The Crack-Up: The 1919 Elaine Massacre & the Struggle to Remember, with Nan Woodruff

Oct 23, 2019

The massacre in rural Elaine, Arkansas was one of the most violent episodes of 1919's Red Summer of racist confrontations, but it also remains one of the least-known. In this talk with historian Ted Widmer, Penn State's Professor Nan Woodruff explains the causes and how it fits in to the post-World War I context. Why are people still reluctant to speak about this massacre? How should we remember this dark chapter in American history?

TED WIDMER: This is Ted Widmer. You're listening to another episode of The Crack-Up, our podcast series of conversations relating to the year 1919 and articles in our year-long series in The New York Times. Today we're really happy to be speaking with Professor Nan Woodruff, emerita professor at Penn State University, where she taught African American studies and modern U.S. history for many years.

Nan, thank you so much for joining us today.

NAN WOODRUFF: Thank you.

TED WIDMER: You wrote about a harrowing episode in American history, one that I was not familiar with—I think most readers of The New York Times were not familiar with—a terrible massacre in Elaine, Arkansas. Can you tell us what happened 100 years ago today?

NAN WOODRUFF: It was a horrible massacre in the countryside, in the Arkansas Delta side of the Mississippi River Delta, down in southern Phillips County. You had a group of sharecroppers who thought to organize a union so that they could get a decent return on their crops. World War I had resulted in extremely high cotton prices—exorbitant, really, in terms of what had gone on before the war—so, for the first time, people were making money. Sharecroppers were even making money.

Also, people were empowered or politicized by the war. Black men had gone off to fight a war for democracy. They came back home and weren't able to achieve citizenship like they had hoped. People had left and gone North and come back perhaps to get better jobs. Women had been able to leave the fields during the war, and they went to work in other places to earn money.

After the war was over, plantation owners as well as industrialists in the rest of the country wanted to rein in these wartime gains that workers had made. When they tried to organize this union, the large landowners tried to destroy it, and it ended up being a horrible massacre of people. We don't know really how many people. The Army was called in, which makes it a form of state violence at that point, and so you have a machine gun battalion that had just returned from World War I that was based in Little Rock, which is a couple of hours away. They come down and spend five days in a 200-mile radius there slaughtering people.

They were innocent people. They weren't armed—men, women, and children. Some people were burned alive in their homes, which is the best way to erase anything. You erase people completely when you do that. That is something that has been common in these episodes in the post-Civil War South. We've seen it in several instances.

TED WIDMER: It began with basically a meeting in a church in the middle of the woods about getting better rights for African American sharecroppers, a little more money for their labor, something—not quite union rights, but just a better economic deal. That's where it all began.

NAN WOODRUFF: Yes. It was an unusual kind of meeting. One of the things I think they wanted to do was they collected dues and they hoped to buy land because that was always the dream of black people in the post-Emancipation South: to own their land.

The truth is, if you look at the late 19th-century Delta, the majority of landowners in the Delta were African American. The Delta was the last standing hardwood forest in North America, and lumber companies came in there in the late 19th century after the Civil War and cleared these lands, and black people from the Eastern Seaboard migrated out to the Delta because they heard there were jobs, so they went out and they earned money—got to make wages—clearing the land. They took that money and bought land.

So, they were landowners until the turn of the century, when these gigantic corporate plantations emerged based on sharecropping. Some of them were owned by Midwestern and Northeastern concerns, even Scottish and British concerns owned them. They were managed by Southern white people.

But then there were Southern landowners, too, local landowners. So, they were always engaged in a struggle to establish their dominance over a majority population of black people, who were their workers.

Black people were always struggling to maintain as much independence as they could, but they never could get a fair share in sharecropping. It's not set up for that; it's set up as a form of wage labor, where wages are paid in the form of a crop at the end of the year. You have to pay the landowner half of your crop, and when you go to settle up—most people were illiterate, they couldn't read the settlement, and when they weighed the cotton, they couldn't tell if they were given a fair share on it or not. So, it was an unequal system.

