them white people” but then shut down. I always felt either she was blowing smoke or that I was “getting in grown folks business” and shouldn’t pry. Looking back, I feel she had been programmed not to mention the massacre.

It explains a lot of her behaviors I questioned over the years. My stepfather would sometimes go to work and leave money for her to pay a bill. But sometimes she wouldn’t pay it. When he’d get home he’d be upset and ask: “Are you scared of white people?” It seemed like she had anxiety around dealing with Caucasians.

But when I mentioned the massacre to her a couple years ago, she started talking about our cousin Annie and Annie’s uncle Paul Hall. I knew cousin Annie as a child and vaguely remembered the name Paul Hall from my research on the massacre. When I went back, I saw he was one of the Elaine 12. I did more research on our family and found out it’s true, we are related.

The Elaine community has never recovered from the massacre because it was never given a chance to grow and prosper. One possible reason is that all the land in that area is all accounted for. The landowners have their inheritance. They don’t want anyone asking questions about what they have or how they acquired their land. The less questions asked, the less people truly know about Elaine’s dark past. They don’t seem to want to do anything to make the town better or more attractive to outsiders.

The school closing further decimated the population. People moved on from what we affectionately call “the last place to nowhere.” We call it that because if you go past Elaine, down toward Snow Lake, you have to turn around at the river and come back. There is no bridge over that river, so to get to the county seat that’s just a couple miles away, you have to turn around and travel over 100 miles.

– Charlie McClain, 59, small business owner in south-east Florida

‘I just want them to give us our land back’

The Elaine riot was round two of this mess. They were coming back to get the rest of the land. Round one was right after the civil war.

We’ve got land that’s been in our family ever since Arkansas was a territory. My great-great-grandfather was an Ethiopian, a freemason, who came to Arkansas as a free man to help build the Delta. He owned slaves, including my great-great-grandmother, a Chocktaw Indian named Jane Chilata Charenda Huntley. Before the war, the Ethiopian got a land grant from the state. They gave the Black people the worst land, the swampy land with mosquitos and alligators. But then they built levees and canals and trenches and turned it into some of the best land in the world.

They let them keep this land until after the civil war, when a lot of displaced white people from both the north and south came here. The carpetbaggers from the north got together with the scallywags from the south. They came up with the plan: let’s kill these Africans that we gave these land grants to and take control of the land.

They killed my great-great-grandfather, the Ethiopian, and everyone around him. They left his widow and her son, my great-grandfather Alonso Davis, some land, but a lot less than they started with.

The reason for the riot in 1919 was that they thought that people were trying to take their land back. That was a conspiracy theory. What happened was the sharecroppers got together to discuss how they were being treated. The Black masons held a meeting for the sharecroppers in a place called Hoop Spur, in a church building, with a guard at the front door.

Folks found out about this meeting and tried to barge in – a railroad agent, a sheriff and a Black trustee who showed them where the meeting was. They tried to get into the meeting and one of the white guys was killed. They ran back to town and told everybody that the Black folks are planning to kill all white landowners and take the land. They almost started the civil war over again. People from all across the southern states – Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia – all kinds of people came to Arkansas. When they got down there, the Black folks gave them a hell of a fight. They were winning until they sent the national guard. But the national guard came down and killed those people.

My grandfather Tommy Davis was the head of the Masonic Lodge at the time. They put him under house arrest and took his guns away from him. I’ve heard stories that he stood there and cried because he couldn’t go down and fight. My grandmother told my mother that she saw them haul the bodies into trucks – like logs, she said. She said the bodies were stacked up like logs. She was an eyewitness, my grandmother. Her name was Amanda Davis.

They put a memorial in Helena but nothing where we are, in Elaine. They want a dog and pony show, a tourist attraction, to get people to come down here and spend money. But I just want them to give us our land back.

We’re still farming the land. We’re not going anywhere. But if the truth be told, I should have more land than I’ve got now. That land still belongs to me, and a bunch of other Black kids that I grew up with. I don’t want anything new. I just want what belonged to Jane Huntley and the man whose children she bore.

