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Red Summer

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Will Brown lynched and burned in Omaha, Nebraska.
I remember how afraid my mother was, how afraid my aunt was. I remember my uncle standing in the window and I heard him say 'here they come' — which meant the race riot was coming down 35th and Giles.
—Juanita Mitchell, who was eight years old during the Chicago race riot of 1919.[1]
The colorful pseudoscience
Race & Racialism
Icon race.svg
Hating thy neighbour
Divide and conquer

The Red Summer refers to a dark period in 1919 when white supremacist violence swept across dozens of cities across the United States, targeting those cities' Black citizens. These racist riots exploded so suddenly due to a variety of post-World War I social tensions, largely arising from Black veterans of the war returning home and expecting better treatment in return for fighting on behalf of their country. White supremacists, on the other hand, feared Black equality, resented Black insistence on expanded civil rights, and were further enraged by Black competition for jobs in the postwar economy. President Woodrow Wilson also contributed to social tensions by segregating the federal government, ensuring that Black soldiers came home to a worse racial environment than they had left.[2] Wilson also tied worsening race relations to the First Red Scare, claiming that, "the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America."[3]:56

Race massacres occurred in major northern American cities like Chicago, Illinois, Omaha, Nebraska, and Washington DC. Racist mass murder occurring in the Northern states proved that white supremacy was not a problem exclusive to the Jim Crow US South. However, the worst bloodshed did occur in a Southern state, when white militiamen surrounded a Black church and murdered between 100 and 240 African-Americans.[4] In total, the death toll of the Red Summer is difficult to estimate due to local authorities' lack of care towards the victims, but modern historians estimate at bare minimum 250 victims.[5]

Racial violence during the Red Summer left a far-reaching legacy which is only in recent years being properly assessed. The destruction of Black communities cost numerous lives and ruined the livelihoods of countless more people, and the memory of government complicity contributed to generations of Black distrust towards the United States and American police.[5] On the other hand, Black veterans often managed to defend themselves and their families, and these experiences galvanized Black self-defense. As University of Minnesota history professor Saje Mathieu wrote, "The people who were the icons of the civil rights movement were raised by the people who survived Red Summer".[5]

Despite the inarguable impact left on American history, the Red Summer was and is ignored by textbooks and museums. Widely-used textbooks like HMH's American History and Pearson’s American Journey only briefly mentioned the Red Summer in a single paragraph, while McGraw-Hill's American Odyssey even implied that Black violence sparked the race massacres.[6] It's not hard to imagine why this was the case. After World War I, the United States told itself that it was the defender of democracy and that its actions as a nation during that time were righteous.[7] The events of the Red Summer, in which White mobs massacred Black citizens, proved these ideas wrong. As historian David Krugler wrote, the Red Summer "doesn't fit into the neat stories we tell ourselves".[5]


The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is Black advancement. It is not the mere presence of Black people that is the problem; rather, it is Blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship.
—Carol Anderson, White Rage (2016).[8]

The Great Migration[edit]

The US in the early 1900s was already on the brink of a racist catastrophe. Enactment of Jim Crow laws across the US South after the collapse of Reconstruction, combined with general poverty and the ubiquitous threat of racial violence for any perceived slight made the entire region unlivable for Black Americans. In the hopes of finding a better place to live their lives, Black Americans flooded north in a movement called the "Great Migration",[9] encouraged by the fact that the Northern states had fought on the right side during the American Civil War and had not at that point implemented systems of racial oppression.

Tragically, the influx of Black citizens led most White Americans in the North to prove themselves just as racist as their fellow Whites in the South. Northern white Americans attempted to halt the movement by declaring whites-only neighborhoods[10] and attempting to intimidate Black Americans by erecting Confederate statues in places that had previously been strongly pro-Union.[11] The Oregon state constitution even had language dating from the 1840s that no Black people could hold land in the state, and legislators used that precedent to repeatedly pass laws banning Black Americans from living in or moving to the state.[12]

1917 massacre in East St. Louis[edit]

East St. Louis in ruins after the 1917 race massacre.

