They called the summer of 1919, Red Summer.
All over the country, white supremacists turned on their Black neighbors. In three dozen cities and one rural county, from Chicago to DC to Omaha, to a small town in Arkansas, homes burned and the streets ran red with blood.
1919 saw thousands of men, both Black and White, return from WWI to changed nation. Black veterans were demanding more than they ever had from their country. They had risked their lives in Europe and had been celebrated as heroes. They were less likely to settle for second class citizenship. They came home and joined hundreds of thousands of Blacks Southerners who were leaving the South as part of the Great Migration.
As a result, White veterans returned from the war to a country that they barely recognized. They now had to compete for jobs and housing, and could no longer count on intimidating Black men and women into stepping aside.
In Elaine Arkansas, violence broke out after a group of 100 Black sharecroppers met to discuss unionizing. White landowners arrived, and gunfire broke out, injuring one, killing another. The local sherrif responded by calling the union meeting a calculated insurrection.
Over the next three days, mobs of Whites that numbered as high as 1,000 roamed the streets and assaulted every Black person that they saw. Some estimated they killed over 800 Black residents, and forced thousands more to flee as they torched their houses.
In Chicago, tensions rose as Blacks moved into the South Side. The South Side bordered neighborhoods populated by recent European immigrants, who were now forced to compete with Blacks for jobs in the Meatpacking industry.
Things exploded when a White mob stoned a young Black teenager at an informally desegregated beach. They drove him into the water, where he drowned. Despite testimony from a crowd of witnesses, police quickly arrested a Black man for the crime.
The riots lasted almost a week, ending only after 6,000 National Guard infantrymen were deployed around the Black Belt to prevent any further white attacks.
Newspapers reported 38 deaths and countless incidences of arson. On the morning of July 31, for example, 30 fires were started before noon. The white rioters even stretched steel cable across the roads to keep fire trucks from reaching the blazes.
The riots in DC were sparked when a Black man was questioned and then released in the assault of a White woman. The woman was a wife of a Navy man.
Soon rumors were spreading throughout the drunken bars and haunts of the servicemen home from the war. Like everywhere else in the country, they felt as if their livelihood was under threat by the Blacks newly immigrated from the South. It was hot, jobs were scarce and there was a feeling of frustration that would turn quickly into violence. Violence fed by weeks of sensationalized reporting, warning white residents of sex crimes committed by “Negro fiends”.
That night a mob gathered, building numbers as they moved through a neighborhood that had come to be known as Murder Bay, because of its brothels and the violence that spilled into its streets. Then they crossed the Mall and moved into the Black neighborhoods in Southwest DC, picking up pipes and clubs and other improvised weapons as they went.
Soon a force of about 400 whites were advancing through the Black neighborhoods of DC, facing little resistance and absolutely no police response. Along the way, they attacked Charles Linton Ralls and his wife Mary, chasing him down and beating him. They also turned on George Montgomery, 55, cracking his skull with a brick.
That was just the beginning. The mobs roamed the streets for four days. Nine were killed in the streets, but it’s estimated that at least 30 more died later from their wounds. More than 150 men, women and children were clubbed, beaten and shot by mobs of both races.
Francis Thomas was 17-years-old at the time. He recounted his assault to the NAACP.
“A mob of sailors and soldiers jumped on the [street]car and pulled me off, beating me unmercifully from head to foot, leaving me in such a condition that I could hardly crawl back home,”
He said that he witnessed one more Black man and two Black women who had also been set upon by the mob.
“Before I became unconscious, I could hear them pleading with the Lord to keep them from being killed.”
Carter G. Woodson was 43 at the time. A new dean at Howard University, the author and historian barely escaped the mobs.
Walking home on Pennsylvania Avenue, he hid in the shadows of a storefront as the mob approached.
“They had caught a Negro and deliberately held him as one would a beef for slaughter,” he recalled, “and when they had conveniently adjusted him for lynching, they shot him. I heard him groaning in his struggle as I hurried away as fast as I could without running, expecting every moment to be lynched myself.”
An interesting thing happened as the riots grinded into their fourth violent day. As it became painfully clear that there would be no rescue from the police or National Guard, the Black residents took their lives into their own hands. As the violence peaked, pawn shops and gun dealers reported selling more than 500 guns in a single day. The White mobs no longer roamed without fear of reprisal.
As one White mob moved down Seventh Street, they were met by resistance on either side as Black Army veterans took up their weapons and met force with force.
Marksmen rained down gunfire from atop the Howard Theater, and Blacks took aim from behind barriers at New Jersey Avenue and U Street.
They had turned the tables on the White mob. Though the violence didn’t end immediately, it marked a turning point. The next day the Whites gathered again to venture into the Black neighborhoods. This time a storm caused them to disperse.
Finally the President called in 2000 troops including cavalry from Fort Myer, Marines from Quantico, Army troops from Camp Meade and sailors from ships in the Potomac.
When sociologist Arthur Waskow interviewed the survivors in the 1960s, he found that the experience had given the Black residents of DC a “readiness to face white society as equals”. Just like the survivors of Tulsa Oklahoma race riots which would take place two years later, those who survived Red Summer in DC wouldn’t bow down again.
“The Washington riot demonstrated that neither the silent mass of ‘alley Negroes’ nor the articulate leaders of the Negro community could be counted on to knuckle under.”