Excerpt: “American Congo” by Nan Elizabeth Woodruff

In 1921, freedom fighter William Pickens described the Mississippi River Valley as the “American Congo.” In American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta, Nan Elizabeth Woodruff argues that the African Congo under Belgium’s King Leopold II is an apt metaphor for the Delta of the early twentieth century. Both wore the face of science, progressivism, and benevolence, yet were underwritten by brutal labor conditions, violence, and terror. As in the Congo, she argues, the Delta began with the promise of empire: U.S. capitalists on the lookout for new prospects cleared the vast Delta swamps. With the subsequent emergence of a wealthy planter class, the promise of untold riches, and a largely black labor force, America had its Congo.

American Congo is now available in paperback from UNC Press. In the following excerpt, Woodruff examines the activities before and after the gruesome events of October 1919 in Phillips County, Arkansas, when black sharecroppers’ attempts to pursue legal claims against landowners met with violence from the white landowners and public officials who had a stake in maintaining the status quo—and who could also, it turns out, control the official story about what happened.

The following is an excerpt from American Congo (pp. 84-86, 91-93):


Members of the PFHUA [Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America] decided in the fall of 1919 to sue their landlords for their fair share of the largest cotton crop in southern history. They secured the legal services of Little Rock attorney Ulysses. S. Bratton. Of all the firms for them to contact, that of Bratton represented, from the planters’ perspective, the worst one imaginable. Bratton, a Republican, had served as an assistant U.S. attorney during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, and earlier had successfully prosecuted Phillips County planters for peonage. Bratton was also known as a supporter of black people’s efforts to secure their rights. In September, a cropper from Ratio approached Bratton to represent sixty-eight PFHUA members who worked on the northern-owned Theodore Fauthauer plantation, where the manager had refused to issue itemized statements of accounts and had sold their cotton without any compensation. The croppers agreed to pay a lawyer’s fee and to meet in Ratio on Wednesday, October 1, with Bratton’s son, Ocier Bratton, an accountant who had just returned from the war in France.[1]

On September 30, Bratton’s son traveled by train to Ratio to meet with [union founder Robert L.] Hill and other lodge members regarding their cases. Bratton had begun a journey that would take him down an unexpectedly violent and horrible path. Twenty-five to thirty black men and women met him by the side of the railroad, where Bratton sat and heard them one by one as they told how much cotton they had planted and how much they expected to make. Some men threatened not to bother picking their cotton, but Bratton urged them to harvest it and to keep an account of the weight. He asked each one to sign a contract and to make a down payment for his father’s services. Most paid five dollars, though two put down fifty, and another twenty-five dollars.[2]

After he had been there for about forty minutes, six to eight white men with guns rode up on horses. Bratton observed that “the Negroes were surprised at this turn, and some of the women, there being several who had cases like the men, were pitiful in their abject terror; in fact I was talking to one when the men came up and she was crying as she talked to me. These Negroes, I do not believe, knew or contemplated any of the things which were so shortly to follow.” The heavily armed men told Bratton the meeting was over and then took him nearby where six cars were parked that were surrounded by about thirty men. They demanded to know why he had met with Mr. Fauthauer’s workers without consulting his plantation manager. The men then drove Bratton to Elaine where an angry mob awaited, shouting threats of lynching. His captors ushered him to a brick store, chaining him to two black men from Ratio. The guards searched him and then waved an IWW [Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”)] newspaper and another union newspaper in front of him, screaming, “Isn’t he a pretty son-of-a-bitch; he’s the ring leader.” A deputy sheriff told Bratton not to worry, that he would protect him—and sent him on a train to Helena. At some point, Bratton learned that there had been a shooting at Hoop Spur, about three miles outside of Elaine, between a number of black people and some white men. Once on the train to Helena, Bratton heard the guards tell everyone to put their heads down as they passed Hoop Spur. Bratton remained in the Helena jail for thirty days.[3]

While Bratton was meeting with sharecroppers in Ratio, another group of union members, including men, women, and children, had gathered in the nearby Hoop Spur Church to discuss hiring his father as their representative. Several armed black men stood guard outside the church. During the meeting, shots were fired into the church. The guards returned the fire, killing W. A. Adkins, a white special agent of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. He was accompanied by Deputy Sheriff Charles Pratt and Ed Collins, a black prisoner who was a “trusty” from the Phillips County jail. After the shooting, Collins ran to nearby Wabash to get help. When Phillips County sheriff Frank F. Kitchens received news of the shoot-out, he immediately deputized a posse of three hundred men, organized them into squads under the leadership of World War I veterans fresh from combat, and sent them to Elaine. Mere hours after Adkins was killed, planters burned down the Hoop Spur Church and headed for the fields in search of the union members.

