The Red Summer refers to the summer and early autumn of 1919, which was marked by hundreds of deaths and higher casualties across the United States, as a result of racial riots 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 five whites and an estimated 100–240 black people were killed; Chicago and Washington, D.C. had 38 and 15 deaths, respectively, and many more injured, with extensive property damage in Chicago.
A white gang hunting African Americans during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.
|Outcome||Racial riots against black Americans by white Americans across the United States.|
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 white people and black people. 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 North 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 of the North 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, or 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.
(emphasis in original)
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
- 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".
- 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.
Based on Haynes' report as summarized in the New York Times (1919), except as noted.
|May 10||Charleston, South Carolina|
|May 10||Sylvester, Georgia|
|May 29||New London, Connecticut|
|May 29||Putnam County, Georgia|
|May 31||Monticello, Mississippi|
|June 13||Memphis, Tennessee|
|June 27||Annapolis, Maryland|
|June 27||Macon, Mississippi|
|July 3||Bisbee, Arizona|
|July 5||Scranton, Pennsylvania|
|July 6||Dublin, Georgia|
|July 7||Philadelphia, Pennsylvania|
|July 8||Coatesville, Pennsylvania|
|July 9||Tuscaloosa, Alabama|
|July 10||Longview, Texas|
|July 11||Baltimore, Maryland|
|July 15||Port Arthur, Texas|
|July 19||Washington, D.C.|
|July 21||Norfolk, Virginia|
|July 23||New Orleans, Louisiana|
|July 23||Darby, Pennsylvania|
|July 26||Hobson City, Alabama|
|July 27||Chicago, Illinois|
|July 28||Newberry, South Carolina|
|July 31||Bloomington, Illinois|
|July 31||Syracuse, New York|
|July 31||Philadelphia, Pennsylvania|
|August 4||Hattiesburg, Mississippi|
|August 6||Texarkana, Texas|
|August 21||New York City, New York|
|August 30||Knoxville, Tennessee|
|September 28||Omaha, Nebraska|
|October 1||Elaine, Arkansas|
— National Equal Rights League to President Woodrow Wilson
November 25, 1919
In September 1919, in response to the Red Summer, the African Blood Brotherhood formed in northern cities to serve as an "armed resistance" movement.
Protests and appeals to the federal government continued for weeks. A letter in late November from the National Equal Rights League appealed to Wilson's international advocacy for human rights: "We appeal to you to have your country undertake for its racial minority that which you forced Poland and Austria to undertake for their racial minorities."
The report by Dr. George Edmund Haynes of October 1919 was a call for national action; it was published in The New York Times and other major newspapers. He noted that lynchings were a national problem. As President Wilson had noted in a 1918 speech: from 1889–1918, more than 3,000 people had been lynched; 2,472 were black men, and 50 were black women. Haynes said that states had shown themselves "unable or unwilling" to put a stop to lynchings, and seldom prosecuted the murderers. The fact that white men had been lynched in the North as well, he argued, demonstrated the national nature of the overall problem: "It is idle to suppose that murder can be confined to one section of the country or to one race." He connected the lynchings to the widespread racial riots against blacks in 1919:
Persistence of unpunished lynchings of negroes fosters lawlessness among white men imbued with the mob spirit, and creates a spirit of bitterness among negroes. In such a state of public mind a trivial incident can precipitate a riot.
Disregard of law and legal process will inevitably lead to more and more frequent clashes and bloody encounters between white men and negroes and a condition of potential race war in many cities of the United States.
Unchecked mob violence creates hatred and intolerance, making impossible free and dispassionate discussion not only of race problems, but questions on which races and sections differ.
In mid-summer, in the middle of the Chicago racial violence against blacks, a federal official told The New York Times that the violence resulted from "an agitation, which involves the I.W.W., Bolshevism and the worst features of other extreme radical movements". He supported that claim with copies of negro publications that called for alliances with leftist groups, praised the Soviet regime, and contrasted the courage of jailed Socialist Eugene V. Debs with the "school boy rhetoric" of traditional black leaders. The Times characterized the publications as "vicious and apparently well financed", mentioned "certain factions of the radical Socialist elements", and reported it all under the headline: "Reds Try to Stir Negroes to Revolt".
In response, some black leaders such as Bishop Charles Henry Phillips of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church asked black people to shun violence in favor of "patience" and "moral suasion." Phillips opposed propaganda favoring violence, and he noted the grounds of injustice to the black people:
I cannot believe that the negro was influenced by Bolshevist agents in the part he took in the rioting. It is not like him to be a traitor or a revolutionist who would destroy the Government. But then the reign of mob law to which he has so long lived in terror and the injustices to which he has had to submit have made him sensitive and impatient.
The connection between black people and Bolshevism was widely repeated. In August 1919, The Wall Street Journal wrote: "Race riots seem to have for their genesis a Bolshevist, a Negro, and a gun." The National Security League repeated that reading of events. In presenting the Haynes report in early October, The New York Times provided a context which his report did not mention. Haynes documented violence and inaction on the state level.