Even after moving to the northern states, Black workers found themselves forced into the lowest-paying and most dangerous jobs.[13] Since Black people worked for such low wages, many businesses employed them as strike breakers, earning Black people the rage of White labor unions.[13] By 1917, rising geopolitical tensions against the German Empire and then outright American entry into World War I intensified the demand for labor of all kinds, especially the dirt-cheap labor by Black people.[14]

The first large race riot in the North exploded in East St. Louis, Illinois in June and July 1917, when White mobs stormed into a Black neighborhood and murdered between 39 (the official number) to 100 Black Americans.[15] The tragedy began amid a strike by the largely White workforce of the Aluminum Ore Company went on strike, a labor action to which the company responded by hiring hundreds of Black workers.[15] This action enraged the White workers and turned a labor dispute into a race riot. White rioters burned homes, shot Black people in the streets, and lynched numerous other people.[15]

Ominously, federal and state officials refused to respond to the ongoing violence in East St. Louis, and President Wilson took no action and made no comment.[16] Police were also complicit, as they shut down the primary exit from the Black neighborhood but still allowed rioters to enter.[15]

Postwar racial tensions[edit]

Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action. They would return home to a hostile nation.
I had been fighting the wrong war. The Germans weren’t the enemy — the enemy was right here at home.
—Harry Haywood, veteran of the 370th Infantry Regiment.[6]

Black soldiers fought for the United States with honor and courage in the hell that was World War I. The all-black 369th Infantry Regiment was widely acclaimed as one of the most effective and decorated American units of the war, earning their nickname the "Harlem Hellfighters."[17] Soldiers of the Hellfighters endured racist bigotry as they trained in Spartanburg, South Carolina but soon experienced what it was like to be hailed as heroes.[17] It was not lost on them that their courage was in service to a nation which denied them basic rights, but the government and the public expected them to make no mention of this contradiction.[17]

Understandably, African-American veterans came home more pissed off than ever at how their fellow Americans were treating them. Civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that Black soldiers should not simply "return from fighting" but instead "return fighting".[14] The growing tide of Black advocacy caused fear among American White supremacists. US Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi warned that the Black soldier was "a short step to the conclusion that his political rights must be respected."[18] Membership in the revived Ku Klux Klan skyrocketed into the millions by the early 1920s.[14] White citizens started lynching recently-discharged Black veterans on the streets. Black veteran Charles Lewis, for instance, was standing on the street in uniform in Hickman, Kentucky when he was arrested without cause and then murdered in a jail cell.[18] Another Black veteran, Daniel Mack, was hanged by a mob in Sylvester, Georgia after he accidentally brushed against a White man in a crowd (he thankfully survived).[19]

There were 58 known instances of Black people being lynched in 1918, and many victims were Black soldiers or veterans in uniform.[20] Thousands more veterans were assaulted over this tumultuous time period.

Attacks begin in the South[edit]

Warning signs of what was to come started popping up across the South by the spring of 1919. On 13 April, 1919, White police officers of Jenkins County, Georgia interrupted celebrations at a Black church, shooting one Black boy to death and murdering two others by locking them in the church which they then set aflame.[21] The officers took another Black man from the scene and tortured a confession of criminality from him before shooting him as well.[21]

The Jenkins County massacre occurred against another factor inciting racial tension, that being the global rise in cotton prices and subsequent improvement in conditions for Black farmers. Black citizens in Jenkins County had begun purchasing property or getting train tickets to leave the South.[22] Events in Jenkins served as the tipping point for a broader campaign of violence in the South.

On 10 May, Charleston, South Carolina (a major US Navy port) exploded into a race riot after a conflict between White sailors and a Black man who refused to step aside for them.[23] White sailors then formed a mob that stormed across Black districts, beating numerous Black citizens and shooting several. In early July, Longview, Texas, a cotton community rife with racial tensions between White farmers and their increasingly successful Black counterparts, also erupted into a race riot as White mobs torched the Black district of the town.[24]

A summer stained with blood[edit]

US soldiers interrogate a Black resident of Washington, DC.
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
—Claude McKay, "If We Must Die" (1919).[25]

A race war in the capitol[edit]

As Woodrow Wilson championed the League of Nations to make the world safe for democracy, Washington DC was not safe for democracy. The first race riot in a major US city during the Red Summer, the outrage in Washington DC began for a depressingly familiar reason. 19-year-old Elsie Stephnick claimed that two Black men bumped into her as she was walking home from work, a tale which escalated into a scuffle and then an attempted gang rape and then tales of roving bands of rapists across the US capital.[26] Authorities never found any evidence to substantiate anything, but they brought in Charles Ralls, a Black man, in for questioning over the alleged attack. Meanwhile, newspapers like the The Washington Post breathlessly published sensationalist stories about the affair, baselessly tying it to previously claimed incidents to paint a picture of a city swept up in an epidemic of Black-on-White crime.[27] On 9 July, the NAACP sent a letter to the Post and the other DC newspapers asking them to tone down their inflammatory rhetoric.[27]

The lyncher and the rioter "in the Cradle of Democracy".