Elaine planters had immediate reinforcements. By the morning of October 1, from six hundred to one thousand landowners, managers, sheriffs, and veterans from all over the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta, including the Helena American Legion, brought their guns to combat the insurrection. Many men came from nearby Clarendon, Marianna, and Marvell, Arkansas, and joined with those from Lula, Tunica, Friars Point, and Clarksdale from across the river in Mississippi to police Helena’s city streets on the evening of October 1.[4]

Terrified of what the local white people called an insurrection, county judge H. D. Moore and the sheriff’s office in Helena contacted Governor Charles H. Brough and requested assistance. Brough then received permission from the secretary of the Army to send in federal troops. All telephone lines from Elaine were cut.[5] On the morning of October 2, Governor Brough personally escorted 583 federal troops, including a twelve-gun machine-gun battalion, that had just returned from France. Some members of that battalion had fought in the Second Battle of the Marne and represented what one writer has called “a rolling killing machine.” Colonel Isaac C. Jenks, a World War I veteran who had earlier fought against Native Americans in the West, commanded the troops. In an efffort to prevent the killing of white people, Jenks, upon arriving in Elaine, immediately ordered the disarming of all black and white people, and sent all of the white women and children by train into Helena. He ordered his troops to shoot on sight those black people who refused to surrender. Jenks and his troops then pursued the black people, covering a two hundred mile radius.

[. . . ]

In the report Colonel Jenks filed on his mission to Elaine, he mentioned that only two black people were murdered, while he had lost one corporal, with another soldier wounded. His report was devoid of the actual details of his troops’ actions once they had arrived on October 2, nor did he describe how the troops had disarmed the white mobs or the black insurgents. [. . . ] Final estimates of the number of black people killed have ranged from two hundred to 856. [. . . ]

Faced with the reality of untold numbers of dead black people, and of emerging accounts of atrocities committed by the white mobs and federal troops, prominent officials and businessmen moved quickly on the evening of October 2 to develop their version of events to present to the press and the public. With Governor Brough’s support, they appointed themselves to a Committee of Seven. Its members included Sebastian Straub, acting sheriff of Phillips County; H. D. Moore, county judge; Frank F. Kitchens, sheriff of Phillips County; J. G. Knight, mayor of Helena; and E. C. Hornor and T. W. Keese, prominent Helena planters and businessmen. E. M. Allen, real estate dealer, president of the Helena Businessmen’s League, and treasurer of the Gerard B. Lambert Company, served as chairman. By October 6, they had constructed a narrative of events and an explanation of the causes of the “insurrection” that would appear in the nation’s white newspapers. Their efforts to prevent the truth of the massacre from becoming public was aided by the self-censorship of Delta newspapers.[6]

The committee insisted that “the present trouble with the negroes in Phillips County is not a race riot. It is a deliberately planned insurrection of the negroes against the whites: directed by a union “established for the purpose of banding negroes together for the killing of white people.” In their view, Robert Hill had misled poor, illiterate sharecroppers in order to steal the high profits that workers had made from their wartime crops, especially the money they had invested in Liberty Bonds.[7] Promising them land, the narrative continued, Hill encouraged the sharecroppers to murder their landowners and managers. Couriers called “Paul Reveres” had been selected by union leaders to spread word of the uprising. The committee expressed “amazement at the definiteness with which the coup had been planned and organized with prospective victims’ names set down in writing and a certain date selected for the slaughter.” It noted that the union’s slogan was “We Battle for Our Rights.”[8]

