England Food Riot of 1931
The England Food Riot of 1931 occurred after the drought of 1930 caused major crop failure across the region, leaving many farmers unable to feed their families. The Depression was occurring across America, and the majority of people in England (Lonoke County) and the surrounding area were destitute and desperate. As a result, approximately fifty angry farmers converged on the town of England, demanding food to feed to the starving members of their community. The crowd grew to include hundreds once in town, and the merchants, with assurances of repayment by the Red Cross, agreed to open their doors and offer all they had to avert any violence from the mob. The crowd dispersed peacefully, but the incident created a nationwide stir.
England is positioned in central Arkansas between Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) and Little Rock (Pulaski County) in what is considered one of the richest agricultural regions in the world. It was established in 1888 after the railroad was built through the area. The town grew quickly and prospered well in the early 1900s.
The drought that came in the summer of 1930 devastated the region. Farms normally abundant in cotton, corn, rice, and hay were laid to ruin by the lack of rain and high temperatures day after day. It was not until December of that year that any relief arrived, which was in the form of the Red Cross. Assistance from the Red Cross was meager at best, amounting to approximately one dollar per month for each person in need.
On January 3, 1931, H. C. Coney, a tenant farmer from Lonoke County, was visited by a neighbor who was distressed because she was unable to feed her children. He decided that he must do something, so he loaded his truck with several other neighbors and headed to England to demand food from the Red Cross. Though the original group of men consisted of approximately fifty farmers, some armed, reports state that anywhere from 300 to 500 came together once in the city proper. The Red Cross, which lacked the forms necessary for people to apply for aid, took the brunt of their anger for the promised food never given to those in need. The merchants, either out of fear of what the mob was capable of or out of the kindness of their hearts, offered food to the people that day.
According to some eyewitness accounts, there was no violence, and the term “riot” might not be the best description, as any possibility of an actual riot was averted due to the generosity of the storeowners. There is little doubt, however, that the scene could have become ugly had the farmers not been mollified.
One witness to the event worked part time for the Associated Press and promptly called his editors with the story of the riot. Newspapers from New York to California picked up the story. Until then, Arkansas governor Harvey Parnell, along with the Red Cross, had tried to downplay the severity of the situation, saying that they had everything under control and that no one was in desperate need. But now the plight of the people of England was known nationwide.
Walter O. Williams, who was the mayor of England at the time, played a large part in the relief effort for the people in his area. He wrote letters to the governor and state senators asking for federal assistance of any kind and was told, in turn, that they were doing everything they could to get bills passed in Congress to assist those in need. Williams also made pleas to the nation through the radio and newspapers.
With the media blitz that suddenly gave names and faces to so many starving people, Governor Parnell had to retract his earlier statements that “conditions, although not so good because of the drought adversities, are not alarming and indications are that a normal condition is being resumed.” U.S. senator Joe T. Robinson also used the popularity of the stories in the press to petition for federal dollars for loans for drought relief.
On January 23, 1931, after reading about the dire situation in England in a paper in California, Will Rogers visited the town. He met with representatives of the Red Cross, the mayor, and many farmers in the region. The week before, he had appealed to President Herbert Hoover in Washington DC for federal aid but was turned away. He decided to raise money himself by embarking on a tour for drought relief. The tour, along with money sent in from citizens across the country after reading the stories in their local papers, helped feed and clothe the people of England and carry them through these tough times.
England again prospered within a year, after a season of good crops, and life went back to normal in this poor region. Although there were many other regions under stress due to economic failings or environmental problems, it was this tiny town and the events of that day that got a nation to sit up and take notice and got the government to start passing legislation to assist in times of hardship.
For additional information:
“The England Food Riot in England, Arkansas.” Delta Dirt. http://delta-dirt.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=32&Itemid=56 (accessed November 14, 2006).
Ingram, Dale. “The Forgotten Rebellion.” Arkansas Times. January 19, 2006, pp. 10–13.
Lambert, Roger. “Hoover and the Red Cross in the Arkansas Drought of 1930.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 29 (Spring 1970): 3–19.
Obrecht, John. “Our Children Are Crying for Food.” Arkansas Times, August 1987, pp. 89–91, 147–149.
Chenault & Gray Publishing
Last Updated: 04/08/2011