Anthony Davis, 65, retired teacher and pastor

‘How different would the trajectories of the sharecropping families have been if they had been paid what they were owed?’

I’m primarily writing on behalf of my recently deceased mother, Sheila Walker.

Sheila’s great-grandmother, Sallie, and her three children miraculously survived the Elaine massacre. Growing up, she would hear murmurs of a “riot” and snippets of the events – “bullets flying” and “jumping out of windows” – from her grandmother, Annie, who was too traumatized to ever tell more.

In the early 2000s, Sheila pieced together the story: our ancestors and other sharecroppers – tired of being cheated out of their fair share of the cotton prices by the landowners – secretly organized a union. When landowners sent men to spy on a union meeting at a black church near Elaine, shooting broke out and events spun out of control. Over several days, a posse from neighboring states, joined by federal troops, combed through the county, indiscriminately shooting the fleeing and hiding sharecroppers. Hundreds of survivors were jailed and tortured into false confessions, and many convicted in a sham trial – Sheila’s great uncles, Albert and Milligan, among them. Albert Giles was one of the “Elaine 12” who were sentenced to death for their role in the so-called “insurrection.” Miraculously, after a long legal battle led by an African American lawyer named Scipio Jones, the Elaine 12 were acquitted.

My mother’s family experienced trauma passed from one generation to the next. Some of the trauma her family suffered includes the historical, environmental, social and economic racism she and her siblings faced growing up in Chicago, along with deep poverty and the addiction, death and incarceration that tore relations apart.

However, this trauma is not at all unique to my family. Millions of African Americans have been systematically dispossessed. I wonder about the inheritance of economic status – how different would the trajectories of the sharecropping families in Elaine have been, if they had been paid what they were owed, instead of being killed or run out of the state? How would that have benefitted the generations that followed, down to my own aunts and uncles in Chicago who are suffering from poverty to this day?

There’s a long legacy in my family of standing up against racial oppression. The home of Sheila’s great grandmother, Sallie Giles, was a meeting point for the sharecroppers who tried to unionize in Elaine . Sallie’s sons, Albert and Milligan, bravely testified under the threat of torture and death. Sallie’s daughter, Annie, had deep psychological scars but managed to survive and raise one child, Sara Bradley, Sheila’s mother. Sara organized and protested against Chicago slumlords. She helped to coordinate rent strikes that were successful enough to earn recognition in local Chicago press. Sheila’s daughter, Apryl, is a former community organizer, and has aided countless families and individuals with her advocacy against discriminatory policies and actions. I’m trying to do my part by teaching the next generation about these injustices.

Sheila also left behind a legacy of reconciliation. Like Sheila, poet and author Chester Johnson only recently learned more about the Elaine Massacre and discovered that the grandfather he adored as a child was not only a KKK member but had participated in the killings. Chester still struggles to reconcile the two sides of his grandfather. When he and Sheila met in person, it marked the beginning of a remarkable bond and journey of personal reconciliation. It’s what triggered Sheila’s mission to break the silence and help the community reconcile with its past. Neither the haunting trauma from the past, nor a diagnosis of stage-4 thyroid cancer kept her from making several trips to Elaine, Arkansas and speaking her truth. -Marcus Walker, 49, teacher

‘I was stunned and distraught at my grandfather’s role in the massacre’

My mother told me when I was 13 about this “well-known race riot” in which my grandfather, Lonnie Birch, participated when she was a young girl. I never heard about it despite growing up a short distance from the location of the massacre. In 2008, I was asked to write an apology on behalf of the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the Church of England, for its role in transatlantic slavery. In my research for the apology, I discovered the Elaine race massacre in the writings of Ida B. Wells.

Over several years, I did considerable research and discovered that the “well-known race riot” about which my mother had told me and the Elaine race massacre were one and the same. I was in my 60s when I finally made that firm connection. I was stunned and distraught at the confirmation of the role of my grandfather, who had helped raise me and whom I loved. He had spent his entire career with the Missouri Pacific Railroad, which was up to its eyeballs both in the massacre itself and in the torturing of the Black sharecroppers that followed the killing. I struggled over what to do with this knowledge.

