By Mary Hennigan
In March 1904, three men — two Black, one white — gathered on a houseboat on the White River in Arkansas, a tributary to the Mississippi, for an evening of gambling. An argument left the white man injured, setting off a week of racial terror that included a roundup of dozens of Black residents and the lynching of 13.
Few today have heard of the St. Charles, Arkansas, massacre. And some descendants of the victims remain wary of discussing it. But seven family members — including one whose grandfather lived through the deadliest lynching — agreed to be interviewed for this story.
The tales they tell, and the newspaper accounts and historical articles about the incident, are chilling.
A posse of white men on horseback galloped through the rural farmland of St. Charles and neighboring townships in Arkansas County, where settlements were scattered, looking for the two Black gamblers, Henry and Walker Griffin, or anyone who might know where they were.
Black residents were rounded up — many told they were being plucked from their homes for their protection — and taken to a warehouse in St. Charles. Among them was 21-year-old Horace “Hooley’’ Mosby, who shared his memory of the horrific events with his granddaughter.
Posse members questioned the Black men as, outside, mobs of angry, white community members gathered, ready to “exterminate the negro race,’’author J.M. Henderson wrote in a collection of short stories about St. Charles.
On the night of March 24, three days after the gambling fight, five men — Abe Bailey, Charley Smith, Jim Smith, Mack Baldwin and Garrett Flood — were taken from the warehouse, arrested and transported to jail. The charge was being defiant toward the white officers.
The five men would not survive the night. A white mob overpowered the guards, took the men from the jail and shot them publicly in St. Charles. Mosby watched as the bodies were riddled with bullets.
Lloyd Hinton, the great-nephew of Aaron Hinton, another victim of the massacre, heard gruesome details about the killing of the five men from his grandfather.
“They brought them all outside, and lined them up,’’ Hinton, 78, said. “From what I understand, about 50 Caucasians shot them down. And Abe Bailey, they stomped his teeth down his throat.’’
Throughout the week, the white posse searched for the initial cause of the conflict and killed the other victims in their wake. Randall Flood, Will Madison and Will Baldwin were shot Wednesday when they refused to share information on the Griffin brothers’ location. Several white men shot at Aaron Hinton, killing him instantly Thursday morning, after he fired into a posse. No posse members were seriously hurt. Perry Carter was found lifeless in the woods on Friday, and Kellis Johnson was shot the same morning. Henry and Walker Griffin were killed Saturday, ending the massacre.
The racial terror in St. Charles occurred 15 years before the Red Summer of 1919, when racial violence took place in dozens of American cities, including near Elaine, Arkansas, just 30 miles from St. Charles in Phillips County.
Aside from incomplete newspaper coverage at the time and a few articles in historical journals, the St. Charles Massacre of 1904 is little known in Arkansas. Among those interviewed who were unaware of the incident were Janis Kearney, diarist of former President Bill Clinton, and Scott Green, an official with the Little Rock chapter of the NAACP. In the Arkansas County seat of DeWitt, neither the town’s public librarian nor its superintendent said they were aware of the St. Charles Massacre.
“It’s swept under the rug,” said Mitzi Butler Hafford, a descendant of three victims who lives in Cincinnati. “Nobody wants to talk about it. And I just feel like, the mob, they got away with murder. Justice was never served. At the very least, we can honor those victims in some type of way.”
‘They simply didn’t bother’: The initial newspaper coverage
The Arkansas Gazette, which is now the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, published original reports on the 1904 massacre. The articles had no interviews with local African Americans about the incident.
The Arkansas Gazette’s coverage referred to the racial terror as “race troubles,” in which there was a search for the “ringleaders” and “the most dangerous negroes.” It also alluded to the future death of others, which likely allowed time for crowds to gather.
Interviews with the descendants of the St. Charles massacre revealed an important dimension about the victims and their stature in the community, context missing from the newspaper accounts. At least six of the victims could read and write, according to census records. At least one victim, Randall Flood, owned his farm. The newspaper accounts instead portrayed the Black victims as either potentially violent criminals or passive and frightened individuals.
With just a few original newspaper articles that carry the white narrative and little documentation of the oral history from the African American community, a lot of the authentic history has been lost.
“I don’t think, in this case, that the press even bothered to get the story in the first place,” Arkansas State Historian David Ware said. “[Lynching coverage] was seen as something just as part of the ongoing landscape. They simply didn’t bother.”
A ‘trivial matter’
According to the Arkansas Gazette, the conflict began on a Monday with a “trivial matter” when Henry and Walker Griffin joined a white man, Jim Searcy, on a houseboat to gamble. An argument arose, and Searcy was struck on the head.
(Accounts of the incident vary. One local historical account stated a different man, Aaron Hinton, was the one doing the gambling.)
The next five days included a search for the Griffin brothers as white angst rose amid reports of a Black uprising. “A number of towns in the eastern part of the county also sent strong posses in the direction of St. Charles, the news having spread that some of the negroes were organizing to defy law and order,” the Arkansas Gazette reported. It said Black men were armed and shot at officers or posse members.
