RED SUMMER OF 1919: RACE RIOTS IN OVER 3 DOZEN U.S STATES
Red Summer refers to the race riots that occurred in more than three dozen cities in the United States during the summer and early autumn of 1919. In most instances, whites attacked African Americans. In some cases many blacks fought back, notably in Chicago, where, along with Washington, D.C. and Elaine, Arkansas, the greatest number of fatalities occurred.
The riots followed postwar social tensions related to the demobilization of veterans ofWorld War I, both black and white, and competition for jobs among ethnic whites and blacks. The riots were extensively documented in the press, which along with the federal government conflated black movements with bolshevism.
Activist and author James Weldon Johnson, employed since 1916 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a field secretary, coined the term “Red Summer.” In 1919, he organized peaceful protests against the racial violence of that summer.
World War I was coming to an end, and many African-Americans wanted to know what the end of the war meant for them. So, activist and author James Weldon Johnson raised the issue that everyone was thinking: Would the African-American’s support for the war effort, on the battlefields of Europe and throughout the many factories in the United States mean improvement in the “status of the Negro as an American citizen? During this time Black people were considered second class—and many worse. It was very little that African-Americans were allowed to do during this time. Blacks could not vote, they were usually sharecropping, and not allowed access to workplaces such as their counterparts, White Americans. Black people were subject to be harassed, violently beat and left for death, and some even murdered.
There were some things that did change for Black Americans over the course of the war. Many southern Blacks had migrated to the North and found jobs in industrial workplaces. Doors that had been closed to Blacks but employed Whites, were no opened to Black workers because of labor shortages. People began talking about the “New Negro” which appeared in print, and people were discussing among themselves. Black people thought after the war they would finally get some type of respect. As much to be expected during this time, the White Americans grew weary and tired of hearing of the talk of the “New Negro.” The southern states began to crack down on any Black protest organizations.
By the summer of 1919, race riots and lynchings were taking place over the country. The Black people were angry that the White Americans were not acknowledging the fact that they had served in the military and that the White Americans were going back to the pre-war status for Blacks. From April to October, American cities were explosive in violence. There were extensive amounts of bloodshed and thus Johnson named it the “#Red Summer.” It is believed that over 25 major riots erupted during this time and at least 52 Black people were lynched. It is possible that it could have been more because there was no complete and accurate records that could be kept during the time.
Following the violence-filled summer, in the autumn of 1919, Haynes reported on the events. His report was to be the brief for an investigation of the issues by the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He identified 38 separate riots in widely scattered cities, in which whites attacked blacks. In addition, Haynes reported that between January 1 and September 14, 1919, white mobs lynched at least forty-three African Americans, with sixteen hanged and others shot; while another eight men were burned at the stake. The states appeared powerless or unwilling to interfere or prosecute such mob murders.Unlike earlier race riots in U.S. history, the 1919 events were among the first in which blacks in number resisted white attacks. A. Philip Randolph, a civil rights activist and leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, defended the right of blacks to self-defense.
Hundreds of people—most of them black—were killed and thousands more were injured. Tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes.” “In Washington, daily newspapers fanned the flames with lurid, exaggerated, or even fabricated accounts of black crime. In Chicago, postwar unemployment, labor conflicts, housing shortages, and heat provided the context for the massive violence that followed the stoning death of a young black swimmer who crossed an invisible line separating whites from blacks in Lake Michigan. Whites in Omaha, Neb., physically attacked their mayor before destroying the local courthouse to seize and then lynch a black man accused of assaulting a white woman. In Phillips County, Ark., black sharecroppers’ efforts to organize a union to secure fair end-of-year settlements precipitated what one contemporary called “a crusade of death” that left hundreds dead.” (Chicago Tribune, 2011) During this time the riots were getting a significant amount of coverage by the media, and this was just making matters extremely worse. Making no secret of their opposition to black rights, white southern politicians blamed black sharecroppers and called the NAACP “an association for the promotion of revolution.
- After the riot of May 10 in Charleston, South Carolina, the city imposed martial law. US Navy sailors led the race riot; Isaac Doctor, William Brown, and James Talbot, all black men, were killed. Five white men and eighteen black men were injured. A Naval investigation found that four U.S. sailors and one civilian—all white men—initiated the riot.
- In early July, a white race riot in Longview, Texas led to the deaths of at least four men and destroyed the African-American housing district in the town.
- On July 3, local police in Bisbee, Arizona attacked the 10th U.S. Cavalry, an African-American unit founded in 1866 and known as “Buffalo Soldiers“.
- In Washington, D.C. starting July 19, white men, many in the military and in uniform of all three services, responded to the rumored arrest of a black man for rape with four days of mob violence against black individuals and businesses. They rioted, randomly beat black people on the street, and pulled others off streetcars for attacks. When police refused to intervene, the black population fought back. Troops tried to restore order as the city closed saloons and theaters to discourage assemblies, but a summer rainstorm had more of a dampening effect. When the violence ended, a total of 15 people had died: 10 whites, including two police officers; and five blacks. Fifty people were seriously wounded and another 100 less severely wounded. It was one of the few times in 20th-century riots of whites against blacks when white fatalities outnumbered those of blacks.
Antiblack riots were nothing new, but the postwar African-American response was, McWhirter argues. White rioters now confronted “black men and women transformed by their experiences during the war.” In Washington and Chicago, they set up barricades to protect their neighborhoods while marksmen “manned rooftops with rifles.” In Knoxville, Tenn., armed blacks established a perimeter at their community’s edge and shot out street lights to impede white attackers. The New York Times found that “[p]ractically every one of the 10,000 Negroes in Omaha was armed and . . . ready to fight for his life and home” during that city’s riot.