Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America

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The Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America was a union of African-American tenant farmers (sharecroppers). A meeting of this union at Hoop Spur, Arkansas, was attacked on September 30, 1919, leaving a white sheriff dead and sparking the famous Elaine Race Riot.

The Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America was formed by Robert L. Hill of Winchester, Arkansas, a black tenant farmer. The union had several lodges in the Elaine, Arkansas area. In late 1919 the union organized resistance amongst blacks in the Elaine area, including withholding black women's services to whites and insisting on higher wages for the cotton pickers. The union had also hired lawyers at the state capital and planned to sue landlords for shares allegedly withheld from them.

The union was, however, destroyed by the repression that followed the shooting on September 30. The Governor of Arkansas, Charles Hillman Brough, led a detachment of federal troops into Phillips County, arresting hundreds of blacks and allowing other blacks to move about in public only if they had a pass signed by military authorities and attested by a reputable white citizen. In the week after the shooting roving bands of whites and federal troops killed upwards of two hundred blacks.

In the aftermath of the violence, a grand jury made up of local landlords and merchants decided who would be indicted. Those blacks willing to testify against others and who agreed to work on whatever terms their landlords set for them were let go; those who had been labeled ringleaders or who were judged unreliable were indicted. According to the affidavits later supplied by the defendants, many of the prisoners had been beaten, whipped or tortured by electric shocks to extract testimony or confessions and threatened with death if they later recanted their testimony.

Robert L. Hill escaped to the state of Kansas. He was arrested in that state but was never extradited to Arkansas to face charges. Other members of the organization were tried for murder in connection with the violence that followed the attack on the union meeting. Their convictions, obtained by use of testimony obtained by beatings and torture through electric shock, in a trial atmosphere dominated by mobs of armed whites milling around the courthouse, were eventually reversed by the United States Supreme Court in Moore v. Dempsey 261 U.S. 86 (1923). That victory helped boost the prestige of the NAACP and of its later leader, Walter F. White.

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