One Gazette report said “no attempt was made by the posses to make war on peaceable and inoffensive negroes.’’ But Black men who “defied” white residents were shot.
The men died on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday during the week of racial terror. No white people were killed that week.
The 13 victims likely all knew each other well; many were family. Henry and Walker Griffin were brothers, as were Randall and Garrett Flood and Mack and Will (Clarence) Baldwin. Will Madison was the brother-in-law of Randall. Jim Smith was the father of Charley Smith and father-in-law to Abe (Abraham) Bailey. Aaron Hinton was Kellis Johnson’s neighbor.
It is possible that the newspaper reports also incorrectly published the names of the victims. Variations of their names exist on the 1900 census record for Arkansas County. There is no Perry Carter listed, but there is a Berry; there is not a Will Baldwin, instead a Clarence. Randall’s name was spelled differently on the census: Randle.
Beyond the Gazette coverage
The 1904 Arkansas Gazette articles, although devoid of important context, proved to be highly influential. The account was republished in at least 21 states and Washington D.C and spanned from March 24 to April 8, 1904. In 72 articles examined, 24 were published on the front page and 14 more were published on the second.
The other publications added their own headlines that included misleading claims, inaccuracies and powerful language. “Fifteen Negroes Killed” was incorrectly published in South Carolina and a Pennsylvania publication reported the wrong county.
When the reports concluded that there was no more looming trouble, the Arkansas Gazette coverage read “all is quiet in St. Charles.”
This work is a collaboration of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service at the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, Hampton University, Howard University, Morehouse College, North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and the University of Arkansas.
‘We’re still fighting the fight’: Finding the time to learn their history
Today, the town of St. Charles is small and has a population of 275. There is no stoplight in town, and the main road is Broadway Avenue, which features a large Civil War memorial. The White River frames the eastern border; fishing, duck hunting and agriculture rule the town’s culture and economy. Most of the surrounding landscape is dominated by rice, cotton and soybean fields.
Silence on racial terror in the Black community has stemmed from generations of fear. Descendant Mitzi Hafford, 52, learned of her family history in 2015 while doing genealogical research. Afraid she would “reveal skeletons,” Hafford’s elders have said she should stop looking into family history, and that she’s taking things too far.
The terror of a lynching 117 years ago lingers for other descendants, too. Brian Hayes, related to two of the victims and Hafford’s third cousin, said learning this family history is like a “branded wound, like it had just happened.”
With no historical marker or community acknowledgment of the event, many descendants went decades without knowing their relatives were victims of the massacre.
One descendant, Bill Wilder, the great-grandson of Abe Bailey, said he worries a marker would be vandalized—as a marker observing the massacre in nearby Elaine was. “I think some of those same views still exist in that town,” Wilder, 74, said.
One effort to commemorate the massacre sits in a storage room at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, about 40 miles away from the site of the murders. And 385 miles away, the 13 victims’ names are engraved at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which opened in 2018 as a remembrance for racial injustice, including recognizing lynching incidents.
Unlike many others, Wilder’s mother, Bernice, shared the family history with him. She would point out locations while on drives around town that had meaning to the massacre. These locations are unrecognizable today and difficult to find as new highways have been constructed, streets renamed and new buildings built.
Janice Streeter remembered hearing bits and pieces of stories her grandfather, Horace “Hooley” Mosby, would tell during her youth. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago, during her own research, that Streeter realized her grandfather was discussing his personal experience living during the time of the 1904 St. Charles massacre.
“Most people did not plant the fear in their children,” Streeter said. “To talk of this 1904 lynching would have planted fear. We were not raised in fear. We were raised in a lot of love in our community, and to respect people and to do what was right.”
The story still not widely known
In St. Charles, local leaders are reluctant to discuss the matter. Multiple messages left for the mayor of St. Charles were not answered.
Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said because his family bought the paper in 1974, he could not address the specific details of the Gazette’s coverage in 1904. However, he said the newspaper has worked to produce inclusive content and has acknowledged the history of Arkansas through its reporting, particularly a report on the lynching in Little Rock in 1927.
“We think it’s beneficial for us to confront the racial discrimination and bigotry and violence that occurred, especially in our town where we operate the newspaper,” he said.
The 1904 St. Charles massacre was not mentioned in the Gazette’s bicentennial remembrance project, and Hussman said he was personally unfamiliar with the incident, as were several prominent Arkansans interviewed.
As for the descendants, many said the history of the massacre was not passed down through oral storytelling, and they would have never known of the incident without following their hobby of genealogy, something that changed their feelings on events of racial terror.
“I didn’t think that I would personally have ancestors who were lynched,” descendant Hafford said. “So it just really hit home; hit me on a very personal level. And it made me more interested in looking into not only my family tree, but Black history in general.”