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Black Farmers in Arkansas Still Seek Justice a Century After the Elaine Massacre

Eugene “Butch” Flenaugh, Jr. came back home to Phillips County, Arkansas about five years ago to care for the family’s farm in the Mississippi River Delta bottomland. Today, when he looks out over the 400-plus acres that his family owns, he’s often nostalgic about the stories his father told him when the entire Delta River flatland was tilled and owned by Black farmers and sharecroppers as far as the eye could see. After World War I, he says, many came back from fighting overseas and began to purchase the flood-prone land along the Mississippi River basin that white farmers thought was inferior.

The Flenaughs’ property, nearby Holly Grove, and the former all-Black towns and communities date back more than two centuries. Flenaugh and every Black farmer, former sharecropper, and landowner across the Delta whisper about the missing, lost, or sham property deeds at the Phillips County Courthouse at the county seat in Helena. According to state officials, the county is one of just three in the state that don’t have public online access to court and property records.

All those deeds link to the ghosts of the Elaine Massacre of 1919, which is by far the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas and possibly the bloodiest racial conflict in U.S. history.

The events in Elaine, almost 103 years ago, stemmed from the state’s deepest roots of white supremacy, tense race relations, and growing concerns about labor unions. In September 1919, a shooting incident that occurred at a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union—a Black-led organization that sought to improve life for Black farmers and communities in the state—escalated into mob violence by white people in Elaine and the surrounding area.

Although the exact number is unknown, estimates of the number of African Americans killed range in the hundreds. Only five white people lost their lives, according to records from the time. Even so, 12 Black men were arrested in the wake of the white-led massacre and sentenced to death for murder charges. The Elaine 12, as they came to be known, became part of a precedent-setting legal case with nearly as long an impact as the massacre itself.

Flenaugh says his family’s land goes back to his great-grandfather, Cebron Johnson (Hall), who in the 1880s left more than 30,000 acres in Monroe and Philips counties to descendants and their families just east of the former all-Black town of Holly Grove. That land, according to Butch’s father, Eugene, Sr., was owned by the family prior to the massacre as Black farmers emerged from slavery in the late 19th century.

“This is part of that 30,000 [acres],” says the younger Flenaugh, a well-built, 50-year-old farmer, as he looks out over property that is part forest thicket, part nature preserve, and part family graveyard.

(Photo credit: Wesley Brown)

What happened to the Johnson land is a fate that befell countless Black farms during the early 20th century: Land was taken through outright theft, intimidation, violence, and fraudulent property records, with the end result of robbing generations of Black families from the inherited wealth that comes from land ownership. And at a time when the current administration has committed to advancing racial equity, and efforts to provide debt relief to Black farmers have been stymied by racist lawsuits, the scale of violent land theft is coming to light in a powerful, galvanizing way.

A Century of Land Theft in Arkansas

Getting to the Flenaughs’ plot of land in East Holly Grove confuses both Alexa and GPS. Driving 15 miles on winding Arkansas Highway 146 takes you past the Big Slash Hunting Club, which locals call “Jurassic Park” due to the habitat’s well-maintained property, state-of-the-art security, and 10-foot barbed wire fence that screams “no trespassing.”

According to a recent real estate listing, the 1,650-acre preserve is up for sale for $11.1 million; that price tag includes diverse waterfowl habitats such as flooded green timber, tupelo and cypress brakes, wetland slashes, and more than 600 acres of agricultural fields.

Meanwhile, most Black farmers’ experience in the region is similar to the Flenaughs’. When he first got to his family’s place, Flenaugh says there was no wildlife in the area because the rice farmers adjacent to the family’s property had killed off everything with pesticides. Once he stopped the white farmers from spraying the chemicals on his family’s property, Flenaugh’s land recovered. Today, it is brimming with life; a wide variety of waterfowl make the region part of the “Duck-Hunting Capital of the World.”

Stuttgart, Arkansas, the rice and duck capital of the world.

(Photo CC-licensed by Jimmy Emerson on Flickr)

“I can now walk out on my stand and see the same duck and waterfowls, big game deer, wild pigs, snakes, catfish, and other wildlife that can be found over there at Big Slash,” says Flenaugh.

The novice farmer told Civil Eats that the legacy of the Elaine Massacre is still “thick in the air,” because everyone knows that thousands of acres of land that are now in the hands of white and corporate landowners once belonged to Black farmers.

“It doesn’t make any sense, because if you go look at the records over the years, they kept changing the [property] books,” he says, adding that most Black families were driven off their land or “scattered” during the Red Summer of 1919.

“If you look at those records, those whose [names] were penciled out just disappeared; those that had red marks were burned on their land or in their houses. The ones that had blue check marks on them are the ones that they were after, or they just left and never came back,” he says.

“The sad part about it is that every last bit of property around here is ‘heir property.’ If more people understood that, they could come back and get [their] land.”

According to a 2019 report by the Equal Justice Initiative, the racist attacks in 1919 were widespread and targeted the 380,000 Black veterans who had just returned from the war. “Military service sparked dreams of racial equality for generations of African Americans,” the report notes. However, “during the lynching era, many Black veterans were targeted for mistreatment, violence, and murder because of their race and status as veterans” and the perceived threat they posed to Jim Crow and racial subordination. The report goes on to note that “racial violence . . . reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed and continues to be evident in the injustice and unfairness of the administration of criminal justice in America.”

Flenaugh says the Elaine Massacre sent a message of intimidation that still affects the region today. And there are still some Black and white people who say the incident should not be talked about, even after a local committee dedicated a memorial to those slain during the 100-year commemoration two years ago.

“The sad part about it is that every last bit of property around here is ‘heir property.’ If more people understood that, they could come back and get [their] land,” he says.

Yet Flenaugh’s own family is still in a fight to keep all their land. Flenaugh and his father, Eugene Flenaugh, Sr., and two brothers, Johnathan and Eric, had a court date this summer at the Phillip County Circuit Court in Helena-West Helena concerning property line dispute with a white farmer seeking to plant rice on their plot.

The tense struggle has led to confrontations with the Phillips County Sheriff’s Department and bad blood with the white farmer. In June, the court allowed the white farmer to plant on the disputed land, but the complaint still has not been fully settled. Larry Hicks, a Little Rock-based NAACP attorney who has taken an interest in the Flenaugh’s case and the plight of Black farmers in Arkansas, said the family recently sent a letter to the court terminating the legal services of their attorney following the court hearing in late June.

For the Flenaughs, the dispute bring up memories of Elaine and the repeating patterns of stolen Black wealth. “We just want them to leave us alone,” the elder Flenaugh told Civil Eats.

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