Grif Stockley. Blood In Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2001. Xxii + 264 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-55728-717-5.
Reviewed by Robert Widell (Department of History, Emory University)
Published on H-South (August, 2002)
Remembering the South's Violent Past
Remembering the South's Violent Past
On the night of September 30, 1919, white law enforcement officers disrupted a gathering of black farmers at a small church just north of Elaine, Arkansas. The two groups exchanged gunfire into the night, resulting in the death of one of the white officers. Several hours later, a small posse of white reinforcements arrived on the scene, likely expecting the black farmers to surrender. They did not. In fighting that continued the next day, a group of black farmers from a plantation west of Elaine also took up arms. Two more white men lost their lives. On the third day, October 1, hundreds of armed white men poured into the area. They joined with local whites in a violent rampage through the streets of Elaine. They attacked any and all blacks whom they encountered, regardless of whether they had participated in the initial fighting. The white mobs killed at least fifteen African Americans that afternoon and forced numerous others to take refuge in an area of woodlands and canebrakes (Stockley's assessment of the black death toll is rather different, as we shall see).
As one might expect of an event during the tumultuous year of 1919, the Elaine massacres were rooted in struggles over labor. Situated within Arkansas' Phillips County, Elaine was home to a primarily agricultural economy that relied heavily upon black labor. Such was the dependence on black labor that blacks outnumbered whites in the county's overall population. As was the case across much of the South, a minority of wealthy white planters controlled a majority of the land. These white landowners kept black farmers in perpetual debt and prevented them from leaving through intimidation and quasi-legal bookkeeping methods. By 1919, however, Stockley writes that "a different kind of black sharecropper had begun to emerge in Phillips County" (p. 31). Inspired, in part, by well-publicized labor protests around the country, a group of African Americans, led by a black man named Robert Hill, organized a branch of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. Union organizers were also able to take advantage of increased economic expectations derived from wartime cotton prices, as well as a new spirit of confidence among black veterans of World War I (p. 31). Black farmers had been meeting to further organize this local branch, when the shootout that instigated the fighting took place.
Meanwhile, responding to the reports that Elaine was "under attack by a force of blacks," Arkansas governor Charles Hillman Brough secured assistance from army troops stationed at Camp Pike. Five hundred soldiers, armed with twelve machine guns, arrived on the morning of October 2, accompanied by the Governor. The soldiers dispersed the white mobs and set about restoring order. Although the white mobs had initiated most of the violence, this order-restoring process consisted primarily of the detention of hundreds of African Americans. Many blacks were kept in detention until a local white, often their boss, authorized their release.
One month later, based largely on statements obtained from these black detainees, eleven black men were convicted for murder in connection with three white deaths (in all there were five white fatalities, including one of the soldiers). All eleven were sentenced to the electric chair. Dozens of additional blacks pled guilty to a variety of other charges in order to escape a similar fate. The entire process, from the grand jury to the sentencing, took only eight days. Shortly thereafter, one additional black man, Ed Ware, was added to the list of those sentenced to die. His trial was similarly "speedy." Collectively, the convicted men became known as the Elaine Twelve. No one was charged in connection with any of the black deaths, and no whites faced charges related to any of the events. Indeed, the only white to serve jail time was a young attorney, Ocier Bratton who had the misfortune of having signed on to represent another local branch of the union just as the conflict in Elaine erupted. Bratton narrowly escaped being lynched for his involvement with the union (p. 11).
Over the next five years, the Elaine Twelve came dangerously close to being executed. Eventually, though, each of the Elaine Twelve was released from prison. Arkansas, however, never recognized their innocence. Six were released in 1923 after the United States Supreme Court ordered a retrial and the state, perhaps realizing the inadequacy of its case, declined the opportunity. Interestingly, the case had only made it to the Supreme Court as a result of the intercession of a lone district judge, Jacob Trieber. Trieber signed a writ of habeas corpus that allowed defense lawyers to file an appeal based on violation of due process. He then rescued himself, an action that should have prevented him from issuing the writ in the first place. The six remaining defendants left prison in 1924, having been granted an indefinite "furlough" by then Governor Thomas McRae. Not pardons, these furloughs meant that, technically, the six men were still guilty and could be returned to prison at any time for misconduct.
