Robert L. Hill

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Robert Lee Hill (June 8, 1892 – after August 16, 1962[1]) was an African-American sharecropper from the Arkansas Delta and a political activist, founder of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America following the Great War. Based in Arkansas, this organization was intended to help sharecroppers and tenant farmers to gain better financial arrangements with white landowners.

Hill was involved in an organizing meeting of black farmers near Elaine, Arkansas on September 30, 1919. The shooting of a white man at the meeting resulted in the Elaine race riot, in which five whites and an estimated 100-237 blacks were killed, and federal troops were called in to quell the white riot. Hill fled to Kansas, where he was later arrested. The NAACP worked on his behalf with the state and with federal authorities. Governor Henry Justin Allen refused an extradition request from the state of Arkansas, stating he did not believe Hill would be safe in Arkansas jails or given a fair trial there. Federal charges were later dropped and Hill was released from jail in October 1920.

He later worked for at least two different railroad companies in the Midwest, from 1920 to 1962. Their expansion provided new industrial jobs for African Americans. He retired in August 1962, but the date of his death is not known.

Early life[edit]

Robert Lee Hill was born in Dermott, Chicot County, Arkansas. There is little documentation of his birth and early life. Documents in his handwriting seem to show that he had some form of limited formal education. Hill did complete a correspondence course as a private investigator and was known to refer to himself as "Robert Hill, U.S. Detective".

The white Democratic-dominated legislature passed an election law in 1891 and poll tax amendment to the state constitution in 1892 that effectively disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites in the state. They followed that by passing and imposing Jim Crow laws for racial segregation.

Hill was listed as working as a brakeman for the Missouri Pacific Railroad in Little Rock, Arkansas, from January 1915 to December 1919.[1] Sometime before 1918, Hill moved from his birthplace to the town of Winchester, Arkansas, in Drew County. By this time he was married, had two children, and worked for the Valley Planting Company.

Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America[edit]

While living in Winchester, Hill became active in organizing African-American laborers, sharecroppers and tenant farmers. They worked for white landowners at a disadvantage, dependent on their dispersing funds and settling accounts after they sold cotton crops. The landowners seldom provided itemized accounts, often required sharecroppers to buy seeds and supplies from plantation stores, and sold the cotton according to their own schedules. Sharecroppers often struggled financially for months after delivering cotton to the landowners and before receiving any payments.

Hill formed the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. Hill based his association on black fraternal organizations, the international trade union movement, and Booker T. Washington's National Negro Business League. Hill intended to use the organization to force landowners to pay tenant farmers their full shares and to establish union-owned farms.

During the summer of 1919 Hill encouraged hundreds of African-American sharecroppers and sawmill workers to join his organization. Hill was successful in attracting African-American veterans of World War I, who were embittered over the racial discrimination they faced at home after their service in the war. During that summer, Hill organized union chapters in the small towns of Hoop Spur, Ratio, Elaine, Old Town, Countiss, Ferguson, and Mellwood.

Elaine Race Riot[edit]

In the fall, two of the chapters hired lawyers from Little Rock to try and force fair treatment in the courts. Black informants reported this information to local whites, who tried to keep track of local meetings. Gunfire broke out at a September 30 meeting of the Hoop Spur chapter and a white man was killed; hundreds of whites poured into the area, attacking blacks throughout the county during that night and the next days. This was known as the Elaine Race Riot, or Elaine Massacre: a total of five whites and an estimated 100-237 blacks were killed. It was the deadliest race riot in United States history; only blacks were indicted by county officials in these events.

Hill escaped the ensuing chaos and fled to Kansas. He was announced as "the most wanted man in Arkansas," and authorities portrayed him as the leader of a conspiracy to kill plantation owners.

Arrest and extradition order[edit]

On 20 January 1920 Hill was arrested in Kansas after Arkansas police determined his location from intercepting a letter that Hill had written to his wife. After his capture, Arkansas officials charged him with murder and asked for his extradition. Federal authorities indicted Hill for inciting to riot and impersonating a federal officer.

Governor Henry Justin Allen of Kansas refused to extradite Hill, after intense lobbying by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He said that he did not believe Hill would receive a fair trial in Arkansas, nor would he be safe in Arkansas jails. Hill was released on October 11, 1920, after federal charges were dropped due to NAACP lobbying with authorities in Washington.

Criticisms of Hill[edit]

Hill fused music, religious imagery, and patriotism into his organizing efforts. Some critics labelled him as a demagogue. There were unsubstantiated claims at the time that Hill organized the union for his own economic benefit. Hill, in a letter, denied any attempt to kill white plantation owners in Phillips County, stating that it would be senseless to murder landowners there when he had local chapters in "25 to 30 counties."[citation needed]

Later years[edit]

It is known that Hill suffered an injury while working at a meatpacking plant in Topeka, Kansas in 1921. Hill was unable to do heavy physical work and tried to gain a position with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. James Weldon Johnson, the NAACP executive secretary, recommended that Hill join the Topeka branch.[citation needed]

According to his 1935 railroad service verification records, Hill went to work as a carman helper in the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company shops in Topeka beginning July 1, 1922 under the name George L. Smith. He changed his name back to Robert Lee Hill in February 1924. He worked as a laborer with the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in Chicago from January 1920 to May 1922.

The service record states he was born in Dermott, Drew County (sic Chicot County), Arkansas, on June 8, 1892. He retired from his work with the AT&SF Railroad on August 16, 1962.[1] The records do not show his date of death.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Business Records, Kansas State Historical Society