Red Summer was the late winter, spring, summer, and early autumn of 1919, which were marked by hundreds of deaths and a number of casualties across the United States, as the result of anti-black white supremacist terrorist attacks that occurred in more than three dozen cities and one rural county. In most instances, whites attacked African Americans. In some cases many black people fought back, notably in Chicago and Washington, D.C. The highest number of fatalities occurred in the rural area around Elaine, Arkansas, where an estimated 100–240 black people, and five white people, were killed; Chicago and Washington had 38 and 15 deaths, respectively, and many more injured, with extensive property damage in Chicago.
The racial riots against blacks resulted from a variety of postwar social tensions related to the demobilization of veterans of World War I, both black and white, and competition for jobs and housing among ethnic European Americans and African Americans. In addition, it was a time of labor unrest in which some industrialists used black people as strikebreakers, increasing resentment.
The riots were extensively documented in the press, which, along with the federal government, feared socialist and communist influence on the black civil rights movement following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
They also feared foreign anarchists, who had bombed homes and businesses of prominent business and government leaders.
Civil rights activist and author James Weldon Johnson coined the term “Red Summer”; he had been employed as a field secretary since 1916 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1919, he organized peaceful protests against the racial violence of that summer.
With the manpower mobilization of World War I and immigration from Europe cut off, the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest experienced severe labor shortages. Northern manufacturers recruited throughout the South and an exodus of workers ensued. By 1919, an estimated 500,000 African Americans had emigrated from the Southern United States to the industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest in the first wave of the Great Migration, which continued until 1940. African-American workers filled new positions in expanding industries, such as the railroads, as well as many jobs formerly held by whites. In some cities, they were hired as strikebreakers, especially during the strikes of 1917. This increased resentment against blacks among many working-class whites, immigrants or first-generation Americans. In the summer of 1917, violent racial riots against blacks, due to labor tensions, broke out in East St. Louis, Illinois and Houston, Texas. Following the war, rapid demobilization of the military without a plan for absorbing veterans into the job market, and the removal of price controls, led to unemployment and inflation that increased competition for jobs.
During the First Red Scare of 1919–20, following the Russian Revolution, anti-Bolshevik sentiment in the United States quickly followed on the anti-German sentiment arising in the war years. Many politicians and government officials, together with much of the press and the public, feared an imminent attempt to overthrow the U.S. government to create a new regime modeled on that of the Soviets. Authorities viewed with alarm African-Americans’ advocacy of racial equality, labor rights, and the rights of victims of mobs to defend themselves. In a private conversation in March 1919, President Woodrow Wilson said that “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.” Other whites expressed a wide range of opinions, some anticipating unsettled times and others seeing no signs of tension.
Early in 1919, Dr. George Edmund Haynes, an educator employed as director of Negro Economics for the U.S. Department of Labor, wrote: “The return of the Negro soldier to civil life is one of the most delicate and difficult questions confronting the Nation, north and south.” One black veteran wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Daily News saying the returning black veterans “are now new men and world men, if you please; and their possibilities for direction, guidance, honest use, and power are limitless, only they must be instructed and led. They have awakened, but they have not yet the complete conception of what they have awakened to.” W. E. B. Du Bois, an official of the NAACP and editor of its monthly magazine, saw an opportunity:
“By the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.”
In May 1919, following the first serious racial incidents, he published his essay “Returning Soldiers”:
We return from the slavery of uniform which the world’s madness demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb. We stand again to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade. We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land …
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.
Following the violence-filled summer, in the autumn of 1919, Haynes reported on the events as a prelude to an investigation by the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He identified 38 separate racial riots against blacks in widely scattered cities, in which whites attacked black people. Unlike earlier racial riots against blacks in U.S. history, the 1919 events were among the first in which black people in number resisted white attacks and fought back. A. Philip Randolph, a civil rights activist and leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, publicly defended the right of black people to self-defense.
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.
— NAACP telegram to President Woodrow Wilson
August 29, 1919
- On April 13, in rural Jenkins County, Georgia, the Jenkins County, Georgia, riot of 1919 led to 6 deaths and destruction by arson of the Carswell Grove Baptist Church, three black Masonic lodges in Millen, Georgia, and other property.
- After the racial riot against blacks of May 10 in Charleston, South Carolina, the city imposed martial law. U.S. 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”.
- On July 14 the Garfield Park riot of 1919 was a race riot broke out in Indianapolis’s Garfield Park. Multiple people, including a seven-year-old girl, were wounded when gunfire broke out.
- In Washington, D.C. starting July 19, white men, many in the military and in uniforms of all three services, responded to the rumored arrest of a black man for rape of a white woman 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. The city closed saloons and theaters to discourage assemblies. Meanwhile, the four white-owned local papers, including the Washington Post, fanned the violence with incendiary headlines and calling in at least one instance for a mobilization of a “clean-up” operation. After four days of police inaction, President Woodrow Wilson mobilized the National Guard to restore order. But a violent summer rainstorm had more of a dampening effect. When the violence ended, a total of 15 people had died: 10 white people, including two police officers; and five black people. 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 that white fatalities outnumbered those of black people.
