The Red Summer: Race Riots of 1919
The riots of the summer of 1919 happened between the months of April and October. This is now named the Red Summer. There were many events that led up and cause the Red Summer. When the African American soldiers came back to the U.S. after the war, they were “awakened politically, socially, and artistically like never before” and they wanted their freedom (Eric Arnesen). They had just got done fighting for the freedom of a country in which they did not even have any rights themselves. Most of them ended up moving to the North then. This caused a lot of fighting over jobs. African American people were already considered second-class and below; black people did not want to go down further. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) grew outrageously in numbers then. Before 1914, the association only had about 9,000 members, 8,700 of which lived in the North. In the early 1920s, they had 100,000 members throughout the nation and a majority of the members lived in the south (“Red Summer of 1919”).
Other events that led up to the riots that summer included the racial strife at the time, labor shortage, and the Great Migration. Labor shortages happened in industrial cities that profited from World War I in the north and midwest and they happened due to the men leaving for the war. When they left, the U.S. stopped European immigration. Out of the labor shortages came the Great Migration. “At least 500,000 African-Americans moved from the South to Northern and Midwestern cities” (Femi Lewis). Other reasons they left the South was because of the Jim Crow laws, segregation in the schools, and the lack of job opportunities. The racial strife was when the white workers living in the North and midwestern cities did not want to have African-American workers as competition.
The Red Summer consisted of about twenty-five anti-black riots that happened in many different states across the U.S. Even though there were so many riots, the federal troops did not help. In fact, they joined in with the whites against African Americans. Some white passing African Americans would go into white mobs as spies to get information. The riots happened between April and October of 1919. The worst of the riots happened in Chicago, Illinois; Washington D.C.; and Elaine, Arkansas.
The week of July 27 through August 3, 1919 will always be remembered as one of the worst of all riots during the Red Summer. On July 27, a black man named Eugene Williams was stoned and drowned in Lake Michigan. He had been swimming there with his friends and had accidentally crossed the border between blacks and whites. The white men that were at the beach threw stones at him, and he drowned. This started even more fighting between gangs and mobs then there had been before that. Between July 27 and August 3, fifteen whites and 23 blacks had died just in Chicago. Chicago’s mayor at the time, Richard J. Daley, was also the leader of a gang. The gang was called the Hamburg Athletic Club. They played sports but were indeed a gang. Members of the Hamburg Athletic Club were the people who started the race riots that week. Of course because Mayor Daley was the leader of the Club, he would not stop the rioting. In just that one week, it is said that over one thousand families were left without homes, over five hundred people injured, and over fifty people killed. After this, there were housing shortages and even more labor conflict and postwar unemployment.
In Washington D.C., on July 19, 1919, a black man was accused of sexually assaulting a woman who was the wife of a Navy man. When the word got around to the white men who were sailors, Marines, and soldiers that were hanging around in downtown Washington D.C., they were not happy. Many white men started beating random African Americans. They would pull them off of random streetcars and off of the sidewalks to beat them. Late into that night, a mob of the white men went down to the Southwest D.C. area. They took their lead pipes and clubs and pieces of lumber into a mostly black neighborhood to beat them. Eventually they began not only going into their neighborhoods, but they would beat them in the center market and in front of the white house. The police in the area did nothing. By the next night, African Americans began to fight back. At the end of the fighting, there were fifty five people who either died or were severely injured.
Elaine, Arkansas was also very violent in another part of the country. The African-American sharecroppers in Elaine were quite unhappy about the low wages they were being paid for doing their jobs. They met in a small church on September 30, 1919 with an attorney who had come from Little Rock. They were trying to organize a union so they could express their worries and concerns to the planters. That night some white men found out about it and fired shots into the church at eleven pm. There were about three hundred or four hundred white men firing. The sharecroppers knew that they were at a risk when they met and were prepared to fire back. It lasted until the next day. Over two hundred people died. They did then share their proposition with the planters. The planters opposed their organization.
These three examples are only a small part of everything that happened in the summer of 1919. There were over twenty five major riots and even more small, not as recognizable ones. Many black families homes were torched. During the whole summer out of everyone that died, over 60% of them were black. After all of the major riots were over, the whites wanted to make official segregation laws. Woodrow Wilson blamed the whites for all of it, but he also would not do anything about it. In Chicago, though, the people there organized the Chicago Commission on Race Relations. The organization consisted of six white men and six black men. Those twelve men talked about many different issues and made a Bill of Complaints. Many different issues including African Americans being “denied the vote in the South, trapped in a system of sharecropping that precluded economic mobility, excluded from countless workplaces, denigrated as biologically and culturally inferior, subject to harassment and violence, and relegated to segregated facilities that were palpably inferior to those of their white counterparts” – were all a part of the Bill (Eric Arnesen).
The NAACP is still working today. They work on many cases with African Americans because everyone is still not all equal. During that summer, the police either participated in the killing of black people, or they saw what was going on and did nothing to try to stop it. Today in the news there can be a lot about a lot of police violence because they are targeting African Americans rather than looking at everyone the same. Not only just the police are doing that too.
Take Stephon Clark, for example. He was in his grandmother’s backyard when he was shot by the police. The police in Sacramento got a 911 call saying that he was breaking through car windows. When they saw him from the helicopter view, he was in his grandmother’s backyard. The police then followed him and shot at him twenty times. He was hit eight times in the back. Saheed Vassell was also killed by the police. Vassell was mentally ill and lived in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Five police officers– only two of which were in uniform– followed him and shot at him ten times altogether. They had thought that Vassell pointed a gun at him, but it turned out to only be a metal pipe. These two men are just a couple victims out of the many that were unfairly shot by the police.
These kind of events also happen with people who are not enforcing the law. Brennan Walker is fourteen years old and lives in Detroit, Michigan. He had slept in one day and missed the bus. When he went to knock on the door of a house nearby to ask for directions to his high school, the woman that answered ordered him to stop trying to break into her house. After that, her husband came to the door with a gun and shot at him, but as soon as he saw the gun he started running, so he did not get hit. A similar situation happened in Detroit in 2014. When Renisha McBride’s car broke down, she knocked on the door of a close by house looking for help. Theodore Wafer- the homeowner- saw her through the screen door and assumed she was trying to break in. He then got a gun and shot her in the face through the screen.
Those examples are just a small amount of everything that is still happening today. The NAACP watches, reports, and helps with a lot of cases where African Americans are treated unfairly and worse than a white person. Even after everything that people have done to stop racism, our country still has a long way to go. Racist remarks are made every day and some people do not experience consequences for their actions. Even though we still have a long way to go, the United States has come a long way. Like how slavery is now illegal. There have been many civil rights leaders that contributed and are still contributing to other causes too. The Red Summer was a time in U.S history that is considered to have some of the worst race riots that have ever happened here.
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