In the summer and autumn of 1919, cities and towns across the United States were host to deadly race riots. Hundreds killed. Thousands injured. And many left homeless when houses and businesses were ravaged or burned to the ground. The voracity of the racial violence and number of injured and dead earned it the name “The Red Summer.”
Violence raged in some of America’s largest cities—Charleston, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Omaha—pitting whites against blacks, soldier against soldier, civilian against police. Some began as minor racial altercations that exploded into riots. Some were the result of mob action against a black man unjustly accused of a crime, usually sexual in nature. And one, resulting in the most black deaths, was simply because a group of blacks dared to stand up for their rights for cotton earnings that were owed them.
One thing remained consistent among all of these incidents. Most of the injuries and deaths were sustained by blacks.
Racial tensions had long been simmering. But what sparked this animosity to turn so violent on such a wide scale?
The reasons ran wide and deep.
A History of Racial Injustice and Intolerance
The bedrock of the racial incidents of 1919 began with slavery and a new system of peonage established In the south following the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment at the end of the Civil War, and Reconstruction. “Jim Crow” laws repressed black rights and upward mobility, and lynchings were a fear tactic used to “keep blacks in their place.” White intolerance grew in the north fueled by thousands of southern blacks moving north in the Great Migration competing with whites for jobs, housing and voting power.
Lack of Jobs and Conflict Over Unions
In many northern industries in the early 1900s, such as steel and meat packing, workers had rallied to form unions and make demands for better pay, working conditions and hours. Business owners often called in black workers as strikebreakers. As blacks became more integrated into the workforce, many pushed back against joining unions, either from mistrust of whites or loyalty to the plant owners who supported black communities through donations to neighborhood organizations like the YMCA and sponsorship of black baseball teams. Whites seethed with resentment.
In 1919, with veterans returning from the war and some industries ratcheting back on war-time production numbers, jobs were scarce. Blacks and whites competed for the same jobs which some whites perceived should be theirs.
Cities burgeoned with European immigrants and Southern blacks. In Chicago, millions of blacks had emigrated north during the Great Migration, but were forced into a designated “Black Belt” area, housing up to 3-4 times the number of blacks it should. Other cities also experienced overcrowding, which led to competition for housing and enforcement of imagined color lines.
War-Time Rhetoric and The Red Scare
During WWI, the United States government unleashed a campaign of speeches, posters and handouts that promoted patriotism and nationalism. It encouraged all citizens, regardless of social or financial status, to contribute to War Bond efforts as a show of patriotism. There was “meatless Thursday” and other programs promoting the idea that Americans should limit their consumption of foods and supplies so that those resources could fuel the bodies and efforts of the troops overseas.
With the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 and the establishment of the world’s first communist state under the dictatorship of Vladimir Lenin, the American government feared communists’ influence and infiltration into American society. It aimed to quell socialist, pacifist or anti-war activists. This became the nation’s first Red Scare. (The second, taking place during the 1940s and 1950s, is widely associated with Senator Joseph McCarthy.)
Passed during WWI, the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act imposed fines and prison sentences for those who were deemed as supporting endeavors against U.S. war efforts, or making insulting or abusive statements against the government, flag, Constitution or military. (History.com) This created an atmosphere of mistrust among neighbors. Who might be listening and turn you in? Anti-communist efforts only strengthened after the war’s end.
Jealousy of Black Middle-Class Prosperity
Particularly in the Washington, D.C. area riots, lower class whites resented the success of black businesses. This jealously sparked violence against blacks, particularly black business owners and farmers.
False Accusations of Rape
Many “race riots” began with an unjust accusation that a black man had raped or solicited a white woman, resulting in vigilante murder. As Ida B. Wells-Barnette discovered during her 20 years of anti-lynching advocacy and murder investigations, the majority of accusations proved untrue. In most cases the charges were either fabricated or the sexual relationship between the black man and white woman had been consensual. (Sources: Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and A Red Record)
Solicitous Newspaper Accounts
Sensationalized and sometimes blatantly untrue newspaper headlines and accounts riled up people to engage in violence. For example, one account in the Chicago Tribune inaccurately reported riot death tolls at 17 whites and 5 blacks, when actually the opposite was true. The daily accounting of injuries and deaths during Chicago’s riot incited both sides to even the score.
Other times the headline and language were purposely inciteful. When a series of reported rapes was attributed to a black man, headlines called for the arrest of the “Black Fiend.”
Vigilantism and Poor Police Enforcement
In many “race riots,” vigilantes broke accused black men out of jail and tortured and lynched them, with law enforcement either unable or unwilling to protect the accused. Citizens, or recently “deputized” civilians, has taken law into their own hands. This blurring delineation between government and civil “police forces” created a lack of accountability, fueling the intensity of violence and adding to the duration of the rioting. In some cases, the very militia or police brought in to suppress an outbreak, joined in to beat or kill blacks.
Lack of Accountability for White Instigators, Especially for Chicago’s Athletic Clubs
In the in-depth report by The Chicago Commission on Race Relations, the Commission concluded that the actions of Chicago’s white, Irish athletic clubs during Chicago’s Race Riot began the majority of the violence, adding to the Riot’s duration and level of violence. These clubs, sponsored by powerful city alderman, were often beyond the jurisdiction of police, who looked the other way, leading athletic club members to carry on acts of violence knowing there would be no repercussions. (Source: The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot) Even President Wilson publicly blamed whites for being the instigators of race-related riots in both Chicago and Washington, D.C. (The Chicago Race Riot of 1919; History.com) There was, however, few indictments and even fewer convictions against white perpetrators.
The “New Negro”
The “Race Riots” of 1919 drew a line in the sand. Especially in the incidents in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, blacks made a unified attempt to fight back. Black soldiers who had fought for democracy oversees now demanded democracy and equal treatment at home. Black veterans were angry that President Woodrow Wilson had talked of ensuring democracy for the world, yet failed to protect blacks at home. After having risked their lives fighting for the causes of freedom and democracy, blacks were denied basic rights such as adequate housing and equality under the law, leading them to become increasingly militant. (The Chicago Race Riot of 1919; History.com)
As many historians note, soldiers’ and black civilians’ actions to defend lives and property can be held as the beginning of the “New Negro” and the start of the Civil Rights Movement—a long and hard-sought battle for equal rights. A battle that is still being fought today.
1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back; David F. Krugler; Cambridge University Press; 2015
Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration and Black Urban Life; Davarian L. Baldwin; The University of North Caroline Press Chapel Hill; 2007
Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919; William M. Tuttle, Jr.; University of Illinois Press; 1970
Race Riots & Resistance: The Red Summer of 1919; Jan Voogd; Peter Lang Publishing; 2008
Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America; Cameron McWhirter; St. Martin’s Griffin, July 2012
The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot; By The Chicago Commission on Race Relations; The University of Chicago Press; 1922
Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900; Bedford/St. Martin’s; 2016, 1997 (reprint of earlier work)
Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packinghouse Workers 1894-1922; James R. Barrett; University of Illinois Press; 1987
The Chicago Race Riot of 1919; History.com; July 1, 2019; http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/chicago-race-riot-of-1919
U.S. Congress Passes Espionage Act; History.com; November 5, 2009; history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-congress-passes-espionage-act