Americans are learning more and more about their country’s tragic racial history — about the myriad Black lives and livelihoods that have been destroyed and stolen, from the days of slavery to the death of George Floyd. But how, as part of any effort at conciliation, can our nation place a value on what has been taken?
The example of one little-known event — the Elaine, Arkansas massacre of 1919 — offers some insight.
While the Tulsa riot has garnered more national attention, most recently ignited by President Trump’s campaign rally there, the events that transpired in Elaine in late September and early October 1919 are no less significant. The context was a conflict over freedom of contract. White people in Elaine had long been the privileged first buyers of Black farmers’ crops, primarily cotton, at prices well below the market rate. The Black farmers, led by returning veterans from World War I, sought to unionize and establish conditions where they could sell their crops to the highest bidder, as any other farmer would.
U.S. soldiers and local vigilantes responded to the “insurrection” by indiscriminately killing at least 200 Black people, including women and children. After the massacre -- under the auspices of “southern justice” -- the Black victims of violence were brought to court and charged as perpetrators. Twelve tenant farmers who survived the massacre received death sentences, and 75 others, all sharecroppers, received prison sentences.
All too often, the economic consequences of such events are difficult to document -- records of details such as land ownership are missing, some having been destroyed. But the case of Elaine is unusual: Thanks to the efforts of the courageous journalist Ida Wells-Barnett, it is possible to calculate the financial damages to Black residents and the financial benefits to the White mob.
Wells-Barnett came to Elaine shortly after the massacre to report on the unjust incarceration and sentencing of the imprisoned farmers, particularly those on Death Row. Her pamphlet, “The Arkansas Race Riot,” tells the whole story of what occurred, complete with highly detailed data on the property lost to the Black farmers due to the massacre and its aftermath. Working in the community, she identified the specific farmers and the exact acreage they farmed, and how much cotton and corn they produced, providing the basis for a direct estimation of monetary damages.
At the time, Wells-Barnett calculated that the 12 tenant farmers had been denied any proceeds from their crops on more than 350 acres. The value of cotton alone on that land exceeded $85,000. Adding the animals and farm equipment pushed the value to more than $100,000 -- equivalent to more than $6 million today, or $500,000 per family, based solely on what was stolen in 1919. Wells-Barnett also gauged that the other 75 jailed sharecroppers were robbed of a cotton crop worth $1000 each, based on the worst sharecropping agreements in Arkansas at the time. That’s $60,000 each in today’s terms.