A historical marker was unveiled Friday at Little Rock National Cemetery noting where a black sharecropper is buried who helped bring a labor union to Phillips County in eastern Arkansas, leading to what would be the bloodiest racial uprising in state history. Frank Moore, a veteran of World War I, would be convicted for his alleged role in the deaths of five white men, and was later the namesake of a precedent-setting case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court that led to his release.
The Elaine massacre occurred after police interrupted a union meeting on Sept. 30, 1919 as about 100 black sharecroppers were organizing legal efforts to get fair treatment. A shootout occurred during the meeting and a white officer was killed, while and another was wounded.
Amid rumors of a black insurrection, a responding group from throughout the region killed black men, women and children in the community. It's unknown how many died, but the estimate is between 100 and 237. Four other white men also died in the violence.
University of Arkansas at Little Rock associate history professor Brian Mitchell has been overseeing research with his students about the uprising and what happened to those involved. During Friday’s ceremony, he said the sharecroppers, many returning from serving in World War I, demanded to be treated with the same respect as any other returning veterans.
"When they went to their farms, they were cheated just as they had been before the war, and instead of just returning to work and putting their heads down and pushing those plows, they stood up, and they stood in unison, and they hired an attorney. No, they didn’t go out and have an insurrection as the newspapers will write, they hired an attorney because they wanted to do things the right way, the American way," Mitchell said.
But the long-established hierarchy of the south would not accept that, he said.
"This was seen as something that was intolerable. This was something that provoked violence and rage. This is something that cost many people their lives and, to this day, we will not know until money is set aside by the state to go out and search for these people, we will not know how many people died that week."
Moore and 11 other black men were convicted of first-degree murder for their alleged roles in the deaths of the white men and sentenced to be executed. In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions, saying in the Moore v. Dempsey case that the mob-dominated trials deprived the defendants of their due process rights.
"This was one of the first victories that the NAACP will have, and one of the first national blows that will be struck against lynching in America," Mitchell said.
Though Moore and the others were eventually set free, Mitchell said Moore was a broken man. He moved to Chicago, "where he died a security guard with no one knowing the role he had played in history."
Moore’s body was shipped to Little Rock in 1932, where, as a veteran, he was laid to rest at National Cemetery.
During Mitchell’s research leading up to the 100th anniversary of the Elaine massacre, he realized that Moore was buried in Arkansas, which began the process with the state of getting the historical marker placed.
"It’s important that we remember the meaning and significance of the stand that those men took. It wasn’t just about cotton, it wasn’t about money, it was about respect, and it was about what it means to be an American," Mitchell said.
Work will now progress to place markers for other members of the Elaine 12. The next one, Mitchell said, will honor Rev. Joseph Knox.
Knox’s granddaughter Dorothy Neal was at Friday’s ceremony. In an interview afterward, Neal said she has heard her whole life about what he had endured.
"He was just trying to help bring the union about so they could get equal pay for their cotton," Neal said.
After being released, Knox and his family moved to Cotton Plant, Ark., where Neal was born. She contacted Mitchell after learning of the recent research and is pleased that her grandfather will be remembered.
"It just warms your heart to know that he’s not forgotten, even though a lot of people don’t know him, didn’t know anything about him just until lately," Neal said.
The Division of Arkansas Heritage has erected markers throughout the state to memorialize the victims of racial violence. The marker for Frank Moore is the tenth to be placed since the program began last year.