and the Awakening of Black America
Life for African-Americans in Phillips County was better compared to nearby areas. Much like a city, Phillips County attracted a high number of African-Americans in search of a better life. But in the 1890s, "Jim Crow" came to eastern Arkansas (it was the onset of the "Nadir of U.S. History" for African-Americans, 1890-1940), and then the Great War. Cotton prices were up, but African-American sharecroppers didn't receive much of the financial windfall as did white cotton growers. The only reason why African-American sharecroppers received even a sliver of the revenues from cotton was mostly due to the fact that there were fewer African-American sharecroppers in the county; many had migrated to northern states.
The population of Phillips County during World War I was 45,000, with 75% of that population African-American; African-Americans made up 27% of the total population of Arkansas. While there were many sharecroppers, there was also a thriving African-American middle class. While African-Americans were the clear majority in terms of population, the county's whites controlled the politics, economics, and the law.
Ware was at his lodge meeting at a country church, and there was ample security around the building. Two hours after the meeting started, a car with a white deputy, a white railroad detective, and an African-American passenger stopped. Although all in the church claim that the two whites started firing on the building, that didn't stop the area's whites from assuming that the African-Americans fired their weapons first. During the exchange of fire, the railroad detective was killed, and the deputy was wounded in the knee. The wounded deputy and the African-American passenger ran away from the car.
Another car driven by a white citizen came by, and it was fired upon; just thirty minutes later, many whites arrived at the scene. They saw that the railroad detective was shot through the stomach, and the car was riddled with bullets. Two days later, a white mob burned down the church, which also eliminated the proof that the church was severely damaged by gunfire. The shooting set off a panic among the whites of Phillips County; to them, a "Negro Plot" was being hatched. They called for help from whites from adjoining counties, as well as the Arkansas militia. As a result, a large number of armed-and-angry whites invaded Phillips County.
In the aftermath, forced confessions "revealed" a planned rebellion against the white citizens of Phillips County. Even though the riot was packaged as a Nat Turner-like revolt, there was no evidence at all in support, despite all major U.S. newspapers clamoring otherwise.
Ed Ware escaped to Louisiana, but was extradited back to Arkansas where he was executed. Dozens of African-Americans had their basic Constitutional rights violated when they were convicted in "Show Trials"; maximum sentences were given, including eleven executions. The planned African-American "Insurrection" was a figment of the Phillips County's white citizens. "Show Trials" such as these became the tool for whites to try and contain the freedom of their African-American neighbors.
At least white politicians in big Northern cities learned a lesson from "Red Summer", June-October, 1919. After early-October, any hint of white mobs trying to incite a riot against African-Americans were put down hard by police and/or state militia. But in the Rural South, nothing changed; the lynching of African-Americans continued unabated.
There was one reaction from the federal government to "Red Summer": Congress overrode President Woodrow Wilson's veto on the Volstead Act (Prohibition) . . . their conclusion was that if there was less liquor, there would also be less "trouble" from African-Americans . . .
Below: a short documentary on the massacre, hosted by Ossie Davis . . .