July 4th, 1910
Jack Johnson Wins Fight of the Century Against "Great White Hope" Jim Jeffries
Jack Johnson, an African American man born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878, began a professional boxing career in 1897. At the turn of the 19th century, boxing was new on the commercialized sports scene and racial discrimination permeated the sport in both spectatorship and competition. Black boxers were often barred from competing in championship title matches. After much success, Johnson wanted to arrange a fight with reigning heavyweight champion James Jeffries, a white boxer. Jeffries, who refused to fight black boxers, turned Johnson down and retired undefeated in 1905.
Canadian boxer Tommy Burns replaced Jeffries as the heavyweight champion and, after being taunted by Johnson numerous times in previous fights, agreed to face him in an interracial match. On December 26, 1908, at 6-foot-1 and 192 pounds, Johnson defeated Burns convincingly in a 14-round match that had to be stopped by police. Officials deemed Johnson the winner by technical knockout, making him the first black heavyweight champion in boxing history.
Prompted by white supporters outraged by a black world champion, Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Johnson for the heavyweight title. The undefeated Jeffries was nicknamed the “Great White Hope,” and racial tension was high leading up to the fight. Finally, on July 4, 1910, the anticipated showdown occurred in Reno, Nevada, in front of 20,000 spectators. Johnson retained the heavyweight title and shocked the nation when Jeffries, who had been knocked down twice, threw in the towel in the 15th round to avoid a knockout loss.
July 23rd, 1910
Press Reports Murder of Black Taxi Driver in Montgomery
On July 23, 1910, Colored Alabamian, a black magazine, reported the murder of black taxi driver Mitchell Johnson in Montgomery, Alabama. Earlier that month, a white man employed Mr. Johnson to drive him to his home, then refused to pay the fare. Mr. Johnson reported the incident to his employer and had the man arrested. After the passenger posted bond and was released from jail, he found Mr. Johnson and shot him dead. When the man was rearrested, he asserted that he killed Mr. Johnson in self-defense and he was released.
On July 11, 1910, following Mr. Johnson’s death and a string of murders, Montgomery County Judge Armstead Brown instructed a jury to determine a defendant’s innocence based on evidence and not on class or race. He stated, “All charges of homicide should be rigidly investigated. Whether the killing be of some person of standing or a poor unknown negro.”
Colored Alabamian applauded his remarks: “White men who murder Negroes only have to tell the Court they acted in SELF-DEFENSE, to be turned loose, whether the victim was a Negro man or a poor helpless Negro woman. We are therefore very thankful to Judge Brown.”
Despite Judge Brown’s plea for even-handed enforcement of the law, distrust of the criminal justice system among black Montgomery residents grew. Two months after Grover C. Ray, a white man, murdered Ed Rugley, a black man, Colored Alabamian's editorial board warned, “Watch out now for the old theory of SELF-DEFENSE.” In cases where white defendants were charged with killing black people like Mr. Johnson, the black community in Montgomery increasingly came to see the justice system not as a source of protection but as complicit in shielding white men from accountability for violence against African Americans.
April 8th, 1911
Mine Explosion near Birmingham, Alabama, Kills 128 State Prisoners
By 1910, the State of Alabama had become the sixth largest coal producer in the United States. Between 1875 and 1900, Alabama’s coal production grew from 67,000 tons to 8.4 million tons. This growth was driven in large part by the expansion of convict leasing in the state; in Birmingham, the center of the state’s coal production, more than 25 percent of miners were leased convicts. In addition, more than 50 percent of all miners in the state had learned to mine while working as convicts.
State officials quickly learned how to use the convict leasing system to disproportionately exploit black people. In an average year, 97 percent of Alabama’s county convicts were black. When coal companies’ labor needs increased, local police swept small-town streets for vagrants, gamblers, drunks, and thieves, targeting hundreds of black Alabamians for arrest. These citizens were then tried and convicted, sentenced to sixty- or ninety-days hard labor plus court costs, and handed over to the mines. Employers frequently held and worked convicts well beyond their scheduled release dates since local officials had no incentive to intervene and prisoners lacked the resources and power to demand enforcement.
Conditions in the mines were deplorable. Convicts were often chained together in ankle-deep water, working 12- to 16-hour shifts with no breaks, and surviving on fistfuls of spoiled meat and cornbread stuffed into the rags they wore for uniforms. Describing the experience, a black former convict laborer recalled that the prisoners had slept in their chains, covered with “filth and vermin,” and the powder cans used as slop jars frequently overflowed and ran over into their beds.
