The Red Summer of 1919: Black America Wakes Up

After 50 years of post-slavery, African Americans had grown weary about their real prospects for freedom in America. Their treatment as second class citizens found them relegated to separate but inferior facilities, denied the right to vote, excluded from many opportunities for gainful employment, and subjected to countless acts of harassment and violence.

However in 1918, as World War I drew to an end, Black wartime participation had given them hope. By the end of the war, more than 500,000 Blacks had migrated from the North, where wartime labor demands opened employment opportunities to them that had been closed before. Black soldiers, who had experienced less hostile Whites in Europe, were more determined than ever to bring freedom to their own shores. Would their service in the factories and war fields of Europe be rewarded?

No! Instead of rewarding African Americans for their military service, White Americans seemed committed to restoring race relations to pre-war status. As a result, the summer of 1919 experienced the worst series of race riots and lynchings in American history.

Author Cameron McWhirter quotes John Hope Franklin, the Black historian, as calling 1919 “the greatest period of interracial strife the nation has ever witnessed.”

From April to October 1919, American cities exploded with a degree of violence with such extensive bloodshed, that riots broke out in major cities throughout the nation including: Houston, TX; East St. Louis, IL; Washington, D.C; Knoxville, TN; Longview, TX; Phillips County, AR; Omaha, NE; Tulsa, OK; Charleston, SC; and in Chicago, IL. Records indicate all of the incidents were started by Whites.

In addition, the Ku Klux Klan revived its violent activities in the South include 64 lynching in 1918 and 83 in 1919.

Blacks Fight Back

However, Black Americans were more committed than ever to challenging the country’s hypocrisy.

Before World War I, the NAACP had just 9000 members nationwide and only 300 in the south, but by the early 1920s, national membership had risen to 100,000, with Southern chapters constituting a slight majority.

Instead of taking this assault, this time Black America was awake, and Black soldiers returning from the war were actively ready to help protect their communities.

As W.E.B. DuBois proclaimed in his 1919 “Crisis” editorial, Returning Soldiers, “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.”

A “Southern Black woman,” as she identified herself in a letter to The Crisis, praised Blacks for fighting back. “The Washington riot gave me a thrill that comes once in a life time…at last our men had stood up like men… I stood up alone in my room…. And exclaimed aloud, ‘Oh I thank god, thank God. The pent up horror, grief and humiliation of a lifetime – half a century – was being stripped from me.”


In part, White working class workers in North and Midwestern cities resented the presence of African Americans who were now competition for employment. There. Postwar unemployment, labor conflicts, housing shortages, and heat provided the context for some of the Northern conflicts.

In addition, the American press added fuel to the fire. Talk of a “New Negro” appeared in print and was heard on the streets. The New York Times lamented the new Black militancy: “There had been no trouble with the Negro before the war when most admitted the superiority of the White race.”


Millen, GA – April 14, 1919 “a White mob attacked the cultural icons of the Black community there, burning down the symbols of their religious and social solidarity.” The next day “six fatalities were reported (two White officers and 4 Black men) . . . [with] several Negro lodges and church buildings” burned.

Charleston, SC – May 11, 1919 A group of boozed-up Navy sailors attacked a Black man and the community fought back. Three Black men died of gunshot wounds.

Vicksburg, MS – May 15, 1919 In a riot spurred by rumors of an attack on a White woman, 1,000 White rioters broke Lloyd Clay out of jail, then hung and burned him in the city center, according to a news article written by the Chicago Defender, the sheriff looked on as it happened.

New London, CT – June 13, 1919 Another riot involving interracial violence between sailors. When police arrested two White sailors, other White sailors raided a Black hotel and beat patrons severely. A fierce battle ensued that the town’s entire police force and fire department could not stop.

Annapolis, MD – June 27, 1919 Another riot between Black and White servicemen, joined by residents in Annapolis, occurred over the threat of each race over each other’s women.

Bisbee, AR – July 3, 1919 A conflict between Buffalo soldiers and members of local police forces followed an incident between a military policeman and some of the Buffalo Soldiers. At least eight people were seriously injured, and fifty soldiers were arrested.

Longview, TX – July 10, 1919 This riot ensued after a Black school teacher was beaten to death for publishing an anonymous article in the Chicago Defender about a lynching that had occurred in Longview. Local and state officials called in the Texas National Guard and the Texas Rangers who finally got the incident under control.

Washington, DC – July 19, 1919 The riots in Washington, D.C began in retaliation of Blacks being attacked by Whites the night before. The White mob – whose actions were triggered in large part by weeks of sensational newspaper accounts of alleged sex crimes by a “Negro fiend” – unleashed a wave of violence that swept over the city for four days. The men beat random African Americans, pulling them off of streetcars and beating street pedestrians. African Americans fought back after local police refused to intervene. For four days, African Americans and White residents fought. By July 23, reports say at least four Whites and two African Americans were killed. In addition, a reported 50 to 150 more were injured.

Norfolk, VA – July 21, 1919 Rioting broke out during the first day of a week-long celebration to honor the return of Black troops to Norfolk, after Virginia police tried to arrest a Black soldier who was alleged to have been involved in a fight.

Chicago, IL – July 27, 1919 A young Black man visiting Lake Michigan beaches accidentally swam on the South Side, which was frequented by Whites. As a result, he was stoned and drowned. After the police refused to arrest the young man’s attackers, and instead arrested a Black man, racial violence ensured. For 13 days, White rioters destroyed the homes and businesses of African Americans. By the end of the riot, an estimated 1,000 African-American families were homeless, over 500 were injured and 60 people were killed.

Syracuse, NY – July 31, 1919 Tensions during a labor strike in Syracuse, NY, led to a small riot. Polish and Italian iron molders out on strike attacked Black replacement workers hired by Globe Malleable Iron Works.

Knoxville, TN – August 30, 1919 One of the largest riots of the Red Summer began when a lynch mob stormed the county jail in search of a Mulatto man who had been accused of murdering a White woman. Unable to find him, they got in a gun battle with residents of a Black neighborhood. The National Guard eventually dispersed the rioters.

Omaha, NE – September 28, 1919 This riot included a gruesome lynching, the death of two White men, and the attempted hanging of the city’s Mayor.

Elaine, Arkansas – October 1, 1919 This was the bloodiest race riot of the summer. It all began after Whites tried to disband the organization efforts of African American who were meeting to organize a union so they could express their concerns to local planters. When two police officers were shot, a call went out by the sheriff for men “to hunt Mr. Nigger.” Hundreds of armed Whites came to town and began shooting a Blacks indiscriminately. The military was called in to restore order but in the end five White men and up to 200 Blacks were reportedly killed.

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Bonita Gooch

Since 1996, Bonita has served as as Editor-in-Chief of The Community Voice newspaper. As the owner, she has guided the Wichita-based publication’s growth in reach across the state of Kansas and into...

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