According to the committee, Hill had also told the sharecroppers of Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane’s plan to provide homesteads for veterans in cut-over lands, insisting the plan had not been carried out for black as it had for white solders.Negro soldiers at Elaine, said the committee, had sold their discharge papers to Hill for fifty to one hundred dollars, believing their service in the military had qualified them for forty acres of government land.[9] The committee expressed shock and dismay at the ingratitude shown by some of their oldest workers: “A remarkable thing about the development is that some of the ringleaders were found to be the oldest and most reliable negroes whom we have known for the past 15 years. He had made them believe that he had been entrusted with a sacred mission which had to be carried out regardless of the consequences.” So far “as the oppression is concerned many of the negroes involved own mules, horses, cattle, and automobiles and clear money every year on their crops after expenses are paid.” Local leaders also blamed the Chicago Defender for encouraging sharecroppers to demand better working conditions and political equality. The Hoop Spur incident, according to the committee, occurred when three men en route to arrest a local bootlegger had stumbled upon the union meeting, prompting the black people to fire on them. The committee stressed the history of good race relations in Phillips County, noting that the county had never had a lynching and praising local white people for their restraint in quelling the insurrection: they had relied on the legal system and federal troops to bring the guilty to justice rather than simply lynching them.[10]


From American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta, by Nan Elizabeth Woodruff. Copyright © 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Nan Elizabeth Woodruff is professor of modern United States history at Pennsylvania State University.

  1. [1]This entire account is taken from O. S. Bratton to U. S. Bratton, November 5, 1919, Waskow Papers.
  2. [2]Ibid.
  3. [3]Ibid.
  4. [4]Grif Stockley, Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2001), pp. xxiii; Helena World, October 2, 1919, in J. W. Butts Collection, Helena Public Library, Helena, Arkansas; Jeannie Whayne, “Low Villains and Wickedness in High Places: Race and Class in the Elaine Riots,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 58 (Autumn 1999): 285-313.
  5. [5]On Moore and the cutting of the phone lines, see article, n.d., in TCF, 10:0857. On the Elaine Massacre, see Waskow, From Race Riot to Sit-In; J. W. Butts and Dorothy James, “The Underlying Causes of the Elaine Race Riot of 1919,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 20 (Spring 1961): 95-104; O. A. Rodgers, “The Elaine Riots of 1919,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 20 (Spring 1961): 142-150; B. Boren McCool, Union, Reaction, and Riot: A Biography of a Race Riot (Memphis: Memphis State University Bureau of Social Research, June 1970); M. Langley Biegert, “Legacy of Resistance: Uncovering the History of Collective Ation by Black Agricultural Workers in Central East Arkansas from the 1860s to the 1930s,” Journal of Social History (Fall 1993): 73-99; Jeannie Whayne, “Low Villains and Wickedness in High Places”; Kieran Taylor, “We Have Just Begun,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 58 (Autumn 1999): 265-284. The best accounts of the legal struggles and their implications are Richard C. Cortner, A Mob Intent on Death: The NAACP and the Arkansas Rio Cases (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), and Stockley, Blood in Their Eyes. A trusty is a prisoner who has won the trust of officers with his good behavior and is allowed to work outside of the cell in various privileged jobs.
  6. [6]Grif Stockley argues that Brough “rolled over” to support the Committee of Seven in its efforts to publicize its narrative of events. He supposedly secured from these men a pledge that no black people would be lynched. Stockley, Blood in Their Eyes, p. 65.
  7. [7]This entire account is taken from the Helena World, October 6-7, 1919.
  8. [8]Ibid.
  9. [9]It is entirely possible that the sharecroppers knew of Lane’s program, for the Southern Alluvial Land Association supported and publicized the program all over the Delta. Engineers in charge of land reclamation had claimed that 7,000 acres of cut-over land existed in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta and insisted these lands be used for the veteran land program. See SL, November 16, 1918, p.23; November 23, 1918, p.26; and December 21, 1918, p.24. see also Anne Wintermute Lane and Louise Herrick Wall, eds., The Letters of Franklin K. Lane: Personal and Political (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922), pp. 285-290.
  10. [10]This view was also reflected in the press and in the government reports that were written. For quotes, see Helena World, October 2-7, 1919.