Prisoner safety was not a priority for the mines’ owners and operators. In 1911, the Banner Mine near Birmingham exploded, killing 128 convicts leased to the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company. A local newspaper listed the crimes of the victims next to their names: vagrancy, weapons violations, bootlegging, and gambling. A rural newspaper observed, “Several negroes from this section . . . were caught in the Banner mine explosion. That is a pretty tight penalty to pay for selling booze.”
April 11th, 1913
President Wilson Permits Segregation Within Federal Government
On April 11, 1913, recently inaugurated President Woodrow Wilson received Postmaster General Albert Burleson's plan to segregate the Railway Mail Service. Burleson reported that he found it “intolerable” that white and black employees had to work together and share drinking glasses and washrooms. This sentiment was shared by others in Wilson's administration; William McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury, argued that segregation was necessary “to remove the causes of complaint and irritation where white women have been forced unnecessarily to sit at desks with colored men.”
By the end of 1913, black employees in several federal departments had been relegated to separate or screened-off work areas and segregated lavatories and lunchrooms. In addition to physical separation from whites, black employees were appointed to menial positions or reassigned to divisions slated for elimination. The government also began requiring photographs on civil service applications, to better enable racial screening.
Although implemented by his subordinates, President Wilson defended racial segregation in his administration as in the best interest of blacks. He maintained that harm was interjected into the issue only when blacks were told that segregation was humiliation. Meanwhile, segregation in federal employment was seen as the most significant blow to black rights since slavery, and seemed to signify official Presidential approval of Jim Crow policies in the South. After backlash that included organized protests by the NAACP, segregated lavatory signs were removed, but discriminatory customs persisted and there was little concrete evidence of actual policy reversal. The federal government continued to require photographs on civil service applications until 1940.
May 3rd, 1913
California Law Prohibits Asian Immigrants from Owning Land
On May 3, 1913, California enacted the Alien Land Law, barring Asian immigrants from owning land. California tightened the law further in 1920 and 1923, barring the leasing of land and land ownership by American-born children of Asian immigrant parents or by corporations controlled by Asian immigrants. These laws were supported by the California press, as well as the Japanese and Korean (later Asiatic) Exclusion League and the Anti-Jap Laundry League (both founded by labor unions) - groups claiming tens of thousands of members.
However, animosity for Asian immigrants was not solely local. In May 1912, President Woodrow Wilson wrote to a California backer: “In the matter of Chinese and Japanese coolie immigration I stand for the national policy of exclusion (or restricted immigration). ... We cannot make a homogeneous population out of people who do not blend with the Caucasian race. ... Oriental coolieism will give us another race problem to solve, and surely we have had our lesson.”
California did not stand alone. Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming all enacted discriminatory laws restricting Asians’ rights to hold land in America. In 1923, the United States Supreme Court reviewed various versions of the discriminatory land laws – and upheld every single one. Most of these discriminatory state laws remained in place until the 1950s, though Kansas and New Mexico did not repeal their provisions until 2002 and 2006, respectively. Florida has to date refused to repeal a constitutional provision authorizing its government to enact such discriminatory legislation.
September 29th, 1915
Alabama Bars White Nurses From Treating Black Patients
The Jim Crow racial segregation laws enacted and enforced in the American South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries enforced the strict boundaries of a legalized racial caste system and worked to restore and maintain white supremacy in the region. Even after the Civil War and Reconstruction amendments had ended slavery and declared black people to be citizens with civil rights and the power to vote, many Southern state and local lawmakers passed laws forbidding blacks and whites from playing checkers or pool together, entering a circus through the same entrance, or being buried in the same cemetery.
In some instances, these laws interfered with the provision of very important services, including education and health care. On September 29, 1915, the Alabama legislature passed a law forbidding any “white female nurse” from treating a black male patient in any public or private medical facility. Punishment for violation of the law included a fine of $10-$200 and up to six months incarceration or hard labor. An outgrowth of the long-held Southern fear that white women were at risk of attack and assault whenever in the presence of black men, similar action was taken in Georgia in 1911.
December 6th, 1915
U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Law Stripping Citizenship from American Women Who Marry Foreign Men
In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Expatriation Act of 1907, which stripped American women of their citizenship if they married a non-citizen. American men who married foreign women were permitted to keep their citizenship.