Meanwhile, DC was filled with recently discharged Black and White soldiers suddenly left without much to do. The city had also recently embraced Prohibition, and popular rumors had it that the Black neighborhoods still had the good stuff due to its being an alleged hotbed of crime.[27] After police released Charles Ralls, Stephnick's husband gathered a posse of over a hundred White veterans on 19 July and marched into the Black neighborhood to solve this perceived crime problem once and for all. The White mob began savagely beating any Black citizen they came across with clubs and pipes, including Charles Ralls and his wife.[26] This drew no response from the roughly 700 officers of the DC police, and the mob attacks carried on into the next day, escalating beyond Black neighborhoods across the entire city.[28] Over the night, members of the mob even beat a Black man named Lawrence Johnson with rocks and a pipe right outside the White House.[26]

For the White mobs, their brutality was about more than simple retaliation for an alleged assault on a White woman. Washington DC had more middle-to-upper class Black Americans than any other US city, and White veterans stationed there found the US capital to be foreign to them.[26] The idea of prosperous Black families also offended White people who were struggling to find jobs and make ends meet in the postwar economic slump. This collective rage fell upon the Black citizens of Washington. On the other hand, Black people were not defenseless. Black veterans with access to their own weapons fought back against the White mob, and the massacre became an all-out race war.[26] Both Black and White men performed deadly drive-by shootings against each other. The Washington Post then dumped gasoline on the fire by publishing an article titled "Mobilization for Tonight", which called on White veterans to join "a clean up, that will cause the events of the last two evenings to pale into insignificance."[2]

After no less than four days of street warfare, President Wilson finally ordered US soldiers into the capital to suppress the rioting, but the bloodshed was more so ended by a torrential rainstorm than by the presence of US troops.[28] Ten Whites and five Blacks had been shot to death, nine men had been killed in severe street fights, and at least 30 more died from various wounds.[28] Hundreds of people had been badly beaten or non-fatally shot. The US Congress, which had legal jurisdiction for the capital city, refused to investigate the inaction of the police, instead blaming the race riot on agitators from the Soviet Union.[29]

A catastrophe in Chicago[edit]

A black man being stoned to death during the Chicago race riot.
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?
—NAACP telegram to President Wilson, August 1919.[30]

It was only a few years after the flames of hate died down in DC when race tensions exploded next in Chicago, beginning what was to be bloodiest Red Summer race riot in a major US city. Chicago was experiencing a fairly brutal heat wave, so citizens flocked to the shores of Lake Michigan for some relief. The problem was that Chicago's beaches were segregated, and on 27 July, 17-year-old Eugene Williams accidentally drifted a raft too close to the Whites-only swimming area.[1] A White beachgoer hurled stones at Williams, sinking his raft and drowning the boy. Tragically, the violence didn't stop there.

White Chicagoans celebrate outside a destroyed Black home.

Prior to this, Chicago was a city on the brink. The same economic opportunities that had drawn tens of thousands of Black Americans to the city had also brought 20,000 White Southerners.[31] White citizens of Chicago, encouraged by the incoming Southerners, regarded the incoming Black Americans as invaders.[1] Black men took low-paying jobs usually reserved for recent immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, earning the hostility of those communities as well.[1] Chicago papers also published a glut of fake news surrounding any crime in the city remotely connected to a Black person under inflammatory headlines like "Negro Brutally Murders Prominent Citizen," or "Negro Robs House."[31]

After Eugene Williams' death, police arrested a random Black person rather than the actual culprit.[32] When Black onlookers spoke out against this blatant injustice, Whites attacked them for talking back to the police. One Black man drew a weapon and shot a police officer, and White mobs immediately decided to take revenge for this on the entire Black community of Chicago.[1] Violence escalated rapidly, and White mobs rampaged through Black neighborhoods to burn homes and businesses and attack Black citizens. Chicago police were often complicit, refusing to provide any protection for Black neighborhoods and arresting more than twice as many Black people as White people during the riots.[33] Some officers even joined in the carnage. The New York Times reported that "The hospitals are crowded with the wounded, the majority of whom are negroes."[32]

As in DC, Black veterans rose up to defend their communities, which proved decisive in turning the tide against the White mobs.[1] The attackers began to disperse from Black neighborhoods once they realized that continuing would put them at risk of being shot by Black people in self-defense. Street warfare in Chicago lasted almost a week and claimed 38 lives, 23 Black and 15 White.[32] More than 350 people reported serious injuries. The mobs had successfully burned down some 1,000 Black homes, and no White rioter was ever prosecuted.[32]

A mass shooting in Knoxville[edit]

National Guardsmen and White civilians with a Browning machine gun during the attack on Knoxville's Black business district.

