Brian Chilson

As the 100th anniversary of the massacre of African Americans at Elaine approaches, first-year graduate students in Dr. Brian Mitchell’s public history class at UA Little Rock are filling in gaps in the story of what was one of the most deadly race riots in America.

In September 1919, after one of several meetings black farmers held with representatives of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union, a white deputy spying on the meeting was fatally shot. Acting at the urging of the Phillips County sheriff, a mob of whites roamed the county, killing hundreds — some estimates are as high as 800 — of black residents. Five whites were killed, but only African Americans were arrested and jailed.

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Twelve black men were quickly found guilty of murder by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. They were imprisoned while their appeals in two famous cases traveled to the state and U.S. supreme courts. Their convictions were overturned, and they were sentenced to time served and released. But fearing they’d be lynched, all 12 fled the state, along with hundreds of other African Americans from Elaine who feared for their lives.

Mitchell has guided his public history students in the search to find out what happened to those 12 men. He did the legwork over the summer to provide them with public records — census records, city directories, vital records and newspaper accounts. They’ve been able to track down six of the 12 so far, and locate most of the graves of those six.

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As part of the class, the students will write biographies of the men for the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies’ Encyclopedia of Arkansas. They are also raising funds to place markers on their graves, a project UA Little Rock is doing in collaboration with the National Park Service and other agencies and with the help of private individuals.

Mitchell said that one of the “more interesting aspects” of the class’ work on Elaine is to “reassess the role of black World War I veterans.” One of the hundreds of men killed by the posse was a veteran who’d been home in Arkansas for just a few months. Returning veteran farmers were “looking for fair compensation, and rather than deal with them fairly, it was easier to kill them,” Mitchell said.

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UA Little Rock’s drama department will use Mitchell’s class’ research to write and produce a play. “There are such rich characters” in the Elaine story, Mitchell said. “There was one guy who became a gangster in Illinois,” Mitchell said.

A previous class worked to transcribe the death certificates of African Americans killed in the race massacre and created a database. The database has been provided to the Arkansas State Archives for public use.

Future projects for Mitchell’s first-year grad students include research into West Rock, the African-American community once situated at the base of Cantrell Hill, as a way to learn about redlining, the real estate practice of segregating blacks in certain neighborhoods. He’s interested, too, in more study of the tragedy at the Wrightsville boys’ so-called “industrial school,” which was in fact a prison, where 21 boys locked in a dorm perished in a fire in 1959. He has turned over to the Butler Center records he has on what so-called offenses the boys committed to be sent to Wrightsville.

Mitchell, 50, a Louisiana native who came to Arkansas after the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, has been a professor at UA Little Rock for four years (he was an adjunct earlier in his move to Little Rock, and later an investigator with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Metroplan researcher). Mitchell wants to give his students the opportunity to collaborate more with the community, doing joint projects with state and federal agencies and other history-minded groups “to open up an avenue of employment” for those who choose not to pursue doctoral degrees. He said the public history program’s success in finding jobs for its graduates, including archival work and museum exhibition, is nearly 100 percent. In fact, the program doesn’t accept more students than it thinks will be able to find jobs. The program has “given a level of visibility to the school,” Mitchell said. “When I say it’s an excellent program, I mean it’s an excellent program.”

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