Women who lost their U.S. citizenship could apply to be naturalized if their husbands later became American citizens. However, as virtually all Asians were barred from becoming U.S. citizens, if an American woman married an Asian man, she had no way to ever retrieve her U.S. citizenship. Similarly, women of Asian descent who were American citizens by birth had no means of regaining their U.S. citizenship if they lost it through marriage to a foreigner, even if the foreigner was white. Because the women were of Asian descent, they were barred from being naturalized, even if their white husbands became U.S. citizens.
On December 6, 1915, the United States Supreme Court upheld the law in Mackenzie v. Hare, ruling that an involuntary revocation of citizenship would be unconstitutional, but stripping a woman of citizenship upon marriage to a foreign husband was permissible because such women voluntarily enter into such marriages, “with knowledge of the consequences.”
In 1922, Congress amended the law to permit most women to retain their American citizenship after marriage to a non-U.S. citizen, but explicitly continued to exclude American women married to Asian men ineligible for citizenship. In 2014, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution expressing regret for revoking women's citizenship for marriage to foreigners.
May 15th, 1916
Jesse Washington Brutally Lynched in Waco, Texas
On May 15, 1916, after an all-white jury convicted Jesse Washington of the murder of a white woman, he was taken from the courtroom and burned alive in front of a mob of 15,000.
When he was accused of killing his employer's wife, seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington’ greatest fear was being brutally lynched - a common fate for black people accused of wrongdoing at that time, whether guilty or not. After he was promised protection against mob violence, Jesse, who suffered from intellectual disabilities, according to some reports, signed a statement confessing to the murder. On the morning of May 15, 1916, Washington was taken to court, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death in a matter of moments. Shortly before noon, spectators snatched him from the courtroom and dragged him outside, the “promise of protection” quickly forgotten.
The crowd gathered to watch and/or participate in the brutal lynching grew to 15,000. Jesse Washington was chained to a car while members of the mob ripped off his clothes, cut off his ear, and castrated him. The angry mob dragged his body from the courthouse to City Hall and a fire was prepared while several assailants repeatedly stabbed him. When they tied Jesse Washington to the tree underneath the mayor's window, the lynchers cut off his fingers to prevent him from trying to escape, then repeatedly lowered his lifeless body into the fire. At one point, a participant took a portion of Washington's torso and dragged it through the streets of Waco. During the lynching, a professional photographer took photos which were later made into postcards.
Following news reports of the lynching, the NAACP hired a special investigator, Elizabeth Freeman. She was able to learn the names of the five mob leaders and also gathered evidence that local law enforcement had done nothing to prevent the lynching. Nevertheless, no one was ever prosecuted for their participation in the lynching of Jesse Washington.
February 5th, 1917
Immigration Act of 1917 Restricts Asians, Other Ethnic Minorities from Migrating to the United States
On February 5, 1917, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. Intended to prevent “undesirables” from immigrating to the United States, the act primarily targeted individuals migrating from Asia. Under the act, people from “any country not owned by the U.S. adjacent to the continent of Asia” were barred from immigrating to the United States. The bill also utilized an English literacy test and an increased tax of eight dollars per person for immigrants aged sixteen years and older.
The new bill was not meant to impact immigrants from Northern and Western Europe but targeted Asian, Mexican, and Mediterranean immigrants in an attempt to curb their migration. One author of the bill, Alabama Congressman John Burnett, estimated it would exclude approximately forty percent of Mediterranean immigrants, ninety percent of those from Mexico, and all Indian and non-Caucasian immigrants.
The bill also restricted the immigration of people with mental and physical handicaps, the poor, and people with criminal records or suspected of being involved in prostitution. Proponents claimed the bill would keep burdensome immigrants from entering the country and thus “promote the moral and material prosperity” of new immigrants permitted to enter.
The bill remained law for thirty-five years, until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 eliminated racial restrictions in immigration and naturalization statutes.
May 29th, 1917
White Mob Riots in East St. Louis Over Threat of Black Labor
On May 28, 1917, in East St. Louis, Illinois, a meeting of 3000 white union members marched on the Mayor's office to make demands about the job competition resulting from the city’s growing African American population. The disgruntled union members were upset that African Americans who had migrated from the South were being hired by companies who wanted to weaken the bargaining power of white unions. The large group quickly devolved into an angry mob, and rioted through the streets of East St. Louis, destroying property and physically assaulting African Americans at random.