Prior to 1919, the city of Knoxville, Tennessee considered itself a model for tranquil race relations, and the city even occasionally hired a biracial man named Maurice Mays to serve as a deputy sheriff when needed.[34] Mays was a well-known figure in Knoxville, but many White men were scandalized by him since he openly flirted with women of all races. He was also rumored to be the illegitimate son of the city's Democratic mayor, John E. McMillan.[35]

On 30 August, an unknown assailant broke into the house of local White woman Bertie Lindsey and fatally shot her.[34] The assailant had tracked through mud, and despite Mays' shoes being clean and the man found sleeping in his own bed, Knoxville police arrested him.[34] The victim's cousin, Ora Smyth, identified Mays as the perpetrator despite barely glancing at him.[34] Later court testimony also revealed that the primary accusing officer, Andy White, had a personal enmity towards Mays and pushed for his arrest (directly threatening him with a gun at one point) despite a lack of evidence.[36]

As word spread that a Black man had wronged a White woman, furious White men formed a mob around Knox County jailhouse. Fearing a lynching, Knoxville police dressed Mays as a woman and smuggled him out of the jail and onto a train bound to Chattanooga.[34] Not knowing this, the mob waited until evening and then dynamited the outer walls of the jail to break in. While they didn't find Mays, they did find a bunch of impounded alcohol. Now boozed up but still angry, the mob made its way over to Vine and Central, the heart of Knoxville's Black business community. Violence and looting of the Black district continued into the next morning. The Tennessee National Guard, called out to stop the violence, actually joined the mob at this point and began helping them to shoot into occupied buildings.[37] The National Guard also set up two Browning machine guns and opened fire indiscriminately into Black-owned businesses and homes, all while Black snipers and riflemen attempted to defend their community.[38]

The Black residents were woefully outgunned, and eyewitness accounts claimed that Black bodies were stacked "like cordwood," to be hauled away in trucks and wagons.[39] Members of the mob had also boasted of "mowing niggers down like grass" and dumping bodies into the Tennessee River.[34] No investigation was ever conducted into the death toll, however, and the official count was merely two fatalities.

Maurice Mays pleaded innocent, but an all-White jury found him guilty after only 18 minutes of deliberation, and a judge imposed the death penalty.[34] Mays died in the electric chair in 1922, pleading his innocence with his last words.[37] Despite the circumstances surrounding his conviction, three Tennessee governors, most recently Republican ,Wikipedia rejected petitions to posthumously pardon Mays.[37]

A burning corpse in Omaha[edit]

Members of the Omaha lynch mob pose with the charred corpse of Will Brown.
I am innocent, I never did it, my God I am innocent.
—Will Brown's words to Sheriff Mike Clark during the siege of the Douglas County courthouse.[40]

The most gruesome images of the Red Summer came from Omaha. On 28 September, the bullet-riddled body of Will Brown was dumped into a bonfire right in the heart of Omaha's downtown.[41] The mob responsible took photographs of both Brown's corpse and themselves.

Arrest photograph of Will Brown.

On 25 September, just days before, a White woman named Agnes Loebeck and her boyfriend Millard Hoffman claimed a Black gunman had robbed them and then dragged Loebeck into a ravine to rape her. The Omaha Bee immediately took up the story under the headline "Black Beast First Stick-up Couple".[41] Within hours, Loebeck's brother assembled a mob and searched the city before discovering Will Brown in the home of a White woman, his friend. Although Brown suffered from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, Loebeck and Hoffman identified him as the assailant and the police took Brown into custody.[41]

Omaha was, like Chicago and Washington, a city on the verge of a racial disaster. The local economy had deteriorated amid a postwar agricultural slump and Prohibition, and the city's Black population had skyrocketed past 10,000 within just a few years.[42] Packinghouse bosses had also taken to hiring Black workers to break strikes by White union members,[42] which obviously didn't inspire many good feelings among Omaha's White community.

White rioters break into the Douglas County courthouse.

