A change at the Library of Congress to use “Elaine Massacre” as a research topic title more accurately describes the racially motivated killings of black residents in 1919, historians and descendants have said.
The library, which describes itself as the largest in the world, previously used “Elaine Race Riot” as the main subject for materials related to violence by white mobs in eastern Arkansas.
“When we’re living with the loss of resources and the loss of everything we had, it’s very hard to see this as a ‘riot’. It was a deliberate attempt to terrorize us,” Faye Duncan-Daniel said, 78 years old. The violence led to the seizure of her family’s land, she said.
In 2007, the Library of Congress first established the previous subject heading, “Elaine Race Riot, Elaine, Ark., 1919,” said spokesman Bill Ryan.
“In naming an event, one of the fundamental principles the Library of Congress uses is to call a thing by the name by which it is most commonly recognized,” Ryan said in an email.
The change comes after an official proposal submitted last year by the University of Oklahoma, but Duncan-Daniel noted efforts by many to change the language used to describe the violence.
She recalls having conversations around 2007 with historians and other descendants in which they used the term “massacre” rather than the once-common “race riot.” Duncan-Daniel said she was born near Elaine, but left as a teenager and lived in Nevada before moving back to Arkansas in 2006.
“The name change was our take on the event because we were downplayed enough,” Duncan-Daniel said. Using the term ‘massacre’ is “one of the ways we’re starting to take back control of our narrative,” she added.
James White, co-founder of the Elaine Legacy Center, said he remembered his grandparents telling him how endangered all black people in the area were.
“I always heard them, ‘If you were black, you were fair game.’ Shooting and killing is what they did to black people,” White, 59, said. “Women, children – they were just shooting and killing.”
White said “massacre” is a better term than “riot” to describe what happened, although he also said another word could be used.
“I think so many people were killed – from oral history – that you can almost say it was genocide,” White said.
Efforts are underway to raise funds for a museum in Elaine to present a fuller account of the massacre, White said.
The Library of Congress went through its formal review process by approving the subject heading change in September to “Massacre of Elaine, Elaine, Ark., 1919,” Ryan said, as the University of Oklahoma “cited research to indicate that massacre was now the most commonly used term in the name of the event.”
Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, professor emeritus of African-American studies and modern United States history at Pennsylvania State University, who wrote about the Elaine massacre, called the Library of Congress ” gold standard”.
“It’s very prestigious, and what he says or does is important, so I think it’s symbolically very important,” Woodruff said.
Woodruff referenced accounts of similar racial violence taking place elsewhere during this era of American life, including in Tulsa in 1921.
“The same narrative emerges from all of this, which is white people organizing to kill black people,” Woodruff said.
Historians of the Elaine and Phillips County events say the histories of the time misrepresented white-led violence as being all done in reaction to an alleged “rebellion” or “uprising.”
Black sharecroppers and sharecroppers had organized to improve their working conditions. After an initial skirmish at a Black Farmers’ Church meeting in which a white officer was killed, mobs hounded black residents for days, historians say.
But the initial violence had already been described as having started after a vehicle broke down in the Farmers’ Meeting area, said Brian Mitchell, associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Mitchell said records show planters were aware of black farmers’ efforts to organize. Authorities involved in the early violence were also with a black prison administrator, he noted.
“The idea that these police officers happened to have car trouble 100 or 200 yards from this church, that is unlikely,” Mitchell said. “And why do you have an administrator out of jail with you? In all likelihood, the administrator was with them trying to find where the church was in the middle of the night.”
The Central Arkansas Library System Encyclopedia of Arkansas states that “accounts of who fired the first shots are in acute conflict.”
The military’s role in racial violence has also come under scrutiny as they arrived in the area and rounded up black citizens to arrest them after Governor Charles Brough asked federal authorities to stop them. send troops.
Although 12 black men were sentenced to death after the violence, an NAACP-backed legal effort led to the men’s release.
Mitchell said the term “massacre” is appropriate given the unprovoked attacks suffered by many black residents and the high loss of life.
The term “race riot” has a long history of use.
Black journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett traveled to Arkansas to interview black men on death row. His reporting refuted the idea that black residents plotted a rebellion, instead portraying farmers as organizing to try to improve their economic fortunes. His work, published in 1920, was called “The Arkansas Race Riot”.
Mitchell said scholars worked to change the language used to describe racial violence in Arkansas and elsewhere during this time, including author Grif Stockley, who used the term “racial killings” in the title of his book about Elaine, first published in 2001.
The use of the term riot implies “there is blame that can be cast on both sides,” Mitchell said.
For the many black citizens who faced violent mobs in 1919, “not only did they not know they were going to be attacked, but often the people who were supposed to protect them were part of the mob attacking them,” Mitchell said.
The number of people killed in the Elaine massacre remains unknown, Mitchell said.
“We think it’s over 100, but we have counts that are as high as 800, just over 800, and we have counts that are as low as 15,” Mitchell said.
White, a resident of Elaine, thinks the total is even higher.
“No one has really come to see Elaine and sat down with old people who know this, who’ve been through this stuff,” White said.
Michael Wilson is director, co-writer and producer of an upcoming film, “We Have Just Begun,” which includes interviews with descendants and others.
“I call the event a massacre and a dispossession, because of the clear origin of the conflict in the efforts of the white ruling class to maintain total control,” Wilson said in an email.
In Oklahoma, commissions have been convened to study racially motivated violence in Tulsa.
An effort announced in 2017 as the Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission changed its name after commission leaders rejected the term “race riot”, calling it the Tulsa Massacre Centennial Commission instead , as she became officially known.
“I want Arkansas to take Tulsa’s position on what happened in Phillips County and open a commission and more importantly fund that commission to bring in experts in the field and start trying to find people’s remains so they can determine what really happened,” Mitchell said.
Jenny Watson, storage and delivery manager for the University of Oklahoma Libraries, said in an email that a metadata justice task force at the university had previously successfully requested the Library of Congress to use “Tulsa Race Massacre” as the subject rather than “Tulsa Race Riot.”
“Elaine Race Riot” remains a cross-reference in the Library of Congress catalog, said Ryan, the library’s spokesperson. An online search on the Library of Congress website also shows the term “race riot” in descriptions used for many library holdings relating to the massacre.
Watson said the Library of Congress subject headings “are considered the definitive authority records in the United States.” Authority records are “tools librarians use to label their materials and help users find materials in catalogs,” Watson said.
As part of the effort to change the subject heading, the University of Arkansas Libraries was asked to help with the submission to the Library of Congress, Watson said.
Melanie Griffin, director of special collections services at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, provided three citations in support of the University of Oklahoma proposal, said Kelsey Lovewell Lippard, director of public relations for UA libraries.