Local law enforcement was unable to control the large crowd and the National Guard was deployed to regain order in the community. After the riots were calmed, little action was taken to prevent the violence from restarting and none of the union’s participants were arrested. New agreements were not established with white unions and local police were not better equipped to handle large mobs.
The National Guard withdrew in mid-June despite the fact that racial tensions in the city remained high. In July, attacks began again; this time they lasted for four days and resulted in the deaths of more than 100 African Americans. Another 6000 were forced to flee their homes to escape the violence.
July 2nd, 1917
Two Hundred African Americans Killed in East St. Louis Riots
In 1916 and 1917, thousands of African Americans moved from the rural South to East St. Louis, Illinois, in search of industrial work. White residents and political leaders of East St. Louis attempted to dissuade African Americans from moving to the area and prohibited railroads from transporting them to the region. When these attempts failed, white residents used violence to intimidate, expel, and destroy the African American population.
The primary outbreak of violence began on July 2, 1917, and lasted until July 5. White mobs comprised of East St. Louis residents and outsiders who came to participate in the attacks ambushed African American workers as they left factories during a shift change. The National Guard was called in to suppress the violence but they were ordered not to shoot at white rioters. Some National Guard troops participated in the violence.
Estimates indicate that two hundred African American men, women, and children were shot, hanged, beaten to death, or burned alive after being driven into burning buildings during this surge of violence. The riots caused more than $400,000 in property damage and prompted 6000 African American residents (more than half of East St. Louis’s African American population) to flee the city. While 105 people were indicted on charges related to the riot, only twenty members of the white mob received prison sentences for their roles in perpetrating the extreme violence and killings.
July 29th, 1917
Ten Thousand African Americans March in New York City to Protest Racial Violence
On July 29, 1917, prominent news sources reported that nearly 10,000 African American men, women, and children had staged a silent march down Fifth Avenue in New York City the previous day. In what is considered one of the first public demonstrations by African Americans in the 20th century, the NAACP mobilized thousands of members of the black community in the New York “Silent March” or “The Negro Silent Protest Parade.”
Formulated by James Weldon Johnson, this march was intended to be a public response and criticism of the racial violence that had been committed against African American communities in the United States that summer, particularly in the East St. Louise riots. Threatened by a growing African American labor force, a group of white men gathered in the downtown area of East St. Louis in May 1917 and began attacking and beating unsuspecting African Americans to death. That July, an armed white mob drove into black residential areas and opened fire on men, women, and children; when black residents shot back and accidentally killed a police officer, riots erupted. Whites flooded the black community, shooting black residents as they fled, lynching black people from street lamps, and burning black homes and businesses to the ground.
The thousands of marchers in New York City were also spurred to action by the racially-motivated murder of 17-year-old Jesse Washington, who was lynched, burned, and dismembered by a white mob in front of the Waco, Texas, City Hall on May 15, 1916.
The silent marchers communicated their frustration to the nation by holding signs and banners, but without speaking one word. Children led the march wearing white, followed by prominent NAACP members like W.E.B du Bois and a banner that read “Your Hands Are Full of Blood.” The American flag was also carried as a reminder of the democratic ideals that failed to protect African Americans. This march launched the NAACP's public campaign against lynching and racial violence.
December 11th, 1917
Thirteen Black Soldiers Executed After Revolt Sparked by Local Police Brutality in Houston, Texas
In July 1917, the all-African American 3rd Battalion of the 24th United States Infantry Regiment was stationed at Fort Logan, near Houston, Texas, to guard white soldiers preparing for deployment to Europe. From the beginning of their assignment at Fort Logan, the black soldiers were harassed and abused by the Houston police force. Police officers regularly beat African American troops and arrested them on baseless charges, and the soldiers soon reached a breaking point. Early on August 23, 1917, several soldiers, including a well-respected corporal, were brutally beaten and jailed by police. When word of the men’s treatment reached the camp, more than 150 soldiers organized and staged a revolt. It ended in a violent confrontation between soldiers, armed police, and civilians that left 16 civilians and four soldiers dead.
One hundred fifty-seven black soldiers involved in the revolt were investigated and court-martialed and three separate trials were scheduled. In the first military trial, held in November 1917, 63 soldiers were tried and 54 were convicted on all charges. At sentencing, 13 were sentenced to death and 43 received life imprisonment. The 13 condemned soldiers were denied any right to appeal and were hanged on December 11, 1917.
