Newswise — A University of Arkansas at Little Rock history professor and his graduate students are making headway into a mystery 99 years in the making. 

Dr. Brian Mitchell and his graduate students in the Intro to Public History Class have followed a trail of clues through cemeteries, public records, and databases as part of their search to discover what happened to a dozen black men wrongfully sentenced to death in a time of great racial turmoil in the aftermath of the 1919 Elaine Massacre. 

“The goal of the project was to run biographies and locate the graves of all members of the Elaine 12,” Mitchell said. “It is a significant project because up until this point, we have only known their names and haven’t known what happens after their release from jail after they are on death row. None of their burial locations were known. The first facet was to do research on the lives of the 12, identifying who they were, milestones in their lives, and ultimately how they died and where they were buried.”

With the centennial anniversary of the Elaine Massacre quickly coming up next year, Mitchell has devoted much of his recent research to uncovering the mysteries of one of the deadliest race riots in U.S. history. Graduate students working on the project include Kathryn Bryles, Jessica Chavez, Kary Goetz, Andrew Mcclain, Jessica Parker, Alex Soulard, and Kathryn Thompson.

The Elaine 12 were a group of black sharecroppers who received some of the harshest sentences from all-white juries in the wave of quick, unjust criminal prosecutions of black people that followed the Elaine Massacre. The men were convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

“The Elaine 12 were sharecroppers who were being cheated,” Mitchell said. “They were meeting secretly in hopes of raising enough money to sue the plantation owners. Many of these sharecroppers were returning World War I veterans who believed they had the rights of other American citizens. When the plantation owners got wind of the notion they were going to be sued, they decided to intimidate the members of the union who were meeting secretly.”

This led to the events of the Elaine Massacre. In September 1919, representatives of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America met with approximately 100 black  farmers at a church to discuss unionizing. When a group of white men interrupted the meeting, two white men were shot. The sheriff organized a posse. A mob of an estimated 500 to 1,000 white people stormed through Phillips County, killing black men, women, and children on sight. The convictions of the Elaine 12 were overturned in the landmark ruling, Moore vs. Dempsey, by the Supreme Court in 1923.

“The NAACP heard about the case and hired a team of attorneys,” Mitchell said. “The case represents one of the first major victories that the NAACP would have in the Supreme Court.”

One of the key pieces of evidence, according to Mitchell, was the testimony of white men who participated in the Elaine Massacre.

“There was testimony that the men (Elaine 12) were beaten, and the mob outside had greatly influenced the court,” Mitchell said. “Either you give them the death sentence, or we will drag them outside and kill them. All of this insured the Elaine 12 could not have had a fair trial.”

Following their release from prison, most members of the Elaine 12 fled the state and changed their names. Many of them lived the rest of their lives in exile, fearing for their safety, with their family members never knowing what happened to them.

“We weren’t able to locate the graves for all of the Elaine 12,” Mitchell said. “We believe the missing ones may have used fake names for the remainder of their lives. We know Robert Hill used the name Robert Smith for a long portion of his life. On two occasions, there were attempts to abduct him because Arkansas placed a bounty on him. We believe many of these people believed their lives were still in peril after being released from jail. Very few of them stayed in Arkansas. Most of them fled.”

Through their diligent research, Mitchell and his students have discovered the location of six graves of the Elaine 12. Graves were found in Kansas, Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio. Only two of the six graves are located within the state of Arkansas. Frank Moore is buried in the National Cemetery in Little Rock, and Joseph Knox also is buried in Arkansas. 

Mitchell also is raising money through a foundation, Finding the Elaine 12, to place markers on the graves of the Elaine 12 and historical markers in the cemeteries where they are buried. The foundation has already raised more than $8,000.

Donations can be made online by selecting College of Arts, Letters, and Sciences in the drop down box and then typing in “Elaine 12” in the Fund Other box. Checks can be made out to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with “Elaine 12” written in the descriptive information line. Checks can be mailed to University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Office of Alumni and Development, 2801 S. University, Little Rock, AR 72204.

Mitchell and his students are creating comprehensive biographical profiles on all members of the Elaine 12, which they will submit to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas for publication. Through a partnership with the UA Little Rock Department of Theatre Arts and Dance, theatre students will use the profiles to create vignettes of the Elaine 12 that will be used in a play during the 2019 centennial commemoration of the Elaine Massacre.