TED WIDMER: This meeting was happening in the Hoop Spur Church, and there was a community there of African Americans listening to speeches, and then shots rang out. We don't quite know who fired first, or maybe we do. That was the beginning.

Then, a full week of violence ensued, and that's where you've been doing your research, trying to establish casualty counts and working with sources—which are few and far between—but also with memories of the families of the people who were wounded or killed. Is that right?

NAN WOODRUFF: Right. I wasn't able to interview people when I wrote the book American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta. There was a lot of silence around this for 100 years. People did not talk about it publicly. I was never able to get any interviews when I was there in the 1990s.

TED WIDMER: How did you first hear about it?

NAN WOODRUFF: I think any historian of African American history or any 20th-century historian really should know about it because it's part of Red Summer, when you had over 25 racist confrontations throughout the country, the most famous being in Chicago. It was all part of the aftermath of World War I, and so this was the big rural massacre. It was always called the Elaine "riot." Of course, "riot" is not an accurate term. It has a sociological turn that acts like things are out of control. It really masks over the power relations, what's actually going on.

TED WIDMER: As you started doing research on it, it must have been hard to find sources, paper or oral.

NAN WOODRUFF: We had these types of things a little bit: we had military records. Ida Wells Barnett was the best account I feel like we have from the sharecroppers' perspective. She was the famous anti-lynching crusader who was from Holly Springs, Mississippi and later moved to Memphis and was driven out of the South because of her work on lynching. She dressed up as a sharecropper and came back and took the stories and interviewed the 12 men who were arrested for murder, in prison, and also their families and other people out of Elaine. So, from her, I think we have a very vivid description of the testimonies of the people themselves, and what they went through, and what the origins of the massacre were.

There were other books written by the time I came along. Richard Cortner had written a book about the trials. Arthur Waskow had written a book, From Race Riot to Sit-In, 1919 and the 1960s: A Study in the Connections Between Conflict and Violence—he had written about it. It was around. Anybody working in African American history knew about it.

For me, it was part of a larger study. It was only one chapter in a larger book, so I didn't do the detailed analysis and work that somebody like Grif Stockley did. He has probably done the most extensive study of it.

TED WIDMER: What is it like when you go back to Elaine today? You said people didn't want to talk about it for a long time. Is that still true?

NAN WOODRUFF: I've never been back. I was down there in 1998 with a documentary filmmaker in New York, who was making a series on Jim Crow for PBS. I was down there finishing up American Congo, so we went around.

Actually, I did a couple of interviews and talked to people, but even when I went around with a very well-known black minister who had flocks in four or five churches in that area, we went around, and even with him, people didn't want to talk. It just wasn't something they were going to talk about, especially to me.

I didn't go back after that. I went back in February, when I was invited to give testimony at the truth hearing that was organized in Elaine around the massacre, and these descendants now were publicly speaking about the stories that had been passed down in their families about what happened.

TED WIDMER: That was just this year, the truth hearing?

NAN WOODRUFF: In February.

TED WIDMER: So, it took 100 years, but we're finally getting people talking about it.

NAN WOODRUFF: Yes, but even now there are people who are afraid. There were people who were supposed to testify who didn't show up.


NAN WOODRUFF: There is a lot of fear. There's a lot of economic intimidation, and even when they had their commemoration on September 29 over in Elaine, there were four or five truckloads of men who came by to intimidate the people. They didn't go into the church, but they were riding around.


NAN WOODRUFF: And they had an armed guard there at the church while they were having the service. It's still real down there. It's still a gigantic rural area, dominated by large landowners. Many of them are insurance companies in Connecticut and places like that. You can kind of feel the oppressive nature of it. I've always felt that in parts of the Delta.

TED WIDMER: Were there any political leaders who went to the service?

