The end of World War in 1918 proved to be a turning point for Black Americans. No longer content to submit quietly, instead choosing a more outspoken advocacy for their dignity and rights. This new approach and its goals to obtain new freedoms earned the title the “New Negro Movement.” As the movement flourished and a postwar cascade of racial violence spread across the country in the summer of 1919, White fear mounted.
In major cities across the country, nervous White citizens and officials, civilian and military, reported planned uprisings by African Americans. None of the “plots” were authentic, but they unsettled Whites in the affected communities Not since Nat Turner’s revolt, in 1831, and John Brown’s raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal, in 1859, had fears of black uprisings so transfixed and troubled White Americans.
“Should the Negro become fairly well organized and demand social equality, there is no doubt but that serious trouble would ensue throughout the entire southern belt of the United States,” a White attorney from South Carolina warned the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) on July 3, 1919.
Anxiety over purported uprisings stemmed in part from an understanding that the riots in Washington, Chicago, and elsewhere were not aberrations. The Black press, monitored regularly by the BOI, the Military Investigation Department (MID) and the Postal Service, keenly appreciated that African Americans took military service during the war as evidence of equality and had returned fighting for their rights.
In a report written by postal official Robert Bowen, released just three weeks before Washington’s 1919 race riots, he warned about the role of the Black Press. “The Negro masses may be made to assume a very dangerous power” through these publications.
“As far back as the first movement of the American troops to France the Negro publicists began to avail themselves of the argument that since the Negro was fit to wear the uniform he was, therefore, fit for everything else.”
Although he excerpted statement after statement in which New Negro authors and publications hailed militancy in pursuit of democracy, he fixated on Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph’s promotion of socialism and their support of the Industrial Workers of the World. In a simplistic and inaccurate essay he concluded: all New Negroes advocate equality; communists seek classless equality through revolution; therefore, all New Negroes are revolutionary communists.
The communist/Black association was in part pushed further by a young J. Edgar Hoover who had just been head of the Department of Justice’s Radical Division. When no connection was found, Hoover said they were not looking hard enough and redoubled his efforts.
The federal campaign to link the Red Scare to 1919’s racial conflict is thoroughly documented. Less well known, however, is the sustained drive undertaken in 1919 to disarm African Americans because of fears that they were plotting violent uprisings. With the cooperation of state and local officials as well as white gun dealers, federal and military officials seized weapons from individual black gun owners, monitored weapons sales to blacks, and asked gun dealers not to sell weapons and ammunition to African Americans.
By late August 1919, the BI was chasing the foggiest of rumors, yet the fact that no “uprisings” occurred did not abate its concern and that of other national security agencies. The MID, in its last weekly intelligence digest for August, declared that although there had been no outbreaks of racial violence, the national atmosphere was like that of “an armed truce” and that agitators continued to stir Black resentment by talking and writing about racial injustices.