The Times saw "bloodshed on a scale amounting to local insurrection" as evidence of "a new negro problem" because of "influences that are now working to drive a wedge of bitterness and hatred between the two races". Until recently, the Times said, black leaders showed "a sense of appreciation" for what whites had suffered on their behalf in fighting a civil war that "bestowed on the black man opportunities far in advance of those he had in any other part of the white man's world". Now militants were supplanting Booker T. Washington, who had "steadily argued conciliatory methods". The Times continued:
Every week the militant leaders gain more headway. They may be divided into general classes. One consists of radicals and revolutionaries. They are spreading Bolshevist propaganda. It is reported that they are winning many recruits among the colored race. When the ignorance that exists among negroes in many sections of the country is taken into consideration the danger of inflaming them by revolutionary doctrine may [be] apprehended.... The other class of militant leaders confine their agitation to a fight against all forms of color discrimination. They are for a program on uncompromising protest, "to fight and continue to fight for citizenship rights and full democratic privileges."
Today we raise the terrible weapon of self-defense ... When the armed lynchers gather, we too must gather armed." When the Times endorsed Haynes' call for a bi-racial conference to establish "some plan to guarantee greater protection, justice, and opportunity to negroes that will gain the support of law-abiding citizens of both races", it endorsed discussion with "those negro leaders who are opposed to militant methods.
In mid-October government sources provided the Times with evidence of Bolshevist propaganda appealing to America's black communities. This account set Red propaganda in the black community into a broader context, since it was "paralleling the agitation that is being carried on in industrial centres of the North and West, where there are many alien laborers." The Times described newspapers, magazines, and "so-called 'negro betterment' organizations" as the way propaganda about the "doctrines of Lenin and Trotzky" was distributed to black people. It cited quotes from such publications, which contrasted the recent violence in Chicago and Washington, D.C. with:"
...Soviet Russia, a country in which dozens of racial and lingual types have settled their many differences and found a common meeting ground, a country which no longer oppresses colonies, a country from which the lynch rope is banished and in which racial tolerance and peace now exist.
The Times noted a call for unionization: "Negroes must form cotton workers' unions. Southern white capitalists know that the negroes can bring the white bourbon South to its knees. So go to it."
Coverage of the root causes of the riot against black people in Elaine, Arkansas evolved as the violence stretched over several days. A dispatch from Helena, Arkansas, to the New York Times datelined October 1 said: "Returning members of the [white] posse brought numerous stories and rumors, through all of which ran the belief that the rioting was due to propaganda distributed among the negroes by white men." The next day's report added detail: "Additional evidence has been obtained of the activities of propagandists among the negroes, and it is thought that a plot existed for a general uprising against the whites." A white man had been arrested and was "alleged to have been preaching social equality among the negroes". Part of the headline was: "Trouble Traced to Socialist Agitators". A few days later a Western Newspaper Union dispatch captioned a photo using the words "Captive Negro Insurrectionists".
During the Chicago racial violence against blacks, the press learned from Department of Justice officials that the IWW and Bolsheviks were "spreading propaganda to breed race hatred." FBI agents filed reports that leftist views were winning converts in the black community. One cited the work of the NAACP "urging the colored people to insist upon equality with white people and to resort to force, if necessary. J. Edgar Hoover, at the start of his career in government, analyzed the riots for the Attorney General. He blamed the July Washington, D.C., riots on "numerous assaults committed by Negroes upon white women". For the October events in Arkansas, he blamed "certain local agitation in a Negro lodge." A more general cause he cited was "propaganda of a radical nature." He charged that socialists were feeding propaganda to black-owned magazines such as The Messenger, which in turn aroused their black readers. He did not note the white perpetrators of violence, whose activities local authorities documented. As chief of the Radical Division within the U.S. Department of Justice, Hoover began an investigation of "negro activities" and targeted Marcus Garvey because he thought his newspaper Negro World preached Bolshevism. He authorized the hiring of black undercover agents to spy on black organizations and publications in Harlem.
On November 17, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer reported to Congress on the threat that anarchists and Bolsheviks posed to the government. More than half the report documented radicalism in the black community and the "open defiance" black leaders advocated in response to racial violence and the summer's rioting. It faulted the leadership of the black community for an "ill-governed reaction toward race rioting ... In all discussions of the recent racial riots against blacks there is reflected the note of pride that the Negro has found himself. that he has 'fought back,' that never again will he tamely submit to violence and intimidation." It described "the dangerous spirit of defiance and vengeance at work among the Negro leaders."
- New York Times: "For Action on Race Riot Peril," October 5, 1919, accessed January 20, 2010. This newspaper article includes several paragraphs of editorial analysis followed by Dr. George E. Haynes' report, "summarized at several points."
- Alana J. Erickson, "Red Summer", in Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History (NY: Macmillan, 1960), 2293-4
- George P. Cunningham, "James Weldon Johnson", in Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History (NY: Macmillan, 1960), 1459–1461
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- McWhirter, 31–32, emphasis in original
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- Robert Whitaker, On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice that Remade a Nation (New York: Random House, 2008), 51
- New York Times: "Ask Wilson to Aid Negroes," November 26, 1919. Retrieved January 21, 2010.
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- "Denies Negroes are 'Reds'" New York Times August 3, 1919, accessed January 28, 2010. Phillips was based in Nashville, Tennessee.
- McWhirter, 160
- New York Times: "Reds are Working among Negroes," October 19, 1919. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
- New York Times: "None Killed in Fight with Arkansas Posse," October 2, 1919. Retrieved January 27, 2010.
- New York Times: "Six More are Killed in Arkansas Riots", October 3, 1919. Retrieved January 27, 2010.
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- McWhirter, 159
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