Considering History: Racial Terrorism and the Red Summer of 1919

The Red Summer of 1919 represented one of the darkest and bloodiest moments in American history.

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This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present. 

The start of summer 2019 signals a painful centennial. Many people have never heard of the Red Summer of 1919, but these events of 100 years ago represented one of the darkest and bloodiest moments in American history.

Stretching from the late winter through the early fall but centered on a series of riots and massacres in the summer, this epidemic of racial terrorism against African-American individuals and communities exemplified an era that historian Rayford Logan has called the “nadir” of American race relations. Yet 1919 also featured heroic acts of resistance from African-American veterans and leaders, moments of communal activism and critical patriotism that deserve a prominent place in our collective memories.

In many ways, the 1919 massacres extended and deepened half a century of racial terrorism against African Americans. Beginning immediately after the Civil War with 1866 massacres in New Orleans and Memphis, the Reconstruction era featured a number of these horrific white supremacist attacks, including one on July 4th, 1876 in Hamburg, SC that targeted parading African-American militia men. The next decades would see many more such violent events, from singular massacres like those in Wilmington, NC (1898), Atlanta (1906), and East St. Louis, IL (1917) to the ongoing communal violence of the lynching epidemic.

Yet even against this backdrop of continual violence, the Red Summer of 1919 stands out. Partly that’s due to the sheer number of riots and massacres: between the February 8 attack in Blakely, GA and the October 1-2 massacres of African-American communities in Elaine, AR and Baltimore, the year saw a total of 40 discrete such events. Nearly half of them took place in July alone, an orgy of summer violence that extended from Bisbee, AZ to Norfolk, VA, from Port Arthur, TX to Syracuse, and that was punctuated by week-long attacks on African American communities in Washington, DC (July 19-24) and Chicago (July 27-August 3).

Exemplifying the organized, purposeful white supremacist terrorism of these attacks were the July 10-12 events in Longview, TX, a small town east of Dallas. In mid-June, a white mob abducted and lynched Lemuel Walters, an African-American man accused of making “indecent advances” toward a white woman (with whom he was apparently in a romantic relationship). A local African-American journalist and civic leader, Samuel Jones, contributed to a July 5 Chicago Defender article that highlighted Walters’ innocence and murder, and on July 10 a mob set upon and savagely beat Jones. The white rioters did not stop there, extending their rampage to the town’s sizeable African-American neighborhood (which comprised about 30 percent of Longview’s population). By the evening of July 12, another African-American man (60-year-old Marion Bush) was dead, many more were injured, much of the town’s African-American neighborhood had been burned to the ground, and many remaining African-American residents were escorted from town by the National Guard (ostensibly for their safety, but they were advised never to return). Samuel Jones moved to Chicago, where he helped write a report on the riot that was published in the NAACP magazine The Crisis in October.

Longview, TX police officers stand next to a pile of rifles and ammunition left by the town's white residents, who left the weapons in front of the courthouse to terrorize their black neighbors.
White town residents of Longview, TX, piled their personal guns and ammunition on the county courthouse lawn in July of 1919. (Longview Public Library /

The Red Summer attacks were also distinguished by their consistent and central targeting of African-American veterans. Over 200,000 African-American men fought in Europe during World War I, and many more were engaged in the war effort on the home front. At the war’s end, to quote the early 1919 words of African-American educator and civic leader Dr. George Edmund Haynes, “the return of the Negro soldier to civil life [was] one of the most delicate and difficult questions confronting the Nation.” Or, as one of those returning African-American soldiers put it in a letter to the Chicago Daily News: the veterans “are now new men and world men, if you please; and their possibilities for direction, guidance, honest use, and power are limitless, only they must be instructed and led. They have awakened, but they have not yet the complete conception of what they have awakened to.”

Unfortunately, white supremacist forces across the country responded to that awakening with hatred and violence. The February 8 Blakely attack that initiated the year’s events began with the lynching of a veteran, Private William Little, who refused to remove his uniform when ordered to do so by a white mob. Many of the other aforementioned massacres likewise targeted African-American veterans, from the attack on Buffalo Soldiers in Bisbee, AZ’s “Battle of Brewery Gulch” to the massacre at a Norfolk, VA celebration for returning veterans. Indeed, it is precisely the presence of these hundreds of thousands of African-American veterans, and the strikingly inclusive visions of patriotism and American identity they represented, that best explains the year’s dramatic surge in white supremacist violence.

Photo portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois (Library of Congress)

Despite being targets of white supremacist violence, these African-American veterans continued their fight for inclusion and equality on the home front. As W.E.B. Du Bois put it in the conclusion of his stirring May 1919 editorial “Returning Soldiers” (published in the NAACP magazine The Crisis for which he served as the first editor):

This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return. This is the fatherland for which we fought! But it is our fatherland. It was right for us to fight. The faults of our country are our faults. Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.

We return.

We return from fighting.

We return fighting.

Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.

Throughout the country, veterans and other African-American leaders took up this call in response to the Red Summer attacks, as illustrated by the September 1919 formation of the African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption (ABB) to defend individuals and communities from mob violence. In the final couplet of his sonnet “If We Must Die,” first published in The Liberator in July 1919, the Jamaican-American poet and future Harlem Renaissance leader Claude McKay expressed this perspective succinctly: “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,/Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”

Photo portrait of James Weldon Johnson. Photo portrait of Claude McKay.
James Weldon Johnson (Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress); Claude McKay (Wikimedia Commons)

The early October massacres in Elaine and Baltimore concluded the Red Summer’s horrors, but its legacies endured. Later that month, Dr. Haynes produced an extended report on the year’s events; published in the New York Times and reprinted in papers across the country, the Haynes report also highlighted the ongoing lynching epidemic and called for national action in response to such racial terrorism. The phrase “Red Summer” itself reflects another such activist legacy, as it was coined by James Weldon Johnson, the NAACP field secretary whose leadership of peaceful protests throughout 1919 helped broaden both that organization’s efforts and his own burgeoning career as an author, educator, and civil rights leader.

As with far too many American histories, the Red Summer was a painful and horrific period, and no collective memory can or should minimize or elide those horrors. Yet better remembering the Red Summer likewise allows us to heed the lessons of Haynes and Johnson, to hear the voices of Du Bois and McKay, to celebrate the service and critical patriotism of African-American veterans. In this centennial year, all those legacies remain inspiring and vital.

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