The White community grew angrier and angrier over the situation over the next few days, and on 28 September, an angry mob besieged the Douglas County courthouse. Police, prisoners, and city officials were effectively trapped inside. While in the courthouse, a physical examination confirmed that Will Brown's body was too crippled by rheumatism and a lifetime of hard labor to assault anyone, let alone a healthy young woman.[43] This conclusion was deemed obvious by several lawyers and reporters who visited Brown. The police, meanwhile, resolved to defend Brown and the courthouse from the increasingly violent mob outside. As the mob used bricks to smash in the windows of the courthouse, the police used fire hoses to attempt to force the mob to back away.[43] This was unsuccessful, and the mob managed to strike city commissioner Harry B. Zimmerman while chanting, "lynch the damn Jew."[43] Other members of the angry mob decided to disperse from the courthouse and instead attack homes and businesses in Omaha's segregated Black district in the north. Mayor Ed Smith, a first-term progressive reformist Democrat,[41] emerged from the courthouse to insist that he would uphold the rule of law. The rioters attacked Smith and dragged him down the street by a rope tied to his neck, which Smith only barely survived.[43]

The mob finally set the courthouse aflame with gasoline, threatening the lives of everyone inside. As the courthouse started to burn down, Brown was either released by the guards or dragged out by attackers. The rioters tied a rope around Brown's neck and tortured him by beating him bloody.[43] 14-year-old Henry Fonda, who would grow up to be a fairly successful actor (and the father of Jane Fonda), was a witness to the lynching. In 1975, he told an interviewer that, "My father never talked about it… It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen… There were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope."[44] The mob hanged Will Brown and shot his body for twenty minutes straight, finally cutting him down and dragging his lifeless corpse behind a stolen police car to downtown Omaha.[43] There he was burned on a pyre while members of the mob laughed and posed for photographs.

Will Brown was buried in a shallow grave which was only marked by the word "lynched," and his grave never got a proper marker until 2012 when a California man donated one.[41] No one was tried for the murder of Will Brown or the attempted lynching of Mayor Ed Smith.

A massacre in Elaine[edit]

The body of Frances Hall, who was gunned down outside her home in Elaine, Arkansas.

On 30 September, Elaine, Arkansas joined the shameful list of cities in the Red Summer despite its relatively small size. Elaine was a sharecropping town near the banks of the Mississippi River which had seen a rise in prosperity due to the wartime and postwar surge in cotton prices. Black sharecroppers, however, received none of these benefits since they had their cotton crops taken from them at less than half the market price and sometimes with no payment at all.[45] This was pretty shitty, so 68 Black sharecroppers pooled their money and hired a lawyer from Little Rock to sue their plantation owner, and many other Black cotton pickers formed a labor union and went on strike for better conditions.[45]

As Black sharecroppers gathered in a church on 30 September to agree on labor negotiation strategies, a mob of White men formed outside. As the First Red Scare and the Russian Civil War were still ongoing, Whites across the US were convinced that Black labor activists were agents of Bolshevik communism.[46] Aware of twhe ave of violence sweeping the US, Black laborers had weapons with them in the church, and during the tense confrontation with the mob outside, a gunfight ensued in which a White man was fatally shot.[4] Although the shootout successfully drove the mob away from the church, White residents of the area declared a "nigger hunt" the next day and called for reinforcements from neighboring counties.[45] Armed bands of White men scoured the town of Elaine and the surrounding woods, gunning down any Black person they could find. Leroy Johnston, a Black veteran who had spent almost a year recovering in a French hospital from battlefield wounds, came home during the massacre and was immediately pulled off his train and shot to death alongside his three brothers.[47]

White landowners helped justify these actions by declaring that Elaine was experiencing a Black "insurrection" and even asked Arkansas Governor Charles H. Brough to call in federal troops.[46] The massacre also targeted the relatively few Black landowners in the Elaine area, forcibly driving them off their farms and breaking into courthouses to change deeds and legal records.[48] Many Black families went from being relatively successful to being dispossessed and poor literally overnight. Meanwhile, as federal troops arrived, they helped police arrest thousands of Black people. Black prisoners were confined in cramped, unsanitary "stockades" and denied access to an attorney.[45] Some Black prisoners, especially in the Philips County jail, were subjected to torture and falsely confessed to planning a racial uprising.[46] Black prisoners would only be released if their White employer showed up to personally vouch for them, and the White employers would only do that if the Blacks would agree to settle for their low wages.[45] It was in this manner that the strike was resolved.

In the aftermath of the massacre, Arkansas newspapers crowed that the White mobs of Elaine had put down a Black insurrection and that every victim killed had been guilty. Hasty trials for 12 Black men saw guilty verdicts and death sentences imposed after hardly any deliberation by all-White juries.[47] The defendants in these trials had also been tortured for confessions. Alf Banks, one of the defendants, said to his lawyer that, "I was frequently whipped and also put in an electric chair and shocked and strangling drugs would be put in my nose to make me tell that others had killed or shot at White people and to force me to testify against them."[49] The NAACP, however, stepped in at this point and painstakingly appealed the sentences all the way up through the Arkansas court system and into the US Supreme Court. In February 1923, on a 6-2 margin, the Court agreed that the defendants' rights had been violated, citing the all-White jury, lack of opportunity to testify, confessions under torture, and mob pressure.[47] After this massive landmark decision, Arkansas courts eventually freed all 12 defendants.[49]

Although the Supreme Court made the right decision after the fact, the Elaine massacre destroyed the city's Black community. An estimated 100-240 Black Americans had been murdered.[50] No Whites ever faced justice.[4]

Aftermath and legacy[edit]

White men and boys stand outside a destroyed Black home in Chicago.

