The Elaine, Arkansas riot in 1919 was a pivotal event because, as one of several 1919 race riots, it typified the conditions of blacks in the United States after World War I. The riot illustrates the inequities of the sharecropping system and the extreme racism that was rampant in the American South.
Located in Phillips County, Arkansas, in 1919 Elaine was a small town mostly inhabited by black sharecroppers. Robert L. Hill, a 26 year-old black man from Winchester, Arkansas visited Elaine and realized that the sharecroppers were being consistently exploited and cheated by the landlords. He founded the Organization of the Progressive Farmers' and Household Union of America as an alliance of black tenant farmers.
With the support of the Union (which had several lodges around Elaine) blacks were able to organize acts of resistance among cotton workers. These included the refusal of Elaine sawmill workers to let the women of their families work for whites, and demands for higher wages for cotton pickers. Union members hired lawyers (from the firm of Bratton, Bratton and Casey, based in Little Rock) to sue for money that the landlords owed them for cotton.
Robert Hill began to insist that Union meetings should be secure and guarded in order to keep out all whites. In a meeting on Wednesday, October 1st, 1919, at a church in Hoop Spur, guards armed with rifles and shotguns circled the building in order to protect those meeting inside. A car stopped close to the building and a white man said to the guards "Going coon hunting, boys?" Although the guards did not reply, a shot was quickly fired. Each side blamed the other for firing the first shot, but shots began to fly everywhere and the meeting quickly dispersed. Special Agent W.A. Adkings of the Missouri Pacific Railroad was one of the men in the car, and was killed in this initial exchange of gunfire.
By the morning of October 2nd, whites from Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee had flocked to the area and were confiscating and using the guns of any blacks they encountered. Fighting flared in the streets of Elaine, as blacks assembled and attacked whites, while whites ransacked the homes of black residents. Governor Brough sent troops to the scene on the request of Sheriff Kitchen. Elaine was placed under martial law.
The troops arrested all the black people they could find, and blacks were not released (even if they could prove that they were innocent) unless a white person vouched for them. Many blacks were charged with being part of the "conspiracy" to commit murder. Twelve were executed for first degree murder. Fifty were found guilty of second degree murder, of whom ten received twenty-one year prison sentences. Robert Hill was eventually arrested in Kansas but was never extradited to Arkansas to stand trial.