The above account is based upon Grif Stockley's recently published monograph Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919. Although the case of the Elaine Twelve has appeared in a number of previous studies, it is only with the publication of Blood In Their Eyes that we have the complete story. Utilizing an impressive array of evidence, Stockley, a lawyer and novelist rather than a professional historian, reveals fresh details about what really happened during the days and weeks surrounding the Elaine massacres. He consulted court records, taped interviews, personal correspondence, contemporary media coverage, and prior secondary works, including several obscure titles.
Among his most startling revelations is that the federal troops from Camp Pike were responsible for both the killing and the torture of countless black citizens. Stockley also contends that as many as 856 African Americans lost their lives, a figure that [in Stockley's words] would make the Elaine massacres "by far the most deadly racial conflict in the history of the United States" (p. xiv). Stockley admits freely that it remains impossible to know exactly how many blacks lost their lives. He does believe, however that the number of African American dead was much higher than initially reported. This claim is based, in large measure, on anecdotal evidence passed down orally, as well as inferences extracted from the taped recollection of participants, many of whom refer to the "slaughter" of blacks. The exact figure of 856 comes from a little-known work published in 1925 by L. S. Dunaway, What A Preacher Saw Through A Keyhole in Arkansas. The only hard evidence that Stockley cites appears to be that at least 103 burial claims were made to a local black insurance provider (p. 53). Much of the third chapter of Blood in Their Eyes is devoted to detailing these various sources.
Stockley, however, provides more than a simple "play-by-play" account of the deadly events. He explores the social and political environment in which they took place, the ways in which persons of varying racial and class statuses responded, and the reasons why differing accounts of the events survive to this day. Stockley demonstrates the ways in which Arkansas' elected officials, white power brokers, and black elites each sought to minimize the negative impact of the massacres on their own social and economic standing. His discussion of the interplay between these different groups reveals the investment that each had in the social structure of the Jim Crow South.
Additionally, Blood In Their Eyes includes a detailed analysis of the competing motivations behind the involvement of various parties, including the NAACP, in efforts to secure the release of the Elaine Twelve. The friction between the national office of the NAACP and local black attorneys in Arkansas foreshadowed tensions that would emerge in later cases involving that organization. Readers interested in the intra-racial dynamics of the black community will find valuable insights regarding the class and regional tensions that divided African American leaders of that period. Stockley's portrait of Scipio Africanus Jones, the local black attorney who headed up much of the Elaine Twelve's appeals, will be of considerable interest to readers concerned with the dilemma that segregation presented to southern black leaders.
Stockley's main concern, however, is with the psychological ramifications of the Elaine massacres. His intent is to "cast a wider net" than that of standard historical interpretations. Situating the event within the long-term racial history of the South, Stockley devotes considerable space to the ways in which the psychological needs of both blacks and whites shaped their responses to the deadly events. He writes, "it will not be enough to make the case that what occurred in Phillips County had to do with economics and power. That explanation alone will not tell us why accounts of the events vary so widely" (p. xix). Ultimately, Stockley hopes that his work becomes the first step towards an acknowledgement, by both blacks and whites, of the South's violent past.
The process by which the "official" version of the events emerged serves as Stockley's primary example of the way in which psychological needs shaped memories of the event. In the days following the massacres, a self-appointed committee of leading white citizens issued a report. The committee claimed that Robert Hill, the union organizer, was an outside agitator who had duped local blacks into planning an insurrection. As they put it, "(t)he negroes at Hoop Spur [outside of Elaine] have been under the influence of a few rascally white men and designing leaders of their own race who have been exploiting them for personal gain" (p. 80). The black farmers involved in the initial shootout had been meeting to work out the details of the alleged insurrection -- details that included the slaughter of white planters and the confiscation of white property. Thus, the shootout and the deadly riots that followed were fortunate interventions that saved the lives of countless white citizens, albeit at the expense of many black lives.
Indeed, the report concluded, in light of the circumstances, white citizens of Phillips County were to be commended for their restraint: No "innocent" blacks had been killed and, most impressive, no lynchings of black detainees had taken place. Governor Brough himself praised the actions of Phillips County's white citizens in an October 3 press conference: "'The situation at Elaine has been well handled and is absolutely under control. There is no danger of any lynching . . . The white citizens of the county deserve unstinting praise for their actions in preventing mob violence'" (p. 85).
