IN JULY WHEN I arrive at Community Bakery in Little Rock, Brian Mitchell is sitting with his laptop open. He’s come ready, accustomed to speaking with journalists. In fact, still two months out from the 100-year anniversary of the Elaine Massacre, Mitchell says he’s already done at least 40 interviews with reporters. By the time this story goes to print, he’ll likely have done many more.
Mitchell, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, isn’t the first to document the Elaine Massacre. A handful of black journalists at the time, including the legendary journalist Ida B. Wells, traveled to Phillips County to cover the aftermath of the event, publishing reports contradictory to those in white owned newspapers that said what transpired was an “insurrection” by blacks. Throughout the 20th century, academic articles were sporadically written—many discussing the “race riot”—but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that there was a renewed interest and public awareness about what happened in and around Elaine. Authors Grif Stockley and Robert Whitaker contributed largely to this, with their books Blood in Their Eyes and On the Laps of Gods, respectively.
What Mitchell and his colleagues have done, however, is aggressively tackle many of the remaining holes in the story. In a very short period of time, they have collected more than 10,000 documents, spoken on panels, met with state officials and held workshops for middle and high school history teachers. As a direct result of their work, we now know more details about the white mob killings of blacks in 1919 and the role that American Legion World War I veterans played. There is also movement for more statewide recognition for the Elaine 12, the only men tried and held accountable—wrongly—for what transpired.
Mitchell quickly walks me through a few highlights of the past hundred years, pulling up his online database to show me recently recovered death certificates, newspaper articles and minute books currently housed on Google Drive. The body of work is impressive, so much so that he said some people have suggested that he keep it private in order to earn revenue from it. Instead, Mitchell says he looks forward to the day when he can finally present a free and user-friendly version to the public, especially to students.
What follows is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
How did you first become interested in researching the Elaine Massacre?
About three years ago, I was sitting down with another professor, Dr. Barclay Key, and he and I said it would be wonderful, since we’re rapidly approaching the Red Summer [centennial], to do a project on the Elaine Massacre and its role in the violence of 1919. We didn’t know at that point what direction we would go in, whether it would be a single project or multiple projects. We were familiar with some of the major works that had been done and even some of the papers, the journal articles that had been written. We’d read most of those at that point, but those all left us with a series of questions that were largely unanswered. So we began trying to explore to see what we could find to fill those gaps.
And Elaine was the most interesting of the Red Summer events?
If you put all the Red Summer events in a basket, Elaine doesn’t fit the model of most of the other acts of violence that took place. It’s rural. They’re sharecroppers. There aren’t these two large populations that are competing for resources. I mean, whites controlled everything. It was largely a labor dispute, which we found fascinating, and we wanted to find out how far back that labor dispute went and when blacks first began articulating legally that they felt they were being abused, and those became questions. Some of them, we have been able to answer. Others, we have not.
What were some of the motivating factors behind the number of unprecedented attacks on black people in 1919?
One of the things that people haven’t quite figured out with the Red Summer is why it occurred. Blacks had been told, largely by their leaders, to participate in World War I. If you want to be an American citizen, you have to bleed and die for the country, the same way that whites have. So when they returned, they believed they were citizens. That’s why they were empowered enough to hire an attorney when they felt like they were being cheated. If you were a white man, you could go and get a lawyer and sue in court. And now that we’re citizens, we want that same ability. It worked to their detriment. The whites around them didn’t feel they were citizens—not on the equal measure that the whites were. And for all intents and purposes, the blacks’ experiences since the Civil War had just been one of exploitation. You’re here almost as a farm tool. You’re here to make us money, just as the slaves were there to make money for the white populace.
You’ve now collected more than 10,000 documents. What have been some of the more recent or rewarding discoveries?
This past year, I just went on the road. My first mission was to find as much as I could about Leroy Johnston’s military service. We were able to have an award posthumously given to him, and his granddaughter came in and received the medals for the family. And because of what was done with his records, Congressman French Hill called for the Senate to reopen the records of all African Americans to see if they should have been awarded medals.
The research that we’re doing here—sometimes you wonder if the research that you do makes very much of an impact, and in this particular instance, it did.
A really recent discovery was the minute book of the American Legion, and the minute book of the American Legion is important because the American Legion was the first posse to be mustered up. They were returning veterans.
And this was interesting because it hadn’t been seen in a hundred years. I go to different offices, and they go, “Oh, we have a whole bunch of stuff in the attic,” and I’ll take a Saturday and go through the attic. There are entries in the minute book that talk about the efforts that the Legion made to shift the case, to make sure the governor put pressure on the courts to execute the [Elaine Twelve]. [The entries] also give an account of having being called to muster up.
A hundred years on, there are—as you mentioned—still a lot of questions around what happened. Can you talk about the importance of oral history in remembering the Elaine Massacre?
That comes to a larger problem in American history as a whole, when we start talking about marginalized people, because marginalized people aren’t covered by the news. They’re not important enough to be recorded.
The only people that we know of who were murdered were notable people who were mentioned in documents or mentioned by their families shortly after. Probably the best known were the Johnston family. They did not know the massacre was happening. They had a brother who had just returned from World War I, and they were out celebrating, and they all went out squirrel hunting, and when they returned, the train they were on was stopped, and they were abducted and left on the side of the road.
That takes us to the death certificates. Newspapers in Philips County didn’t even cover black funerals unless you were really, really important or were loved by some famous white family. So there are very few African Americans who appeared in the index at all.
