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Robert Lee Hill
*Robert Lee Hill was born on this date in 1892. He was a Black farmer, sharecropper, and Union activist.
Hill was born in Dermott, Chicot County, Arkansas. Documents with his handwriting show that he had some formal education. He did complete a correspondence course as a private investigator and was known to refer to himself as "Robert Hill, U.S. Detective." Around 1918, he moved to the town of Winchester, Arkansas, in Drew County. Hill was married, had two children, and worked for the Valley Planting Company. While living in Winchester, he organized Black laborers and sharecroppers and 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. He intended to use the organization to force landowners to pay tenant farmers their full shares and establish union-owned farms.
During the summer of 1919, Hill encouraged hundreds of Black sharecroppers and sawmill workers to join his organization. Hill had particular success amongst World War I Black veterans who were embittered over their post-war treatment. During that summer, Hill organized union chapters in the small towns of Hoop Spur, Ratio, Elaine, Old Town, Countiss, Ferguson, and Mellwood. In the fall, two chapters hired lawyers from Little Rock to try and force fair treatment in the courts. Black informants reported this information to local whites. Gunfire broke out at a meeting of the Hoop Spur chapter that led to the Elaine Race Riot. Hill himself escaped the ensuing chaos and fled to Kansas. Hill became the most wanted man in Arkansas, and authorities portrayed him as the leader of a conspiracy to kill plantation owners.
On January 20, 1920, Hill was arrested in Kansas after Arkansas police pinpointed his location from an intercepted letter that Hill had written to his wife. After his capture, Arkansas officials charged him with murder and asked for 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, citing his belief that Hill could not receive a fair trial in Arkansas and would not 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. Hill fused music, religious imagery, and patriotism into his organizing efforts, which lead many critics to label him as a demagogue. There was also an unsubstantiated claim that Hill organized the union solely for his economic benefit. In a letter, he denied any attempt to kill white plantation owners stating that it would be senseless to kill plantation owners in Phillips County, Arkansas, when he had local chapters in "25 to 30 counties".
It is known that Hill suffered an injury while working at a packing plant in Topeka, Kansas, in 1921. Hill could not work and attempted to convince the NAACP to give him a position with that organization. James Weldon Johnson, the NAACP secretary, recommended that he join the Topeka branch. No further word of Hill was ever received, and his later life has been lost to history. Robert Hill died in Topeka on May 11, 1963, and is buried in the Topeka Cemetery.