'Red Summer' of 1919: America's Forgotten Racial Stain

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“The city will be drenched in blood,” predicted Washington civil rights lawyer James Cobb. His grim forecast, made a century ago this month, came true. Over the “Red Summer” of 1919, at least 38 race riots occurred nationwide – including one in the nation’s capital that July -- leaving more than 200 people dead.

How did such an ugly chapter of U.S. history come to be? And why isn’t it well known today?

Although America had sent 2 million of its native sons and daughters to France to fight for democracy, on these shores not everyone was free. Here, different battle lines were drawn.

Despite widespread disenfranchisement of blacks throughout the U.S., civil rights leaders had heeded Woodrow Wilson’s call for national unity to meet the imperial German threat in Europe. Even the confrontational and outspoken W.E.B. Du Bois urged his fellow African Americans to “forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.”

This advice was heeded – some 400,000 black Americans answered the call of their nation, fighting valiantly even in the face mistreatment in their own ranks. But while in Europe, these black soldiers were armed, trained, and exposed to the best of European liberalism that promoted racial tolerance, says historian Adriane Danette Lentz-Smith. The author of “Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I” and a professor at Duke University, Lentz-Smith tells in that story how the war altered the outlook of African Americans wearing their country’s uniform. These troops, she wrote, returned from war “with visions of French liberty, equality, and fraternity dancing in their heads.”

This exposure to both battle and high ideals led to a newfound strength and intensified belief that America ought to be an equal society. “We return,” Du Bois wrote in May 1919. “We return from fighting. We return fighting.”

Return fighting these veterans did. Some still clad in uniform, veterans armed themselves to protect their families, homes, and businesses from racial violence. While local events often catalyzed specific riots, violence fueled by racial animus and labor shortages remained constant across the country, said David F. Krugler, author of “1919, the Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back.

Krugler told RCP that 1919 was a watershed moment for this kind of violence specifically because “the United States was not living up to the ideals that it was beginning to fight for in foreign wars.” As black combat veterans returned home, the confluence of new housing patterns, discontent with the state of civil rights, economic displacement from the war, and white fears of black upward mobility lit the powder keg that was the Red Summer.

What did the federal government do in response? Hardly anything, says Brandeis University professor Chad Williams, author of “Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era.”

“President Wilson had just returned from France, so his main preoccupation was trying to get Congress to ratify the Treaty of Versailles,” Williams said in an interview. “His priorities were certainly elsewhere.”

The violence that spanned from April to September 1919 is largely forgotten in American public discourse, even though in some ways it was unprecedented in its scale and carnage. The Red Summer stands as “one of the most, if not the most, violent periods in American history,” according to Williams. Children were killed, lynchings took place in public squares, and black-owned businesses were often destroyed.

The wave of unrest that swept the nation began in February in Georgia, and did not end until October in Baltimore, according to a 1919 New York Times report.

In large part, racial turmoil in the industrial North stemmed from the famed Great Migration, in which roughly a half-million black Americans moved from the South for economic opportunity and less racial persecution, observed the Times. Those in the South aspired to use their war-time skills and status to gain economic and social benefits.

Yet, many black Americans found little would change for the better. A century ago this month, six people were shot in Norfolk, Va., when a homecoming parade of black veterans was terrorized. In September 1919, black worker Will Brown was lynched in front of a mob of thousands.

Though lynching, bombings, and riots were largely carried out by whites against blacks, blacks also defended themselves extralegally. The poet Claude McKay exhorted his compatriots in the poem “If We Must Die”: “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack/ Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”

Just as many African Americans answered Du Bois’ call to serve, so did they respond to McKay’s call to defend themselves. After a black journalist was attacked under dubious circumstances and a laborer was killed by a white mob in Longview, Texas, a group of black veterans took up arms; black businessman Samuel Jones wounded four white men in a shootout amid the turmoil.  

The violence continued. An attack on a black boy swimming in a whites-only lake section spurred a week-long race riot in Chicago where 38 were killed. During this outbreak of violence, police swore in, armed and deployed uniformed black veterans of the Eighth Illinois National Guard to protect citizens and quell tensions.

Tensions from the Red Summer spilled into the next year. In 1920, blacks attempting to vote in Ocoee, Fla., drew the aggression of the Ku Klux Klan, who killed over 50 people, even burning to death a mother and her 2-year old. A sign was placed on one black voter’s dead body: “This is what we do to negroes who vote.”

The following year, the thriving black community in Tulsa, Okla., came under siege after an alleged assault of a white woman in an elevator. Irate white gangs burned the black neighborhood to the ground. The casualties: between 100 and 300 dead, 800 wounded, 191 business sacked, 1,256 homes burned, and the modern-day equivalent of $32 million in damages, according to a 2001 state of Oklahoma report.

Why don’t we read about this in our history books? Because it challenges us, Krugler told RCP. “The leading reason [the Red Summer is] not talked about is because it doesn’t fit into the prevailing story we tell ourselves about civil rights. In popular history, the idea we have about civil rights is that it all began shortly after World War II with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. That is an incomplete picture of civil rights history.”

On this centennial anniversary, reckoning with our past is of utmost importance, says Williams: “I think it’s necessary -- especially when we’re living through a moment that’s racially charged [and] where the specter of violence seems to lurk underneath the surface -- that we remember what happened 100 years ago could happen again today.”

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