Rural black women’s legacy of activism and self-advocacy has been lost in accounts of the Elaine Massacre.
That’s according to local historian Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch, who highlighted the experiences and resilience of these women in her recent presentation “‘What are you going to do with us women?’: Gender, violence, and the 1919 Elaine Massacre.”
The talk was given Sept. 19 at Lyon College in recognition of the centennial of the tragedy.
Jones-Branch, the James and Wanda Lee Vaughn Endowed Professor of History at Arkansas State University, explained that the Elaine Massacre began on Sept. 30, 1919, near Elaine in rural Phillips County, Ark.
A meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, an organization of African-American tenant farmers and sharecroppers, was disrupted by white men, resulting in the fatal shooting of a white man.
Hundreds of white people poured into the area in retaliation, killing an estimated 100 to 237 black people. Jones-Branch said the total number of casualties is still being debated.
“The event, erroneously named ‘the Elaine Race Riot,’ was precipitated by rural African Americans’ assertiveness through their demands for improved economic conditions and human dignity at a time when the South and the nation determined they were unworthy of both.”
Black women’s experiences have been left out of the story, she said.
“What hasn’t been explored is the extent to which women challenged Southern racial violence through their individual and collective efforts. In Arkansas, they challenged this through organizations like the Arkansas Association of Colored Women, which still exists to this day.”
Black people in the rural South organized to protect their economic interests, Jones-Branch said, and women were present at these meetings, too. Ed Ware didn’t want to attend the meeting on Sept. 30, but his wife, Lulu, insisted.
“Like many rural black women, she was the force behind her husband,” Jones-Branch said. “The Wares owned and farmed 120 acres of land. That’s part of the sharecropping story we don’t often hear. Whites felt threatened by this sort of black financial independence.”
“When violence ensued at the church, most accounts focus on the shootout between the men, not that armed black women were a concern as well.”
Men came to the Wares’ house to arrest Ed. He was on the run, but Lulu was left behind.
“She asked ‘What are you going to do with us women?’ They underestimated the lengths women were willing to go to in order to defend their homes.”
“Lulu was arrested and imprisoned with other black women for about four weeks,” continued Jones-Branch. “They were forced to perform hard labor and sleep on concrete floors. When Lulu returned home, she found that people had ransacked her home and stolen all of her worldly possessions.”
After being released, the women communicated with organizations and activists, like journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells Barnett and suffragette and co-founder of the NAACP Mary White Covington, to free the men arrested during the Elaine Massacre.
“Ida and Mary received national and international support,” Jones-Branch said. “Between 1923 and 1925, the court case Moore v. Dempsey was settled, and the remaining men were released.”
“Rurality did not equal ignorance and passivity for these women. These women had nothing but refused to be silent. They engaged in self-advocacy in the face of extreme racial and sexual violence.”
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