A Facebook post I read on the first day of Black History Month linked to an article published by The Grio, titled “Hundreds of Black men, women and children burned alive, shot, lynched white mobs during Red Summer.” The title alone captured my attention. It is a true story about America in the summer of 1919 and how the streets in cities across the nation ran red with blood from racial violence, and yet today, 100 years later, not many people know it even happened.
It rolled right through, in small towns like Elaine, Arkansas, in medium-size places such as Annapolis, Maryland, and Syracuse, New York, and in big cities like Washington and Chicago.
Hundreds of African American men, women and children were burned alive, shot, lynched or beaten to death by white mobs. Thousands saw their homes and businesses burned to the ground and were driven out, many never to return.
It was branded “Red Summer” because of the bloodshed and amounted to some of the worst white-on-black violence in U.S. history.
Beyond the lives and family fortunes lost, it had far-reaching repercussions, contributing to generations of black distrust of white authority. But it also galvanized blacks to defend themselves and their neighborhoods with fists and guns; reinvigorated civil rights organizations like the NAACP.
Researchers believe that in a span of 10 months, more than 250 African Americans were killed in at least 25 riots across the U.S. by white mobs that never faced punishment. Historian John Hope Franklin called it “the greatest period of interracial strife the nation has ever witnessed.”
The bloodshed was the product of a collision of social forces: Black men were returning from World War I expecting the same rights they had fought and bled for in Europe, and African Americans were moving north to escape the brutal Jim Crow laws of the South. Whites saw blacks as competition for jobs, homes and political power.
“Ethnic cleansing was the goal of the white rioters,” said William Tuttle, a retired professor of American studies at the University of Kansas and author of “Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919.” “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.”
In 1919 alone, violence erupted in such places as New York; Memphis, Tennessee; Philadelphia; Charleston, South Carolina; Baltimore; New Orleans; Wilmington, Delaware; Omaha, Nebraska; New London, Connecticut; Bisbee, Arizona; Longview, Texas; Knoxville, Tennessee; Norfolk, Virginia; and Putnam County, Georgia.
In the nation’s capital, white mobs — many made up of members of the military — rampaged over the weekend of July 19-22, beating any black they could find after false rumors of a white woman being assaulted by black men spread.
“In front of the Riggs Bank the rioters beat a Negro with clubs and stones wrapped in handkerchiefs; the bleeding figure lay in the street for over twenty minutes before being taken to the hospital,” Lloyd M. Abernethy wrote in the Maryland Historical Magazine in 1963. “Sensing the failure of the police, the mob became even more contemptuous of authority — two Negroes were attacked and beaten directly in front of the White House.”
Carter G. Woodson, the historian who founded Black History Month in 1926, saw the violence up close.
“They had caught a Negro and deliberately held him as one would a beef for slaughter, and when they had conveniently adjusted him for lynching, they shot him,” Woodson wrote. “I heard him groaning in his struggle as I hurried away as fast as I could without running, expecting every moment to be lynched myself.”
In Elaine, Arkansas, poor black sharecroppers who had dared to join a union were attacked, and at least 200 African Americans were killed.
Ida B. Wells, a pioneering black journalist and one of the few reporters to interview victims, noted a woman named Lula Black was dragged from her farm by a white mob after saying she would join the union.
“They knocked her down, beat her over the head with their pistols, kicked her all over the body, almost killed her, then took her to jail,” Wells wrote in her report, “The Arkansas Race Riot.” “The same mob went to Frank Hall’s house and killed Frances Hall, a crazy old woman housekeeper, tied her clothes over her head, threw her body in the public road where it lay thus exposed till the soldiers came Thursday evening and took it up.”
Lyndia Grant is a speaker/writer living in the D.C. area. Her radio show, “Think on These Things,” airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on 1340 AM (WYCB), a Radio One station. To reach Grant, visit her website, www.lyndiagrant.com, email email@example.com or call 240-602-6295. Follow her on Twitter @LyndiaGrant and on Facebook.