Eugene “Butch” Flenaugh, Jr. came back home to Phillips County, Arkansas about five years ago to care for the family’s farm in the Mississippi River Delta bottomland. Today, when he looks out over the 400-plus acres that his family owns, he’s often nostalgic about the stories his father told him when the entire Delta River flatland was tilled and owned by Black farmers and sharecroppers as far as the eye could see. After World War I, he says, many came back from fighting overseas and began to purchase the flood-prone land along the Mississippi River basin that white farmers thought was inferior.
The Flenaughs’ property, nearby Holly Grove, and the former all-Black towns and communities date back more than two centuries. Flenaugh and every Black farmer, former sharecropper, and landowner across the Delta whisper about the missing, lost, or sham property deeds at the Phillips County Courthouse at the county seat in Helena. According to state officials, the county is one of just three in the state that don’t have public online access to court and property records.
All those deeds link to the ghosts of the Elaine Massacre of 1919, which is by far the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas and possibly the bloodiest racial conflict in U.S. history.
The events in Elaine, almost 103 years ago, stemmed from the state’s deepest roots of white supremacy, tense race relations, and growing concerns about labor unions. In September 1919, a shooting incident that occurred at a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union—a Black-led organization that sought to improve life for Black farmers and communities in the state—escalated into mob violence by white people in Elaine and the surrounding area.
Although the exact number is unknown, estimates of the number of African Americans killed range in the hundreds. Only five white people lost their lives, according to records from the time. Even so, 12 Black men were arrested in the wake of the white-led massacre and sentenced to death for murder charges. The Elaine 12, as they came to be known, became part of a precedent-setting legal case with nearly as long an impact as the massacre itself.
Flenaugh says his family’s land goes back to his great-grandfather, Cebron Johnson (Hall), who in the 1880s left more than 30,000 acres in Monroe and Philips counties to descendants and their families just east of the former all-Black town of Holly Grove. That land, according to Butch’s father, Eugene, Sr., was owned by the family prior to the massacre as Black farmers emerged from slavery in the late 19th century.
“This is part of that 30,000 [acres],” says the younger Flenaugh, a well-built, 50-year-old farmer, as he looks out over property that is part forest thicket, part nature preserve, and part family graveyard.
What happened to the Johnson land is a fate that befell countless Black farms during the early 20th century: Land was taken through outright theft, intimidation, violence, and fraudulent property records, with the end result of robbing generations of Black families from the inherited wealth that comes from land ownership. And at a time when the current administration has committed to advancing racial equity, and efforts to provide debt relief to Black farmers have been stymied by racist lawsuits, the scale of violent land theft is coming to light in a powerful, galvanizing way.