(1892 – 1963)
- Founded the Progressive Farmers and Household Workers Union of America
- Worked for Santa Fe Railway for forty years
- Member of Topeka Kansas NAACP
The Elaine Massacre
Robert Lee Hill founded the Progressive Farmers and Household Workers Union of America in Arkansas in 1919. The founding of the union led to the Elaine Massacre that left somewhere between 250 to 850 black people dead and four or five white men dead. The Elaine Massacre is part of the Red Summer of 1919. The Red Summer consisted of numerous race riots in various cities and towns in America. The Elaine Massacre also led to the landmark Moore vs. Dempsey trial that will solidify the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.
Robert L. Hill was born in 1892 or 1898  to working class parents. He married in 1916  before going off to war. Hill was a World War I veteran . His time served in the military, more than likely, led to his militancy. 370,000 blacks that fought in World War I , when they returned home, they were not afraid to stand up for their rights. Black WWI vets let many armed resistance movements in 1919 in major cities. When Hill returned home, he worked for Valley Planting Company.
Even though Hill was not a sharecropper himself, he felt called to do something to help the sharecropper’s plight. A sharecropper, also known as a tenant farmer, is a person that rents a farm from a land owner. The sharecropper then lives on credit from the landlord until the harvest arrives. The landowner and tenant then agree to share the crop. The tenant gets a percentage of the crop, and so does the landowner. The farmer can then pay off the debt to the landowner and have enough profit to last the winter after the sale of the crop.
Unfortunately, in the southern cotton industry, this ideal scenario never plays out. Often sharecroppers were illiterate and uneducated so they could not evaluate the books to ensure they got their share of the crop. The landlord would not let the sharecropper see the books even if the sharecropper had an education. Because blacks had no legal recourse, landlords would confiscate the entire crop. Ultimately, the sharecropper stayed in perpetual debt.
Not only did debt keep black people in the cotton industry, so did the law. The black codes made it illegal for a black man to be without a job for an extended period. Most companies outside the cotton industry did not hire black people. The person would be forced into a work camp if convicted of vagrancy, not having a job. The work camp would force inmates to pick cotton.
The need for a union was evident. 1919 was one of the worst times for the Labor Movement. The Russian Revolution happened in 1917 and by 1918 Russia was a communist country. The revolution began as a prolonged labor strike that turned into a riot. When the Russian army was called in to stop the riot, the army joined the rebels. The Tsar had to abdicate and the world’s first communist republic was born. Many American capitalists were afraid the same thing could happen in America.
The labor movement was also not welcoming to black people. The American Federation of Labor’s (AFL) 1919 convention declared the job of the AFL was to protect the jobs of “native-born white men” and upheld the restrictions on blacks joining unions.  This declaration ultimately hurt the labor movement. Blacks in the North broke strike lines to work at factories. Blacks were used to dilute the power of the Union. The racial strife in the North can be traced back to fear of blacks crossing picket lines.
The cotton industry expected a downturn in 1919. World War I ended in 1918 and the southern cotton industry had been supplying cotton for the allied troops. The demand for cotton from Europe was expected to decrease severely. The planters were especially wary of giving sharecroppers a fair shake in 1919.
Despite all the adversity, Hill was able to create nine lodges of his union across Arkansas. It was at a meeting of the lodge at Hoop Sur that the trouble began. On September 30, 1919, the Union had a meeting with one hundred people on how to organize for collective bargaining. In attendance at the meeting were men, women, and children.
Hill expected to be harassed by the local plutocrats. He had six patrolmen stationed outside the Hoop Sur church.The Missouri Pacific (MoPac) Railway had a private police force that worked in conjunction with the sheriff’s office. An informant tipped a group of patrolmen that a union meeting was happening in Hoop Sur. An altercation ensued, and the parties exchanged gunfire. The church was burned later that night to destroy evidence of return fire. One MoPac agent died, and a sheriff’s deputy was wounded.
The blacks of Hoop Sur decided to prepare for retaliation. Many men took up arms to defend the residential area known as Helena. The sheriff organized a posse of five hundred to one thousand men  outside the courthouse. The attack from whites happened at mid-morning October 1st. The black resistance was able to hold off the onslaught, and only 15 to 20 blacks died on that morning. The resistance accomplished an incredible task that day and will go down in history for their bravery.
The Governor decided to call in reinforcements. The Federal Government was afraid of a socialist uprising. The government allowed the Governor to bypass calling in the National Guard and gave him authority over 500 trained federal troops from Camp Pike. The intervention of federal troops caused the carnage.
The federal troops were responsible for most of the killing . The soldiers carried machine guns, and white mobs from all over the South supplemented the force. Many unarmed blacks hid in the woods and were hunted down like dogs. Here are some of the quotes from whites that witnessed the massacre.
“[The white mobs and troops] shot and killed men, women, and children without regard to whether they were guilty or innocent of a connection with killing anybody or whether members of a union or not.”
“Vigilantes killed a black woman pulled her dress over her head, and left her body on a road, another brutal lesson of what happened when [blacks] lost their place”
“Several hundred (whites) … began to hunt negroes and shooting them as they came to them.”
“Committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes, or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.” 