A lasting impact[edit]

That reign of racial terror, where again the exculpatory work of the white press, police, grand juries and others ensured that perpetrators were protected rather than punished, undoubtedly prolonged the period of American apartheid.
—Professor Geoff Ward, Washington University in St. Louis.[51]

After the Elaine massacre, the Red Summer slowly died out. But hundreds of Black people had already been brutally murdered, and countless thousands had been forced to flee their destroyed communities.[14] Black families had their wealth destroyed and had been denied the opportunity to pass on a better life to their descendants. Black successes and Black businesses had been eradicated. Even worse, this wasn't the end of America's White supremacist massacres. In 1921, the Tulsa Race Massacre annihilated the wealthiest Black community in the US and saw as many as 300 Black people killed. In 1923, it happened again in the rural town of Rosewood, Florida, killing at least eight Black people and driving out the town's Black community.[52]

The Red Summer left a lasting impact on many Black communities that remained. In Chicago, for instance, the race massacre there helped entrench segregation and further permit racist police practices, leaving Black communities in poverty and oppression.[53] Black Chicago struggles with that legacy to this day. Other Black communities had been annihilated, setting back Black progress by decades or more. That was, of course, much of the point. As Black people grew more successful, there was a retaliatory drive among White supremacists to wipe out that economic progress.[54]

The circumstances of Red Summer's massacres also showed the role of preserving the American caste system, which overlaps with American racism:[55]:71-72

  • Strict endogamy within caste that inflames the upper caste to violence with even false accusations of rape by a lower caste man[55]:109-114
  • Occupational hierarchy — Blacks being forced into low-paying jobs[55]:131-140
  • Dehumanizing and stigma — desecration of corpses, punishment of the group for alleged slights to the upper caste by an individual[55]:141-150
  • Terror as enforcement — public lynchings, mob violence[55]:151-158
  • Inherent superiority versus inherent inferiority — causing lower caste Whites to attack Blacks who improve their lot in life, in some cases inflamed by company owners hiring Black strike-breakers[55]:159-164

William Tuttle, a retired professor of American studies at the University of Kansas, wrote that,[5]

Ethnic cleansing was the goal of the white rioters. They wanted to kill as many Black people as possible and to terrorize the rest until they were willing to leave and live someplace else.

Black Americans fight back[edit]

On the other hand, the NAACP gained about 100,000 members in 1919 and even more in the years after, allowing them to begin pursuing more legal actions and fighting injustice in a greater number of cases.[5] Black reporters such as Ida B. WellsWikipedia and Black newspapers such as The Chicago Defender had proven themselves instrumental in getting the word out of what was really going on. Black veterans had fought back against White mobs in many instances, and they made sure to pass that spirit down to their children. In Washington DC, 17 year-old Carrie Johnson had killed a White police detective in self-defense and successfully got her manslaughter conviction overturned on the basis that she had legitimately feared for her life.[26]

Carter G. Woodson, the historian who later founded Black History Month in 1926, had personally witnessed the race massacres in Washington DC.[26] The Washington DC massacre was actually the first such racist incident in which there was organized and armed Black resistance, a fact which foreshadowed the coming of the Civil Rights Era.[51] Instead of being intimidated into submission, Black Americans emerged from the Red Summer with a greater sense of identity and a determination to keep fighting for their rights.

Buried, forgotten, unearthed[edit]

A construction crew works on the monument honoring victims of the Elaine massacre, 2019.