The committee's report was incomplete at best. It ignored reports that innocent blacks had been tortured and killed but, at the same time, relied on much less concrete evidence to determine that a black insurrection had been planned. Moreover, there was no mention whatsoever of the white men from surrounding areas who had descended upon Elaine on October 1. Indeed, Stockley argues, the report reflected more of what whites wanted (and needed) to believe had happened than what had actually happened. He writes that the "Committee of Seven," was less concerned with uncovering the truth than with meeting several unstated goals. Among them were breaking the union once and for all, getting black workers back in the fields, and preventing further white violence.
The crucial factor in achieving these goals was for the committee to convince both themselves and the public that an insurrection had, in fact, been imminent. The existence of an insurrection provided a premise for prosecuting members of the union, taught remaining blacks that such attempts to organize were futile, and convinced whites that their actions had been justified. Moreover, the prosecutions satisfied whites' thirst for vengeance and therefore prevented further outbreaks of violence that might have tarnished the states' national image. Finally, the notion that the insurrection had been put down with a minimal loss of innocent life was intended, in part, to reassure vital black workers that they could continue to live safely in the area.
For those who had been in Elaine that first week of October, the committee's report required considerable suspension of disbelief. Nevertheless, because it fulfilled certain psychological needs, it eventually became the accepted version. Even Governor Brough, a firsthand witness, would later refer to the events as a "'damnable insurrection'" (p. 145). Whites, Stockley argues, needed to believe that their brutal actions had been justified. An insurrection, and the claim that only those involved had been killed, fulfilled that need. Whites also needed reassurance that local blacks, still a majority of the county's population, were not capable of such scheming on their own. Thus, the responsibility for the insurrection, as noted above, was placed at the feet of Robert Hill. Moreover, Hill had really only been in it for personal gain, not to express any legitimate grievances. For each of these reasons, whites were willing to adhere to the inaccuracies of the committee's report.
Perhaps more controversial is Stockley's claim that compliance with the official version of events was beneficial to many African Americans in Arkansas, as well. Seeking to increase their influence with the governor and other powerful whites, Arkansas' black elites were willing to swallow an inaccurate version of the events. When Governor Brough took the unprecedented step of forming a biracial committee to respond to the events, black elites did not want to squander the opportunity by making too much noise about the alleged insurrection. They therefore went along with the committee's report. The implication of this decision was that at least some of these black elites were willing to sacrifice the lives of the Elaine Twelve for future political and economic influence. Stockley does acknowledge that some black leaders, Scipio Jones in particular, were reluctant to challenge the governor for fear that it would impact negatively their ability to secure pardons for the Elaine Twelve. He also claims that black Arkansans had a psychological investment in downplaying the brutality of the Elaine massacres. The fear and shame associated with such a brutal massacre was simply too much for many African Americans to face.
Stockley's psychological arguments, however, are among the book's weakest. Taken as a whole, Blood In Their Eyes contributes much more to our understanding of the social, economic, and political circumstances that surrounded the Elaine massacres than it does to our understanding of historical memory. Stockley relies seemingly upon but one book, Daniel Goleman's Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception. His claim that blacks and whites have yet to come to terms with the South's violent past also seems dubious, especially in light of the outpouring of recent work on racial violence, much of which Stockley does not cite in his notes.  Whether one agrees with Stockley's assessment of the psychological implications of the events is ultimately inconsequential. Like the best of the recent works noted above, Blood In Their Eyes is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Jim Crow South.
Like the best of these works, Blood In Their Eyes goes beyond moral outrage and accusation to explore the social and economic conditions that precipitated the fighting, the historical context in which contemporary figures responded, and the ways in which race has contributed to conflicting accounts of what really happened. In so doing, it weaves together multiple levels of inquiry that make the study valuable for readers of many different persuasions. Scholars with interests ranging from labor relations, black activism, and intra-racial tensions amongst African Americans to Southern politics and historical memory will all find Blood In Their Eyes a worthwhile read.
. See, for example: W. Fitzhugh Brundage, ed., Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); and Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993); James Allen, Hilton Als, John Lewis, and Leon Litwack, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palms, 2000); John Singleton, Rosewood (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1997). At least three books and a documentary film from Home Box Office about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 have appeared in the last [three] years alone including: James S. Hirsch, Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).
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Robert Widell. Review of Stockley, Grif, Blood In Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919.
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