The second and third trials resulted in death sentences for an additional 16 soldiers; however, they were given the opportunity to appeal, largely due to negative public reactions to the first 13 unlawful executions. President Woodrow Wilson ultimately commuted the death sentences for ten of the remaining soldiers facing death, but six more were hanged. In total, the Houston unrest resulted in the executions of 19 black soldiers. NAACP advocacy and legal assistance later helped secure the early release of most of the 50 soldiers serving life sentences.
(Scene during court martial of 64 members of the 24th Infantry, 1917.)
December 13th, 1918
United States Declares Indian Immigrants Non-White and Ineligible for Citizenship
Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh man born in Punjab, migrated to the United States in 1913. After enlisting in the U.S. Army, Thind applied for citizenship in 1920 and was approved by the U.S. District Court in Oregon. Though he entered the country prior to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1917, which barred immigration from Asia, the Bureau of Naturalization appealed his citizenship and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Thind had filed for citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906, which said that citizenship is available for “free whites.” Thind argued to the Supreme Court that, under anthropological classifications of the time, Indians of the “high caste” from his native region of Punjab were “Aryan,” and thus white for purposes of American law. The Court conceded that, ethnologically, Indians were “Aryan” and thus Caucasian; however, the court ruled that the words “white people” in American statutory language had to be taken at their common meaning, and that “the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences.” The Court reasoned that Indians are not able to assimilate the way more typical “white” immigrants can, and held that a scientific study cannot determine citizenship. As a result, they held that Thind was not white and was legally barred from becoming a U.S. citizen.
The decision had a significant impact. Many Indians who had previously obtained U.S. citizenship in the United States now had their citizenship revoked, and lost many rights and privileges as a result. In California, the 1913 Alien Land Act barred non-citizens from owning land, and Indian Americans in the state who lost their citizenship also lost their land. Follow the Thind decision, America’s Indian population dropped by half.
July 19th, 1919
Race Riot Rages in Washington, DC
On July 19, 1919, rumors began spreading among white residents of Washington, DC, regarding a black man accused of an attempted sexual assault against the white wife of a sailor. Upon hearing news that police had released the black suspect, whites across the city began planning a violent rampage against the black community. For weeks prior, local whites had been angered by several sensationalized sex crime allegations against black men, and this last rumor lit the powder keg.
That night, a first mob of white men moved through a residential neighborhood off of Pennsylvania Avenue NW, gathering weapons and more members as they traveled. The mob encountered a black man named Charles Ralls near Ninth and D Streets in Southwest DC, and beat him severely. The mob beat its second victim, 55-year-old George Montgomery, badly enough to fracture his skull. Growing groups of whites, including civilians and military service members, spread out and continued their violent campaign deeper into the black community for several days.
At the time, Washington’s black community was relatively prosperous, and included many members of the military. As black citizens realized the police were not going to protect them from the attacks, many took up arms in their own defense. By the third day of rioting, armed black groups were confronting white mobs in shootouts and street fights. On the fourth day, federal troops were deployed to quell the violence and the riot ended. The conflict left nine people dead, 30 severely wounded, and 150 beaten.
(African American being stoned by whites during 1919 Chicago race riot.)
July 27th, 1919
Death of African American Teenager Sparks Chicago Race Riot
On July 27, 1919, an African American teenager named Eugene Williams was swimming in Lake Michiagn with four friends when they drifted toward the unofficial “whites-only” section of Lake Michigan Beach in Chicago, Illinois. Enraged at the encroachment, a white man on the shore threw stones at the black teenagers and struck Eugene in the head. He lost consciousness and drowned. When police responded, Eugene’s friends identified the assailant but a white police officer refused to arrest him.
News of the racially-charged incident spread quickly. White crowds were misinformed that a black teenager had thrown a rock and caused a white man to drown, while black crowds were misinformed that the police had prevented swimmers from rescuing Eugene before he drowned. Both groups erupted in violence that left an African American man and a police officer shot and many more injured.
Racial tension spilled over onto the streets of the Black Belt, a predominantly African American neighborhood in Chicago, in one of the worst riots in American history. Five days of violence left 28 dead, 500 injured, and 1000 African American homes burned to the ground. The rioting finally ended after Governor Frank Lowden ordered 6000 militia troops to counteract the racism and police brutality exerted by local law enforcement. The Chicago riot was one of several racially-motivated fights, massacres, and lynchings that raged throughout the nation during the "Red Summer" of 1919.
