Only a generation or two after the end of slavery, these sharecroppers were organizing to demand a fair share of the income from the crops they grew. Enraged by the struggle of these black farmers against the misery to which they were subjected, a patrol of armed white men attacked the sharecroppers who had gathered at the meeting. Shots were fired and one of the white men was killed. What followed next is known as the “Elaine Massacre.” Hundreds of African Americans in Elaine were massacred by a violent mob of white men, likely with the help of security forces and federal troops. Historians estimate that no fewer than 200 black residents died in those tragic events: men, women and children. No white person was brought to justice for what happened.
This was not the first time that racists had terrorized the black population of Elaine. In 1916, Silas Hoskins was lynched in that town. Hoskins was a prosperous owner of a bar frequented by African-Americans. White people who coveted Hoskins’ business threatened him several times with death. One night, Silas did not return from work. They had lynched him. At the time, Hoskins lived with his 9-year-old nephew, Richard Wright, who later became one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century. Wright reflected in his works the experiences of the black community, especially in the novel “Son of this land” and in the autobiographical book “The black boy” (Black Boy).
In “The Black Boy,” Richard Wright describes the moments after the murder of his uncle Silas Hoskins:
“There was no funeral. There was no music. There was no mourning period. There were no flowers. There was only silence, silent crying, whispers and fear. I didn’t know when or where Uncle Hoskins was buried. Aunt Maggie was not even allowed to see the body nor was she able to claim any of her property. Uncle Hoskins had simply been ripped from our lives, and we made the mistake of looking the other way, to avoid looking squarely at that terrifying, white-hot face we knew was looming over us. That was the time I felt the white terror the closest and my mind went into shock. ‘Why didn’t we fight back?’ I asked my mother. The fear in her made her silence me with a slap.” Wright was forced to flee the city along with his family.
Then came the Elaine Massacre. In conversation with Democracy Now!, Paul Ortiz, a professor of history at the University of Florida, contextualized the 1919 massacre:
“The price of cotton was on the rise. But more importantly, African Americans were making great strides and economic improvements as landowners in places like Elaine, in [la franja denominada] Alabama Black Belt, in northern [estado de] Florida, throughout the south [de Estados Unidos]. And because of these advances and the role that African Americans played in World War I, expectations [de la población negra] they were increasing. The white power structure mobilized against the growing aspirations [de la población negra]”.
Twelve African-American men were tried after the massacre. An all-white jury sentenced them to death after only a few minutes of deliberation. Legendary African-American activist and journalist Ida B. Wells traveled to Elaine to stand in solidarity with them and report on their fight. The convicted men appealed the sentence, arguing that their rights to due process enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution had been violated. In 1923, in the case “Moore v. Dempsey,” the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the convicted and ensured greater protection for black people in the South who were being subjected to trials and juries dominated by white supremacists. The case set a crucial precedent, leading to some of the biggest legal victories of the civil rights era in the decades that followed.
Richard Wright’s daughter, the poet Julia Wright, who describes the murder of her great-uncle Silas in 1916 as “the black canary in the coal mine” — that is, an advance warning of what was to come — told Democracy Now!: “Silas Hoskins was a huge part of my father’s life. The lynching of him can be seen as a thread, a fiery red thread, that weaves together practically all of his works.
Earlier this year, dirt was collected from the site where Silas Hoskins is believed to have been lynched. Two jars of collected soil were brought from Elaine to the city of Montgomery, Alabama, for display at the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Memory Project. In the project, more than 800 glass jars filled with dirt taken from lynching sites commemorate those horrific practices that plagued the United States for so long. The jars are at the Montgomery Legacy Museum, a museum that powerfully depicts the transition from the days of slavery to today’s mass incarceration as key tools used to oppress the African-American population. Founded by anti-death penalty activist and defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, the Equal Justice Initiative also runs the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a sprawling outdoor installation that deeply moving memorials to the thousands of victims of lynchings in the United States.
The Elaine Museum and Richard Wright Center for Civil Rights are currently under construction in Elaine, Arkansas to preserve the memory of the horrific massacre that occurred there and continue the legacy of the fights for equity and racial justice that followed. to the massacre. The debate on racism and reparation measures must continue and deepen throughout the country.
© 2022 Amy Goodman
Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, an international newscast broadcast daily on more than 800 English-language television and radio stations and more than 450 Spanish-language stations. She is co-author of the book “Those who fight against the system: Ordinary heroes in extraordinary times in the United States”, edited by Le Monde Diplomatique Cono Sur.