The birth certificates of the Johnston brothers are very sparse. The causes of death are “gunshot wounds.” So, no way to go after anyone. You would assume there would be all kinds of information, but if you examine the death certificates, there’s very little information. They’re extremely telling.
So, it appears that if you look at just the index of obituaries, virtually no blacks ever died in that county. What you would need are the death certificates. You have to remember, even with death certificates, there’s a concerted effort on the part of the people controlling the death certificates. The coroner’s brother, a member of the American Legion, would have been called up as one of the first posse, so he has some vested interest in making sure these names aren’t reported—the people who were slaughtered.
And you’ve since discovered many of these death certificates?
For a long time, they had been missing, and during the research for the centennial, we were able to recover them. Unfortunately, we believe that there were far more people killed than the death certificates demonstrate.
We’ve worked with the Arkansas State Archives on creating a death-certificate index that is searchable, and you can download the scans of the death certificates.
Can you talk about some of the other efforts you’ve made to get the state involved?
I’ve met with a number of museum directors. I’ve met with the governor and his staff to gauge their feelings about their involvement, about the state’s involvement and future projects, and the reception was always really, really warm.
We don’t know where the victims are that were killed in the massacre, even the well-known ones like the Johnston brothers. We do, however, know where many of the Elaine Twelve are buried. We’re working with Stacy Hurst at the Department of Arkansas Heritage on a marker program to acknowledge these individuals and the role they played in American history.
Can you talk about how awareness of the Elaine Massacre has risen over the past few years?
One thing that all of us historians—Grif Stockley, Dr. Cherisse Branch-Jones, Dr. Richard C. Cortner, Robert Whitaker, Dr. Guy Lancaster—and Congressman French Hill are immensely proud of is the amount of public knowledge and the circulation of information that has happened because of these really small grassroots efforts by a handful of historians—all over Google, all over Facebook. Now there are little documentaries and little plugs and little articles that are popping up everywhere about Elaine, and it was a virtually unknown event before then. Teachers are now talking about it in middle and high school classrooms, and that was the goal.
Three years ago, when I first started speaking on the event, I would generally go to audiences that weren’t aware of what the event was. As I’ve done more and more presentations on the event, people are becoming increasingly aware, which is great, because then they come there with questions. And maybe some of those are questions that I haven’t considered, and they lead me on another path. A lot of people who show up are from Phillips County, and they are able to share things they were told by their families.
While some families have passed down stories of what happened in Elaine, I have spoken to many people who grew up in that area who never heard about the massacre until they moved away for college or work. Is that surprising?
Louisiana, where I’m from, has a very important series of slave revolts and massacres, including the Colfax Massacre, which really opens the South up to violence and went all the way to the Supreme Court. I didn’t hear about that until I was in college.
The American narrative has been told from a very white, sterilized perspective in Louisiana. I’m sure it’s that way throughout the South. We owe much of that to the concerted effort of historians and the grassroots groups, such as the Daughters of the Confederacy, that said, we’re not going to buy your schoolbooks unless you tell the narrative that we want you to tell.
When the killings first took place—and for many decades afterward—they were referred to as “race riots” and “insurrection” rather than a “massacre.” Can you talk about how the terms have changed?
I’d be happy to. When we talk about an insurrection, or black insurrections, it’s very one-sided. The aggressor in that discussion is clearly the rioter, the person rising up, which is typically the black individual. As time went by, particularly by the summer of 1919, they began calling these riots, and that showed some kind of mutual responsibility that both blacks and whites were participating quite equally or in an indiscernible way. Now, as we address the primary sources and new information that’s coming out, what we’re getting is that this was a very clear-cut aggression by a wealthy agrarian class that wanted to make sure that they controlled the land and all the cotton that was being produced.
We can now prove that they knew about the union formation, that they were listening, and they knew who the members were. This was very, very targeted. The narrative that had always been passed back and forth prior to the most recent research had been that the police just stumbled upon this church out in the woods, stumbling upon it the night before they’re supposed to launch an insurrection. You know, unless you have the luck of the gods, what is the chance that that’s gonna occur?
In other articles, you’ve spoken about the high possibility of mass graves.
I would love personally if they were found because there would be a lot of information that the remains could confirm, particularly the type of weapons that were used to kill them, the methods to kill them. Were they hunting rifles versus machine guns that would have been used by the soldiers? What blunt instruments or knives were used, where people had to be close? Were African Americans fleeing? Were they shot in the back? Were they hit head-on, as if they were fighting back? What were they wearing? What did they take with them? Did it look like they were taking flight when they were killed?
And for many families, it would give a sense of closure and a sense of where they’re from.
What would be a huge breakthrough for you? Do you have a wish list?
One of my fantasy finds—and I have a list of them—there is a photographer named C.M. Brashear from Little Rock who came to the city. He heard about the race riot, and he brought a camera, and he recorded, and he sold it to Pathé. I would love if someone found that because then we could see who participated and maybe identify key figures in the community.
Another thing is you would assume that Ida B. Wells or Scipio Jones would have made a list, even privately if they didn’t use it in court, of people who died.
And third, I would love to find the original synopsis or find a diary that Col. Isaac Jenks kept that would tell the story of his participation from a sort of unfiltered kind of approach. He was the colonel who led the troops. And I went to the National Archives, and I found the original of his report [written] in pencil. He said there was an original synopsis that he had done, but it was immediately destroyed afterward.
For more information about Elaine and Dr. Mitchell’s work, visit ualrexhibits.org/elaine/100-years-ago/overview