Amid a debate about race and equality at the University of Arkansas, a labor union is calling the university to rename a major dining hall due to the namesake’s failure to pursue the men guilty of the 1919 Elaine Massacre in southern Arkansas.
The Charles Hillman Brough Commons was named after the Brough, the 25th governor of Arkansas, from 1917-1921. The University of Arkansas Education Association/Local 965 declared that Brough’s role in the Elaine Massacre of 1919, in which an estimated 150 to 400 African Americans were killed by white mobs in Phillips County, “renders him unworthy to be celebrated on a campus that prides itself on being welcoming to students, staff, and faculty of all races.”
In the aftermath of the Elaine Massacre, Brough failed to secure justice to the victims by attempting to cover up the murders of African Americans and blaming union members and their allies for the deaths of the five white men. He also refused to commute the sentences of the African Americans who were unjustly convicted of killing the five white men.
Local 965, which represents faculty and staff, has formally asked the university to change the name of the Charles Hillman Brough Commons to the Wiley A. Branton Sr. Commons. Branton was a prominent civil rights attorney, a 1953 graduate of the University of Arkansas School of Law who helped Silas Hunt integrate the university.
I told my colleagues that renaming the commons is “just one part of the larger effort to address the systemic racism that has persisted on campus far too long.”
The Elaine Massacre was the response of local whites to Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers organizing a union to prevent planters and landlords from cheating them out of the profits from crops they produced. For four days (Sept. 30-Oct. 3, 1919), white mobs roamed southern Phillips County, along the Mississippi River on the eastern edge of the state, killing or arresting those whom they suspected of participating in the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. Five white men also were killed, most of them from friendly fire.
The best primary source of information on this bloody episode is Ida Wells-Barnett’s The Arkansas Race Riot . The best scholarly book is Grif Stockley’s Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919 . Stockley also penned the Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry “Elaine Massacre of 1919.”
Key findings include:
- Brough endorsed the findings of a local committee that blamed the massacre victims for the five white deaths: “The present trouble … is a deliberately planned insurrection of the Negroes against the whites directed by an organization known as the ‘Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America,’ established for the purpose of banding Negroes together for the killing of white people” (cited in Moore v. Dempsey 261 U.S. 86 ).
- Brough praised the white residents of Phillips County for their actions during the four days of violence: “The situation at Elaine has been well handled. … The white citizens of the county deserve unstinting praise for their actions in preventing mob violence” (Arkansas Gazette, Oct. 4, 1919).
- Brough launched a cover-up campaign that denied the deaths of the African Americans. According to Stockley, the foremost historian of the Elaine Massacre, “Brough had obviously committed himself to a position of totally denying that Blacks had been massacred. … The governor mentioned none of the names of the Blacks who had been killed. They were the enemy” (Blood in Their Eyes, p. 86).
- Brough did nothing when Phillips County prosecutors sent 75 union members and allies to the penitentiary for their roles in the so-called “insurrection.”
- Brough stood by while Phillips County authorities conducted sham trials and sentenced 12 union members and allies to death for their roles in the so-called “insurrection.”
- Brough refused to pardon or commute the sentences of the 12 men sentenced to die, even in the face of a national campaign highlighting the gross injustices of the judicial proceedings. After Brough left office, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the proceedings against the 12 men were so unfair that new trials were required (Stockley, Blood in Their Eyes, p. xxix; Moore v. Dempsey).
During his tenure as governor, Brough (1875-1935) failed to protect the Black population of Phillips County and see to it that the rule of law prevailed in the state. He showed callous disregard for Black lives, and that is why there was never any attempt by state officials to count the number of African Americans killed. Having a building at the center of campus honoring Brough is an affront to everyone in the campus community working to promote racial equality and diversity.
By contrast, Branton, a native of Pine Bluff and World War II veteran, played a critical role in the integration of the University of Arkansas. He traveled to Fayetteville in 1948 to help his friend Silas Hunt enroll at the UofA Law School then a few years later matriculated himself. Following his graduation in 1953, Branton (1923-1988) emerged as one of the nation’s foremost civil rights attorneys.
- Branton served as the state NAACP’s lead attorney in the litigation concerning the integration of Little Rock schools in the late 1950s.
- Branton, alongside co-counsel Thurgood Marshall, successfully argued Cooper v. Aaron (1958) before the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision was a blow to the nation’s segregationists, undercutting the strategy of “massive resistance.”
- Branton was the first director of the Voter Education Project, a program that helped over 600,000 African Americans across the South become eligible to vote in the years before the Voting Rights Act (1965).
- Branton served as 1978-83 dean of the Howard University School of Law.
As part of the university’s efforts to address the persistent racism found on the Fayetteville campus, Local 965 calls on Chancellor Joe Steinmetz and the UofA System Board of Trustees to make sure that buildings are named for people who are truly deserving of the respect of all students, staff, and faculty. To this end, the university needs to change the name of Brough Commons to Branton Commons as part of a broader effort to come to terms with the inequities and racism that continue to plague the campus community.