July 31st, 1919
White Mobs Set Over 30 Fires in Chicago’s Black Communities
Before noon on July 31, 1919, angry white mobs had started more than thirty fires in the African American residential area of Chicago. Far from an isolated incident, these instances of arson were part of an extended barrage of violence perpetrated against Chicago’s black community in the summer of 1919 – a season that came to be known as “Red Summer” for the extensive racial violence that erupted in major cities throughout the country during that season. The five days of riots and attacks that upended Chicago are widely considered the worst of the Red Summer race riots.
The Chicago Riots began on July 27, 1919, after Eugene Williams, an African American teenager, drowned in Lake Michigan after being struck in the head by a rock thrown by a white man angry that Williams and friends had drifted into the “white side” of the beach. Responding police refused to arrest the white man who was identified as having thrown the rock, and instead arrested a black man at the scene. When black onlookers complained they were met with violence, and widespread rioting between African American and white Chicagoans soon spread throughout the city’s black residential areas.
When the riots ended on August 3rd, after intervention by the state militia, five days of gunfire, beatings, and burnings had left 15 whites and 23 African Americans killed, 537 people injured, and 1000 African American families homeless.
August 3rd, 1919
Race Riots End in Chicago, Illinois, with 38 Dead
During the Great Migration, Chicago, Illinois, was a popular destination for many black migrants leaving the South in search of economic opportunity and escape from racial violence. The city’s black population swelled from 44,000 in 1910 to 109,000 in 1920, joining thousands of whites who relocated to Chicago in search of work. Many black newcomers settled next to neighborhoods of European immigrants on Chicago’s south side, where industrial jobs were plentiful. Although they had escaped the Southern brand of racial violence, blacks in Chicago still faced racial animosity due to overcrowding, employment disputes with whites, poor relations with police, and segregation enforced by custom rather than law.
In the 1910s, segregation in Chicago was not as strict or legally regulated as in Southern cities, but beaches were informally segregated by custom. On July 27, 1919, a black youth named Eugene Williams drowned at a Chicago beach after a white man struck him with a rock for drifting to the “white” side of the ocean. Responding police declined to arrest the rock thrower and instead arrested a black man for a minor offense. Blacks protested the arrest and racial confrontations ensued, sparking violence that lasted until August 3, 1919.
During the riots, white mobs entered black sections of Chicago’s south side and set fire to more than 30 properties. Police repelled an attack against Provident Hospital, which served mostly black patients, and 6000 national guard troops were called in to restore order. At the riot’s end, 23 blacks and 15 whites were dead, 537 people were injured, and about 1000 people were left homeless.
(African American being stoned by whites during 1919 Chicago race riot.)
September 30th, 1919
Whites Massacre 100 Black People in Elaine, Arkansas
On the night of September 30, 1919, approximately one hundred black farmers attended a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America at a church in Phillips County, Arkansas. Many of the farmers were sharecroppers on white-owned plantations in the area and the meeting was held to discuss ways they could organize to demand fairer payments for their crops. Black labor unions such as the Progressive Farmers were deeply resented among white landowners throughout the country because unions threatened to weaken the whites’ aristocratic power. The union also made efforts to subvert racial divisions in labor relations and had hired a white attorney to negotiate with land owners for better cotton prices.
Knowing that black union organizing often attracted opposition, armed guards kept watch around the church where the Phillips County meeting took place. When a group of whites from the Missouri-Pacific Railroad attempted to intrude upon the meeting to gather intelligence, they were held back by the guards, and at least two whites were killed in the ensuing gunfight. Enraged, whites quickly formed mobs and descended on the nearby black town of Elaine, Arkansas, destroying homes and businesses and attacking anyone in their path. Between 100 and 200 blacks were killed in the massacre. A responding federal troop regiment claimed only two black people were killed but many reports challenged the white soldiers’ credibility and accused them of participating in the massacre.
In the end, sixty-seven blacks were arrested and charged with inciting violence, while dozens more faced other charges. Twelve black union members convicted of riot-related charges were sentenced to die but the NAACP represented the men on appeal and successfully got their death sentences overturned, six by the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1921 and the others by the United States Supreme Court in 1925.