“When finally the soldiers’ ammunition was exhausted, and their liquor ran low, they withdrew from the scenes of their sins against humanity, the remaining negroes gathered up their scattered dead and with slow, awkward step marched to their little churchyards and there said their simple rites over the bullet-riddled bodies of loved ones.”
In the face of federal troops blacks still resisted. An eyewitness account from L.S. Dunaway reports a black dentist was arrested for his connection to the union. He and his three brothers were put in the back of two police cars. When the cars were transporting the men to jail, the envoy was ambushed. One of the police officers was shot with a shotgun. The other officers immediately killed the four suspects. 
The black resistance was not well documented. Much of the reason for such little information is the black men that were captured then freed were on extended furlough. They did not get a pardon. Furlough meant the governor could send them back to prison at any time. Also, after they saw the carnage inflicted on their families after their capture, they wanted to make sure the people that survived would not be attacked. No one wanted to be seen as bragging about shooting whites.
The fact that over 250 men were captured alive proves that the resistance was formidable. If the troops could simply annihilate the resistance, they would. There were too many instances of black towns being burned to the ground such as Rosewood, FL, and Tulsa, OK. The five hundred federal troops must have evaluated particular encampments and decided that forcing the rebels to surrender would reduce the loss of life. One corporal is reported to have died in the skirmishing. There is one quote by L.S. Dunaway that attest to the bravery of these men.
“There were those among [Blacks] that openly defied officers, citizens and soldiers alike, until death cut short their futile stand against the whites. ”
Unfortunately, after most of the resistance was captured or killed, blacks were killed indiscriminately in Elaine, AR. There are reports of black men being shot while running away from white mobs. Many eyewitness accounts report the killing of women and children. The troops often opened fire on unarmed civilians with machine guns. The exact number of blacks killed will never be known. Most of the bodies were burned in large pits to allow for quick disposal.  Many blacks fled Arkansas and created new lives in the North and West.
There is no record of Robert Hill participating in the fighting. However, there was a special search made for him. He was able to escape to Boley, OK an all-black town in Oklahoma then moved to South Dakota to evade capture. . He finally settled near Topeka, KS.
Topeka police captured Hill in 1920. He had written a friend in Arkansas to let people know he was safe. The friend asked to meet him in Kansas City, MO. Hill agreed, and the friend tipped off the authorities.
The NAACP took the defense of Hill. After a prolonged legal battle, the NAACP prevented Hills extradition to Arkansas. Hill took an assumed name and worked for the Santa Fe Railway for forty years. In gratitude to the NAACP, he served in the Topeka NAACP for many years. He died in 1963.
Most of the black resistance was captured by October 3. A few hundred people were put into makeshift jails to await trial.  The result of the original trial cause 12 men to be sentenced to death, 273 to pleas for second-degree murder, and a few had the case dismissed. Details on the trail and the landmark Moore vs. Dempsey case will be in next week’s Leader analysis.
No transcripts or recordings could be found of his speeches. However, L.S. Dunaway said, “Hill’s influence over the less intelligent Darkey was something marvelous.” According to Dunaway Hill said this:
“He had them believing that by standing together the negroes could make the white people divide with them in the matter of land ownership, and that if a peaceable division could not be obtained, then the negroes, outnumbering the whites about ten to one in that section, would “rise up and march on the whites with high-powered rifles and shotguns, thus showing the strength of the colored race.” p 107 
For the sake of analysis, the statement’s truth will be assumed. The statement expresses an Orange level understanding of the situation of black people. Hill understands the underlying problem is economic, and once others realize that the real issue is money, poor whites and blacks are natural allies. The statement shows that Hill ultimately saw the struggle beyond racial lines.
Hill obviously was not against using physical force to protect members of his movement. He also made it clear to his followers that they had numbers in the town of Elaine and that they should not be intimidated by white people. The use of physical force is a precarious subject in black empowerment. The Elaine Massacre goes to illustrate this point. It is hard to speculate on what would happen if the black people of Hoop Sur did not have guards for the September 30 the meeting. Maybe the whites would have simply broken up the meeting, which there is little historical precedence. More than likely they would have hung Hill. It is also most probable they would have burned Helena to the ground if there had been no resistance on October 1st. The white mob of 500 to 1,000 people did not come to take six suspects peaceably. However, the result was the killing of 250 to 850 blacks in southeast Arkansas. Ultimately, white people have the firepower and numbers nationally. A large scale attack or defense will produce an outcome similar to the Elaine Massacre.
- Krugler, David (2-26-2015) America’s Forgotten Mass Lynching. from http://www.thedailybeast.com
- (5-25-2012) Causes of the 1919 Race Riots from https://socialistworker.org/
- Stockley, Grif (08-01-2016) Elaine Massacre from http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net
- Johnson, J (02-27-2013) Evanescence The Elaine Massacre from http://greenmountainsreview.com/
- Widell, Robert (08-2002) Blood In Their Eyes Review from http://www.h-net.org
- Dunaway, L.S. (1925) What a Preacher Saw Through a Keyhole in Arkansas
- (May 2016) Never Forget America’s Mass Lynching from https://blackmainstreet.net/
- (05-07-2011) Race Riots of 1919 from http://www.globalsecurity.org/
- Gruber, John (02-26-2015) Robert Lee Hill from http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net