NAN WOODRUFF: There was an African American state legislator there. You mean any white politicians or—

TED WIDMER: I guess I meant both. I'm just trying to understand who's willing to remember this history and who isn't.

NAN WOODRUFF: Well, there was quite a crowd. I think there were a couple hundred people there. I was surprised. It was a truth hearing, not a truth commission. The Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference in Chicago organized this, and they appointed 12 commissioners, and the chair of it was Judge Wendell Griffen, who is a native Arkansan, an African American judge. There were white people who came from Memphis, from different parts of Arkansas. Some people from Mississippi came over.

There is a move in many communities throughout the South to confront this difficult history. I think it's kind of uneven, but there were people who came to this who had been involved in confronting a lynching or something from within their own communities. There was somebody from Tulsa, where of course there was a major massacre in 1921. Somebody came there to represent them.

One of the large landowners, a descendant of his grandfather—who had been involved in the massacre—came there. He was the one who built the memorial, hence, the New York Times article. There were a lot of old white and black people there. I don't know how many people from Phillips County were there, white people.

TED WIDMER: Right. You use a powerful word, "invasion," to describe it. Basically, it was militarized white people, some with machine guns, coming from all sides into this little, rural, mostly African American community. It just sounds horrific.

It got a tremendous readership, by the way, your piece in The Times. Did you hear a lot about it after it appeared?

NAN WOODRUFF: I got several emails from people around the country. Obviously, a lot of people I've known over the years and haven't heard from forever, a lot of academics, but I also got emails from people, mostly white people, who thanked me for the article. I thought I would get some hate mail, but I didn't.

TED WIDMER: That's good.

NAN WOODRUFF: I'm amazed by that, frankly. And many people wanting to share stories and experiences of when they've been in Mississippi or Arkansas or whatever. A couple of people raised the point of why we called this "the worst racial massacre" and not talked about Native Americans and that's always an issue.

TED WIDMER: Oh, right.

NAN WOODRUFF: You need context here, and we have to be committed to confronting all the system and not just parts of it. I had some interesting emails back and forth around that.

But I would say in general it was positive. The main thing is, I'm grateful to The Times because now this story is better known. As you know, the media has been covering the commemoration down there and the difficulties around that. The Guardian has done several features.

TED WIDMER: Yes, I saw that.

NAN WOODRUFF: Several people. Time magazine is down there.

That's good. That's all good, and it's important. We're in some kind of historical moment now. I can't quite explain it to myself yet, but there seems to be a willingness and almost an eagerness by some people in American society to know more about this history.

I think the fact that The Times is doing this piece on Jamestown and the 400th anniversary is a sign of trying to confront this history—and we've been trying to do it for some time, I would say ever since the late 1960s and 1970s, but with a great deal of conflict. But now you see communities all over the South—Bryan Stevenson's amazing memorial to lynching down in Montgomery. There are a lot of things that are going on, and I think Elaine is part of this reckoning with the past.

TED WIDMER: Obviously, it took courage to fight to tell this story, and in the best circumstances it seems like you get an entire community agreeing that it should be told, that the white and the black citizens agree, as with the new museum in Montgomery. It sounds like Elaine maybe isn't there yet, but the work of people like you does do a great deal of good toward bringing the justice that comes with a full understanding of the past.

NAN WOODRUFF: Well, I think the hard work is done on the ground in these things. I've been involved in a few of them in the South. It's really the people themselves in these communities that try to come to terms with this, and it's always fraught with conflict. There's no way you can do this and not have conflict.

In Elaine, it's the people in Elaine and the surrounding communities because this massacre occurred all over south Phillips County. They still feel like their voices are silenced. The memorial that was built in Helena, I think in the end the only way to look at that is it's a memorial for white people. The descendants of a large landowner there acknowledged that their grandfather had participated in the massacre, and they wanted to apologize and came back to Helena and built this very expensive memorial. Some descendants of the white people who had been involved in the massacre participated in that, but not many.