The NAACP sent a telegram of protest to President Woodrow Wilson:
…the shame put upon the country by the mobs, including United States soldiers, sailors, and marines, which have assaulted innocent and unoffending negroes in the national capital. Men in uniform have attacked negroes on the streets and pulled them from streetcars to beat them. Crowds are reported …to have directed attacks against any passing negro….The effect of such riots in the national capital upon race antagonism will be to increase bitterness and danger of outbreaks elsewhere. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People calls upon you as President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the nation to make statement condemning mob violence and to enforce such military law as situation demands…
- In Norfolk, Virginia, a white mob attacked a homecoming celebration for African-American veterans of World War I. At least six people were shot, and the local police called in Marines and Navy personnel to restore order.
- Starting July 27, the summer’s greatest violence occurred during rioting in Chicago. The city’s beaches along Lake Michigan were segregated by custom. Eugene Williams, a black youth, swam into an area on the South Side customarily used by whites, where he was stoned, and drowned. When the Chicago police refused to take action against the attackers, young black men responded violently. Violence between mobs and gangs of both races lasted thirteen days. White mobs were led by ethnic Irish. The resulting 38 fatalities included 23 black people and 15 whites. The injured totaled 537, and 1,000 black families were left homeless. Other accounts reported 50 people were killed, with unofficial numbers and rumors reporting more. White mobs destroyed hundreds of mostly black homes and businesses on the South Side of Chicago; Illinois called in a militia force of seven regiments: several thousand men, to restore order.
- At the end of July, the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, at an annual convention, denounced the rioting and burning of negroes’ homes and asked President Wilson “to use every means within your power to stop the rioting in Chicago and the propaganda used to incite such”. At the end of August, the NAACP protested again to the White House, noting the attack on the organization’s secretary in Austin, Texas the previous week. Their telegram said: “The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People respectfully enquires how long the Federal Government under your administration intends to tolerate anarchy in the United States?”
- August 30–31, the Knoxville Riot in Tennessee broke out when a white mob gathered after a black suspect was arrested on suspicion of murdering a white woman. A lynch mob stormed the county jail searching for the prisoner. They liberated 16 white prisoners, including suspected murderers. They attacked the African-American business district, where they fought against the district’s black business owners, leaving at least seven dead and wounding more than 20 people.
- At the end of September, the race riot in Omaha, Nebraska erupted when a mob of more than 10,000 ethnic whites from South Omaha attacked and burned the county courthouse to force the police to release a black prisoner accused of raping a white woman. They destroyed property valued at more than a million dollars. The mob lynched the suspect, Will Brown, hanging him and burning his body. They spread out, attacking black neighborhoods and stores on the north side. After the mayor and governor appealed for help, the government sent Federal troops from a nearby fort. They were commanded by Major General Leonard Wood, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and a leading candidate for the Republican nomination for President in 1920.
- On September 30, a race riot against blacks broke out in rural Elaine, Arkansas, in Phillips County. Distinctive because it occurred in the rural South rather than a city, it erupted from white minority resistance to labor organizing by black sharecroppers and fear of socialism. Black sharecroppers were meeting in the local chapter of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. Planters opposed their efforts to organize and tried to disrupt meetings. In a confrontation, a white man was fatally shot and another wounded. The planters formed a militia to arrest the African-American farmers, and hundreds of whites came from the region. They acted as a mob, attacking black people at random over two days. In the riot they killed an estimated 100 to 237 black people, and five whites also died in the violence. Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough appointed a Committee of Seven to investigate. The group was composed of prominent local white businessmen. They concluded that the Sharecroppers’ Union was a Socialist enterprise and “established for the purpose of banding negroes together for the killing of white people”.
That report generated headlines such as the following in the Dallas Morning News: “Negroes Seized in Arkansas Riots Confess to Widespread Plot; Planned Massacre of Whites Today”. Several agents of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation spent a week interviewing participants, but they spoke to no sharecroppers. They also reviewed documents. They filed a total of nine reports stating there was no evidence of a conspiracy of the sharecroppers to murder anyone.
The local government tried 79 black people, who were all convicted by all-white juries, and 12 were sentenced to death for murder. (As Arkansas and other southern states had disenfranchised most black people at the turn of the 20th century, they could not vote, run for political office, or serve on juries.) The remainder of the defendants accepted prison terms of up to 21 years. Appeals of the convictions of six of the defendants went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the verdicts because of failure of the court to provide due process. This was a precedent for heightened Federal oversight of defendants’ rights in the conduct of state criminal cases.
- The Wilmington, Delaware race riot of 1919 was a violent racial riot between white and black members of Wilmington, Delaware on November 13, 1919.