The Red Summer is not widely taught in US classrooms, and widely-used American history textbooks barely mention the topic.[6] Of course, this is obviously due to the Red Summer being both a tale of White racism and Black resistance. These are inflammatory themes in history at the best of times. Still, by downplaying these events, textbooks and teachers leave students without the knowledge to understand how racism shaped modern America and modern American social relations. This also stunts understanding of American history. As historian David F. Krugler notes, "In popular history, the idea we have about civil rights is that it all began shortly after World War II with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. That is an incomplete picture of civil rights history."[56]

Sadly, trying to revive the memory of the Red Summer has proven contentious. When J. Chester Johnson started uncovering the events in Elaine (which his own grandfather helped perpetrate) for his upcoming book Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and A Story of Reconciliation, he met resistance from his acquaintances and neighbors.[4] His close friend told him, "the more you scratch an event like Elaine, the more the scab of racism bleeds."[4] In 2019, historians seeking to commemorate Elaine were stonewalled by the office of Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, and the governor did not attend the 100th anniversary of the massacre during which a monument was dedicated.[4] In the Arkansas State Senate, SB 591, which would have created a remembrance commission and ensured Elaine's place in state history curriculum, died in committee.[57] In Tennessee, governor Bill Haslam rejected a petition to posthumously pardon Maurice Mays, the principal target of the Knoxville race massacre.[37]

Modern parallels[edit]

There is a direct parallel between that period with what is happening now in this country. There was great economic progress, voting progress. The country saw its first Black president. And then you have this backlash, which was very similar to the backlash that occurred around the turn of the century, during this Red Summer period. And in order to understand what's happening now with police brutality, what's happening now with the racial tensions, you have to understand Red Summer. You have to understand what happened during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The fires that burned, destroying Black Wall Street, still burn today.
—DeNeen Brown, Washington Post writer and historian.[54]

Historians like professor Saje Mathieu of the University of Minnesota and professor Geoff Ward at the Washington University in St. Louis note some disquieting similarities between the events of 1919 and beyond and the events of 2019 and beyond. Increased Black pressure towards greater civil rights (Black Lives Matter) combined with racial violence (police crackdowns on peaceful protests)[58] against a backdrop of a global pandemic (the 1918 flu pandemic that lasted into 1920, and the COVID-19 pandemic that started in 2019). In 2020, the racial narrative focused around police brutality after the unjustifiable death of George Floyd,[59] and Black people being harassed for doing ordinary things.[60] As protestors took to the streets, police around the US reacted with excessive, and sometimes lethal, force. As Ernest Coverson of Amnesty International noted, "The unnecessary and sometimes excessive use of force by police against protesters exhibits the very systemic racism and impunity they had taken to the streets to protest."[58]