Soon thereafter, I met Sheila Walker, a descendant of Black sharecroppers who were victims of the conflagration but survived. Through her remarkable and generous forgiveness of my grandfather, combined with our mutual journey together to achieve a true account of the massacre, we reached racial reconciliation and deep friendship, both of which were joined by our respective spouses and children. Several weeks ago, Sheila passed away, and one of the great honors of my life was being asked to give the eulogy at her memorial service.

Through articles, interviews, and my latest book, Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and A Story of Reconciliation, I have become closely associated with the massacre and the disclosure that my own maternal grandfather participated in it. I served as co-chair of the Elaine Massacre Memorial Committee, which was responsible for the Elaine Massacre Memorial, dedicated on the centennial of the massacre in late September, 2019. No permanent physical memorial had existed for 100 years.

Many members of my family have resented this disclosure regarding my grandfather, including of his membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Only one cousin has supported my views and revelations over this period. –J. Chester Johnson, 76, poet and non-fiction writer, author of Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and A Story of Reconciliation

‘I had to promise not to talk to anyone about the stories’

I am a descendant of Ed and Frank Hicks and possibly Joseph Knox. They are three of the Elaine 12, the Black men wrongfully convicted following the Elaine massacre.

In the spring of 2008, while doing research online for a history class, I stumbled across the book Blood in Their Eyes. I was 40, born and raised in Elaine, Arkansas, and studying legal cases every day – yet this was the first I’d ever heard of the massacre. A couple of weeks later, I went home to Elaine and asked my grandmother, Bernice Knox Hicks, if she’d ever heard of it. She reluctantly confirmed that what I’d learned was true. Learning what had happened where I grew up was shocking, but most painful was seeing my grandmother’s fear and trauma as she recounted the details and stories told to her by family and survivors of the massacre.

My grandmother was born the year the Elaine 12 were released from prison. I spent five years writing my grandmother’s accounts – those told to her by others as well as some of her personal experiences with racism in Arkansas and in Mississippi. I had to promise not to talk to anyone about the stories until she, as she put it, “done left this earth”. My brothers and uncles were still working on farms in the Elaine area and she was concerned for their safety if someone learned she was talking about the massacre. My grandmother passed away in 2019. I founded The Descendants of The Elaine Massacre in 2020.

Looking back now I realized that the Elaine Massacre manifested itself into a culture of Black people in Elaine who lived a silent fear. They did their work, were good neighbors and kept their heads down. They never again made another attempt to organize or become independent beyond the white landowner’s farms. The example of what could, would and did happen was etched into memories and silence was the rule. We might not have known about the silence rule, but we were raised by it.

From October 1919 to present day there is evidence that Phillips county and particularly Elaine and the surrounding communities were intentionally kept poor, submissive and dependent upon those in power – business owners, politicians, physicians, attorneys and landowners in Phillips county. Industry was purposely kept to a minimum to ensure that Black people had no other option but to work as sharecroppers and, later, as minimum wage-earning laborers on local farms. Only in recent years has there been an increase in Black farmers owning land and farming it.

We need to educate about exactly why the sharecroppers were organizing, and understand that they defended themselves because they felt they deserved better. Some of the sharecroppers had been born slaves and survived. They thought they had already seen the worst of this country. They had fought in wars for this country, and then came home and were still being treated like slaves.

This group of resilient men and women who organized, who wrote by-laws to govern themselves by, only wanted what was promised and only asked for what they had earned. Some survived slavery, a massacre and prison with the threat of the death penalty. I’m convinced resilience was in their DNA, and I plan to honor their lives and tell their stories like it’s in mine.

Lisa Hicks Gilbert, 53, founder of The Descendants of The Elaine Massacre of 1919

Red Summers is a 360 video project by the artist and film-maker Bayeté Ross Smith on the untold American history of racial terrorism from 1917 to 1921. The project is funded by Black Public Media, Eyebeam, Sundance Institute, Crux XR and the Open Society Foundations

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