So, it's complicated. The real thing about all of these, I think, is what are the obligations of the perpetrators, the descendants—of which I'm one? There's no way I can get around that.

Our obligation is to hear the stories of these people and to listen to what they have to say and to hear what they need. How do they understand repair and how do they understand restitution? It might be painful to hear what they have to say, and it might be even more painful if you happen to be a person of wealth—which I'm not—in areas with some type of wealth but not economic restitution.

So, building a memorial, wherever it may be, is not going to address that issue. In fact, some people find it insulting because if you go and listen, oftentimes at these speeches when these things are done, people want to say, "We've acknowledged this, we've made an apology. Now let's move on." Well, that's not how you move on. Maybe they can move on, but the black folks aren't going to move on because they're still in poverty, and they're still suffering the traumatic consequences of this.

What does redress look like? I think that's a big issue that—obviously with these hearings in Congress over reparations—we're going to be addressing as a nation. I think we're only in the beginning of it, and "Why now?" I think is a question worth asking.

I think as we move from a country that's predominantly white to one that's non-white, those people are going to ask a different reckoning of American history than white folks ask, because it's not their history. So, how long we take to get to that point—I'm sure I won't live to see it, but I think we're heading in that direction, and this younger generation is one that's not accepting the world as it is. It's much like my own generation in the 1960s. I think they want a reckoning on many levels, and they don't want to be associated with racism and homophobia and all these other kinds of things. We're in a huge crisis right now in this country because of that transition, I think.

TED WIDMER: I loved your last sentence, about the burden of the past on the present. You're doing work beyond what most historians do because you're really tying the past to who we are today. I think that's why the piece was so powerful. You're asking hard questions and you're asking us to do better than we did do. Just by finding this story and telling it so graphically, you've really opened up people's eyes.

NAN WOODRUFF: Well, that's the hope, isn't it, for anybody who does this kind of work. That's why you do it, and it is a collective effort. There are many people involved in—as I just said—trying to find ways to confront this history, whether it's people on the ground like those in Elaine, or Bryan Stevenson, any number of people, I think. We're experiencing this on so many different levels. That's cause for optimism on some level, I think.

TED WIDMER: I was going to ask that. I was going to say that you do radiate some optimism, even though you went into this horrific act of violence in 1919, but it sounds like you have some confidence in the American people—and especially in the young generation right now—to do a better job reckoning with this history than earlier generations did.

NAN WOODRUFF: I think you have to have hope or you can't get up in the morning. There's no choice. What are your options? I think you have to always look to the future and hope that each generation is going to make things better. But the stakes are high now in ways that they haven't been in the past, and I think we feel that all over the world.

TED WIDMER: Are you going to stay with this topic, Nan? Are you going to do more work on Elaine, or are you moving on to new topics?

NAN WOODRUFF: To be honest, I wasn't even thinking about Elaine because I'm finishing this book on Mississippi now—living with the legacies of everyday violence in the contemporary South is the topic of it. I'm rushing to finish that, so this kind of came out of nowhere, when they asked me to participate in the truth hearing. American Congo came out in 2003. It's not that I don't deeply care about Elaine, but I think another generation's going to ask different questions and hopefully get in there and find more evidence and find things that I and others missed, I hope.

TED WIDMER: Right. Well, I hope your piece wakes up a few future historians out there. That's one of our goals with this series.

NAN WOODRUFF: I hope so.

TED WIDMER: Thank you so much for the conversation, Nan.

NAN WOODRUFF: My pleasure, Ted.

TED WIDMER: Yes. Great pleasure to talk to you.

We've been talking to Professor Nan Woodruff of Pennsylvania State University, who wrote a powerful piece about a racialized, violent massacre in Elaine, Arkansas, 100 years ago. Thank you so much, Nan.

NAN WOODRUFF: You're welcome.

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