Historian Christopher Haley, producer of the documentary Unmarked: African American Cemeteries, also noted similarities between the Red Summer and the 2021 U.S. coup attempt.[61] Just over a century after White supremacist mobs brought terror to Washington DC during the Red Summer, pro-Donald Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to forcibly overturn the election of Joe Biden. As White rioters had forced their way into the Douglas County courthouse in Omaha, right-wing rioters broke into the US Capitol and attacked police. Some rioters at the Capitol waved Confederate flags[62] Others were neo-Nazis.[63] All were at the Capitol out of fear and hate over the fact that their political and racial faction seemed to be losing control.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Red Summer In Chicago: 100 Years After The Race Riots. NPR.
  2. 2.0 2.1 How Woodrow Wilson Stoked the First Urban Race Riot. Politico.
  3. [McWhirter, Cameron (2011). Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 9780805089066.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 In 2 U.S. cities haunted by race massacres, facing the past is painful and divisive. NPR.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Hundreds of black deaths during 1919’s Red Summer are being remembered. PBS News Hour.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Racist riots of 1919: remembering the “red summer” that textbooks have conveniently forgotten. Milwaukee Independent.
  7. “Make the World Safe for Democracy”: President Woodrow Wilson and American Intervention in World War I. Constituting America.
  8. Tulsa race massacre at 100: an act of terrorism America tried to forget. The Guardian.
  9. Black Protest and the Great Migration: A Brief History with Documents by Eric Arnesen (2003) Bedford/St. Martin's. pp. 12–15, 29–35. ISBN 0312391293.
  10. Sundown Towns by Ross Coen (August 23, 2020) Black Past.
  11. Lies Across America by James W. Loewen (1999) Touchstone. pp. 102–103; 182–183. ISBN 0684870673.
  12. Oregon’s founders sought a ‘white utopia,’ a stain of racism that lives on even as state celebrates its progressivism. Oregon Live.
  13. 13.0 13.1 The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Great Migration. Smithsonian Magazine.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Red Summer: The Race Riots of 1919 National World War One Museum and Memorial.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 The East St. Louis Race Riot Left Dozens Dead, Devastating a Community on the Rise. Smithsonian Magazine.
  16. Echoes Of The 1917 East St. Louis “race Riot” In Today’s Uprisings. The Intercept.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 One Hundred Years Ago, the Harlem Hellfighters Bravely Led the U.S. Into WWI: Their courage made headlines across the country, hailing the African-American regiment as heroes even as they faced discrimination at home Smithsonian Magazine.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Remembering Black Veterans Targeted for Racial Terror Lynchings. Equal Justice Initiative.
  19. James, Rawn , Jr. (2013). "The Double V: How Wars, Protest, and Harry Truman Desegregated America’s Military." Bloomsbury Publishing USA. ISBN 9781608196173. p. 79.
  20. Fighting for Respect: African-American Soldiers in WWI. The Campaign for the National Museum of the United States Army.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Day intended to be a joyful revival turned to horror in Jenkins County in 1919. Augusta Chronicle.
  22. Bloody race riots of 1919 explored. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
  23. The Charleston Riot of 1919. Charleston County Public Library.
  24. Longview Race Riot of 1919. Texas State Historical Association.
  25. A Summary and Analysis of Claude McKay’s ‘If We Must Die’. Interesting Literature.
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 26.4 26.5 26.6 One Hundred Years Ago, a Four-Day Race Riot Engulfed Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Magazine.
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 The deadly race riot ‘aided and abetted’ by The Washington Post a century ago. Washington Post.
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 The Forgotten Washington Race War of 1919. History News Network.
  29. The Forgotten Washington Race War of 1919. History News Network.
  30. The Harlem Renaissance. University of British Columbia.
  31. 31.0 31.1 “Chicago and Its Eight Reasons”: Walter White Considers the Causes of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot. "History Matters", George Mason University.
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 What We’ve Learned from 101 Years of American Unrest. Politico.
  33. From Riots to Renaissance: 1919 Race Riot. WTTW Chicago.
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 34.3 34.4 34.5 34.6 Knoxville’s Red Summer of 1919. Appalachian History.
  35. Knoxville Riot of 1919. The Tennessee Encyclopedia.
  36. Maurice Mays And The Knoxville Race Riots: A Tragedy Forgotten. Angela Dennis. Medium.
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  38. Lakin, Matthew (2000). "'A Dark Night': The Knoxville Race Riot of 1919". Journal of East Tennessee History. East Tennessee Historical Society. 72 (3): 1–29. ISSN 1058-2126. OCLC 23044540. p. 1–29
  39. How the Tulsa Massacre mirrors Knoxville’s 1919 Red Summer and the devastation it left behind. Knox News.
  40. A Horrible Lynching . Nebraska Studies.
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  42. 42.0 42.1 Michael L Lawson, “Omaha, a City in Ferment: Summer of 1919,” Nebraska History 58 (1977): 395-417.
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  44. Turning on the Light: Henry Fonda and Will Brown.
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 45.3 45.4 From the Archives: The Elaine Massacre. Facing South: A Voice for a Changing South.
  46. 46.0 46.1 46.2 Elaine Massacre of 1919. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
  47. 47.0 47.1 47.2 The Massacre of Black Sharecroppers That Led the Supreme Court to Curb the Racial Disparities of the Justice System. Smithsonian Magazine.
  48. ‘We want our land back’: for descendants of the Elaine massacre, history is far from settled. The Guardian
  49. 49.0 49.1 Moore v. Dempsey. "Jim Crow Stories," PBS.
  50. Letter from US Representative Rick Crawford, 20 September, 2019.
  51. 51.0 51.1 Racial violence and a pandemic: How the Red Summer of 1919 relates to 2020. NBC News.
  52. Rosewood, Florida, marks 100 years since race massacre. Here’s what happened. CNN.
  53. The Horrific Violence and Continuing Legacy of Chicago's 1919 Race Riot. PBS.
  54. 54.0 54.1 Remembering Red Summer: Years Of Racial Violence 'Set The Stage' For Tulsa Massacre. NPR.
  55. 55.0 55.1 55.2 55.3 55.4 55.5 Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (2020) Random House. ISBN 0593230256.
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  57. Descendants of Arkansas' Elaine Massacre victims push for restorative justice. Facing South: A Voice for a Changing South.
  58. 58.0 58.1 USA: Law enforcement violated Black Lives Matter protesters’ human rights, documents acts of police violence and excessive Force. Amnesty International.
  59. Derek Chauvin's sentence for murdering George Floyd won't stop police killings. NBC News.
  60. White woman fired after calling NYPD on black man who asked her to leash her dog in Central Park. NBC News.
  61. Red Summer: When Racist Mobs Ruled. PBS.
  62. Confederate flag-waving man found guilty in Capitol riot case. Reuters.
  63. Nazi sympathizer and Army reservist who stormed the Capitol sentenced to 4 years in Jan. 6 case. NBC News.