Monday, June 3, 2019

Symposium on the Elaine Massacre Draws a Crowd

(Left to right) Dr. Jesse Hargrove; Carla Coleman; Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch; 
Mrs. Dorothy Neal, the granddaughter of one of the 12 men convicted; 
Dr. Guy Lancaster; Dr. Brian Mitchell; Patricia Johnson and Tatyana Oyinloye
LITTLE ROCK – Families, teachers and history enthusiasts woke up early Saturday, June 1, to attend “The Elaine Massacre: 100 Years Later,” a half-day symposium sponsored by the Black History Commission of Arkansas and held at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. People arrived more than an hour before the 9:45 a.m. speeches were scheduled to start.

“I learned about the Elaine Massacre about 10 years ago, which is so unfortunate that history classes during my formative education years and in college ignored this significant event that has shaped Arkansas history,” said attendee Janet Perkins. “The symposium was very important because the Elaine Massacre happened 100 years ago and many in the audience on Saturday were hearing about it for the first time.”

About 200 people came out to hear special speakers talk about a historic event that shook Arkansas and the nation in 1919. The Elaine Massacre is the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history – at least 200 African Americans died – yet many Arkansans don’t know about it. Now, educators statewide are looking for ways to incorporate difficult histories, including the events at Elaine, into classroom lessons, said Dr. Brian Mitchell, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Mitchell was among three special speakers Saturday.

Dr. Mitchell, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock; Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch, a history professor at Arkansas State University; and Dr. Guy Lancaster, editor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, discussed the massacre and its survivors, the lexicon used to describe the mass killings, individuals who fought injustices in the aftermath and the effect of the event on African American women.

The Elaine Massacre started Sept. 30, 1919, when African American sharecroppers in Phillips County, Arkansas, met to discuss better pay for their cotton. During a union meeting, shots were fired, sparking mass killings. U.S. troops were eventually called in, and the white mob finally dispersed Oct. 2.

Most of the bodies of those killed during the massacre have not been recovered, Dr. Mitchell said. The massacre also split up families as people fled the state.

About 122 African Americans were charged with crimes connected with the massacre, and many served at least some jail time. Twelve men were sentenced to death but were eventually released after long court battles. Many of those men died young after release from incarceration, said Dr. Mitchell who spoke about some of the men sentenced to death.

About 200 people turned out Saturday to hear about the Elaine Massacre.
All three speakers agreed it was important to hear different aspects of history, including personal histories, behind the Elaine Massacre. “The value of this historic program served to mark the Arkansas timetable for modern day reflections on the progression of a people who imposed their will on others and those who experienced the consequences of such imposition then and now,” said Dr. Jesse Hargrove, vice chairman of the Black History Commission of Arkansas, which sponsored the event.

Hargrove said he was interested to hear Dr. Lancaster speak about how definitions change over time and about major differences in interpretations between words like “massacre” and “riot.” Dr. Lancaster, who lectured on the changing terms, said how people define and interpret words can hinder open discussions and dialogue.

Perkins said she learned something new from each speaker, but the message about women fighting for equality by Dr. Jones-Branch was the most powerful. Women were active in the unionization effort that sparked the massacre, in fighting for the release of the 12 men sentenced to death and in facing death threats, murder, theft and physical abuse as they struggled and fought for equality and justice for African Americans.

The symposium gave the Black History Commission a chance to engage Arkansans and to teach them about an event most had heard only bits and pieces about, said Tatyana Oyinloye, African American history coordinator for the commission.

“The audience had plenty of questions and was intrigued,” Oyinloye said. “This is the best part of my job – having the opportunity to be a part of educating people on Africans American history in Arkansas.”

The symposium was sponsored by the Black History Commission of Arkansas in coordination with the Arkansas State Archives, a division of the Department of Arkansas Heritage. For more information about Arkansas history or the Elaine Massacre, visit the Arkansas State Archives at 1 Capitol Mall, Suite 215, or call 501-682-6900.  Information and a catalogue of some of the State Archives’ holdings are online at For information about the symposium or the Black History Commission of Arkansas, contact Tatyana Oyinloye, African American program coordinator, at 501-682-6892 or