Today marks the 100th anniversary of when the Red Summer of 1919 spilled blood in Virginia. If you don’t know the phrase, or what it refers to, then consider this some more of the history they didn’t teach us in school — history that remains quite relevant a century later.
Let’s rewind to 1919: World War I was done. Soldiers were coming home, and America was trying to get back to normal. America, though, was not the same country that it had been before the war. The relatively brief U.S. involvement in a European war had set in motion profound economic and social changes at home. The war created thousands upon thousands of defense-related jobs in the industrial north and Midwest and that, in turn, sparked a mass migration of African-Americans from the Deep South — the so-called “great migration” that remade the demographics of the country. Before the war, some northern cities barely had any African-Americans; now they did. There were inevitable social tensions. In 1917, riots broke out in East Saint Louis, Illinois, a city that had seen its black population double because of wartime production at the factories there. White mobs rampaged through the streets, killing hundreds of people — the exact number was never established. This was but a foreshadowing of what was to come. President Woodrow Wilson was both a liberal — and a racist. In those days, that wasn’t seen as a contradiction. He didn’t mind when 400,000 African-Americans had joined the U.S. Army to fight in France. He was less sanguine about them returning home. One of the hit songs of 1919 was the jaunty “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)” When it came to the African-American soldiers returning home, this was no laughing matter. In Europe, they’d seen things they’d never seen at home: Nations less disposed to prejudice. The black veterans had fought and bled for their country and now demanded that country accept them as equals at home — which is exactly what many whites were afraid of.
Wilson privately said that “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.” An economist with the Labor Department wrote that “the return of the Negro soldier to civil life is one of the most delicate and difficult questions confronting the Nation, north and south.” Meanwhile, a black veteran wrote to the Chicago Daily News to declare that he and his fellow soldiers were “new men” who saw “limitless” possibilities: “They have awakened, but they have not yet the complete conception of what they have awakened to.” That conflict between those ideals and the reality of American life turned into a bloody summer of riots that became known as “the Red Summer.”
A subsequent investigation by the U.S. Senate identified 38 riots across the country. The one common thread: They all involved whites attacking blacks. That, sadly, wasn’t all that unusual for the era, but this was: For the first time, blacks fought back. “Some still clad in uniform, veterans armed themselves to protect their families, homes, and businesses from racial violence,” Jack Beyrer wrote recently in Real Clear Politics. Still, the death toll was awful: At least 165 people dead, probably lots more. Brandeis University professor Chad Williams, author of a book about African-American soldiers in World War I, says this was “one of the most, if not the most, violent periods in American history.” And yet few know about it today.
A sampling of the horrors:
n In May, white sailors — men sworn to defend the country — rioted in Charleston, South Carolina. By the time it was over, three blacks and five whites were dead and the city was under martial law.
n In June, a white mob broke into the jail in Longview, Texas, and dragged out a black prisoner to kill him. When The Chicago Defender, a prominent African-American newspaper, wrote an account of the lynching, whites were further inflamed. A mob — accounts put the number at between 100 and 1,000, take your pick — started burning black-owned homes and businesses. At least four people were killed.
n In July, white police in Bisbee, Arizona, attacked a U.S. cavalry unit — specifically the African-American 10th U.S. Cavalry known as “the Buffalo Soldiers.”
The list goes on and on. Virginia’s sorry role in that Red Summer came on July 21. In Norfolk, there was a week-long celebration planned to honor the city’s African-American soldiers. Two black soldiers got into a fight and white police tried to arrest one of the participants. Somehow, that triggered long-standing tensions between white sailors at the city’s naval base and the black community. The outcome: Two dead, others wounded. That was minor compared to what came later, and elsewhere. In Chicago, a black youth floating on a railroad tie accidentally drifted into the white area of a segregated beach. A white man threw stones at him. Eugene Williams was struck in the forehead, lost his grip, and drowned. Police refused to arrest the attacker, and, as things escalated, the confrontation turned into a riot that went on for a week. Whites set fire to homes and businesses in black neighborhoods, then stretched cables across the street to prevent fire trucks from arriving. By the time it was over, 38 people were dead and more than 1,000 people were left homeless.
The worst violence came in rural Arkansas. Black sharecroppers in the town of Elaine met that September to organize a labor union. White farmers tried to disrupt the meeting and, in time, hundreds of whites went on a murder spree over two days — killing 100 to 237 blacks. Accounts vary because black lives didn’t matter much then. Five whites also died and, naturally, their deaths mattered most to authorities. Arkansas promptly charged 122 blacks and not a single white. Twelve African-Americans were sentenced to death, after trials that lasted barely an hour and in which their lawyers often called no witnesses. Mobs of armed whites encircled the courthouse, which might account for the defense lawyers’ inaction. Six of the defendants somehow managed to appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — which, to the utter astonishment of authorities in Arkansas, vacated the convictions.
This was the first time the Supreme Court got involved in a criminal case where the defendants alleged a violation of their constitutional right to due process. Thus began the long, torturous path to the court’s review of other civil rights cases.
And now you know the story of America’s Red Summer, even if most Americans don’t.