Red Summer refers to the summer and early autumn of 1919, which
was marked by hundreds of deaths and higher casualties across the
United States, as a result of racial riots that occurred in more than
three dozen cities and one rural county. In most instances, whites
attacked African Americans. In some cases many black people fought
back, notably in Chicago and
Washington, D.C. The highest number of
fatalities occurred in the rural area around Elaine, Arkansas, where
five whites and an estimated 100–240 black people were killed;
Washington, D.C. had 38 and 15 deaths, respectively, and
many more injured, with extensive property damage in Chicago.
The riots resulted from a variety of postwar social tensions related
to the demobilization of veterans of World War I, both black and
white, and competition for jobs and housing among ethnic white people
and black people. In addition, it was a time of labor unrest in which
some industrialists used black people as strikebreakers, increasing
resentment. The riots were extensively documented in the press, which
along with the federal government feared Socialist and communist
influence on the black civil rights movement following the Bolshevik
Revolution in Russia. They also feared foreign anarchists, who had
bombed homes and businesses of prominent business and government
Civil rights activist and author
James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson coined the term
"Red Summer"; he had been employed as a field secretary since 1916 by
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(NAACP). In 1919, he organized peaceful protests against the racial
violence of that summer.
5.1 Haynes report
5.2 Press coverage
5.3 Government activity
6 See also
8 Further reading
With the manpower mobilization of
World War I
World War I and immigration from
Europe cut off, the industrial cities of the North and Midwest
experienced severe labor shortages. Northern manufacturers recruited
throughout the South and an exodus of workers ensued. By 1919, an
African Americans had emigrated from the Southern
United States to the industrial cities of the North and Midwest in the
first wave of the Great Migration, which continued until 1940.
African-American workers filled new positions in expanding industries,
such as the railroads, as well as many jobs formerly held by whites.
In some cities, they were hired as strikebreakers, especially during
the strikes of 1917. In the summer of 1917, violent race riots, due
to labor tensions, broke out in
East St. Louis, Illinois
East St. Louis, Illinois and Houston,
Texas. This increased resentment against blacks among many
working-class whites, immigrants or first-generation Americans.
Following the war, rapid demobilization of the military without a plan
for absorbing veterans into the job market, and the removal of price
controls, led to unemployment and inflation that increased competition
First Red Scare
First Red Scare of 1919–20, following the Russian
Bolshevik sentiment in the
United States quickly
followed on the anti-German sentiment arising in the war years. Many
politicians and government officials, together with much of the press
and the public, feared an imminent attempt to overthrow the US
government to create a new regime modeled on that of the Soviets.
Authorities viewed with alarm African Americans' advocacy of racial
equality, labor rights, or the rights of victims of mobs to defend
themselves. In a private conversation in March 1919, President Woodrow
Wilson said that "the American Negro returning from abroad would be
our greatest medium in conveying
Bolshevism to America." Other
whites expressed a wide range of opinions, some anticipating unsettled
times and others seeing no signs of tension.
Early in 1919, Dr. George Edmund Haynes, an educator employed as
director of Negro Economics for the U.S. Department of Labor, wrote:
"The return of the Negro soldier to civil life is one of the most
delicate and difficult questions confronting the Nation, north and
south." One black veteran wrote a letter to the editor of the
Chicago Daily News
Chicago Daily News saying the returning black 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." W. E. B. Du
Bois, an official of the
NAACP and editor of its monthly magazine, saw
an opportunity: "By the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if
now that the 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." In May 1919, following the
first serious racial incidents, he published his essay "Returning
"We return from the slavery of uniform which the world's madness
demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb. We stand again to
look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade. We sing:
This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and
dreamed, is yet a shameful land ...
We return from fighting.
We return fighting."
Following the violence-filled summer, in the autumn of 1919, Haynes
reported on the events as a prelude to an investigation by the United
States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He identified 38 separate
riots in widely scattered cities, in which whites attacked black
people. Unlike earlier race riots in U.S. history, the 1919 events
were among the first in which black people in number resisted white
attacks and fought back. A. Philip Randolph, a civil rights activist
and leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, publicly
defended the right of black people to self-defense.
In addition, Haynes reported that between January 1 and September 14,
1919, white mobs lynched at least forty-three African Americans, with
sixteen hanged and others shot; while another eight men were burned at
the stake. The states appeared powerless or unwilling to interfere or
prosecute such mob murders.
"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 Woodrow Wilson
August 29, 1919
After the riot of May 10 in Charleston, South Carolina, the city
imposed martial law. US Navy sailors led the race riot; Isaac
Doctor, William Brown, and James Talbot, all black men, were killed.
Five white men and eighteen black men were injured. A Naval
investigation found that four U.S. sailors and one civilian—all
white men—initiated the riot.
In early July, a white race riot in
Longview, Texas led to the deaths
of at least four men and destroyed the African-American housing
district in the town.
On July 3, local police in
Bisbee, Arizona attacked the 10th U.S.
Cavalry, an African-American unit founded in 1866 and known as
Washington, D.C. starting July 19, white men, many in the military
and in uniforms of all three services, responded to the rumored arrest
of a black man for rape of a white woman with four days of mob
violence against black individuals and businesses. They rioted,
randomly beat black people on the street, and pulled others off
streetcars for attacks. When police refused to intervene, the black
population fought back. The city closed saloons and theaters to
discourage assemblies. Meanwhile, the four white-owned local papers,
including the Washington Post, fanned the violence with incendiary
headlines and calling for a mobilization for a "clean-up" operation in
at least one instance. After four days of police inaction,
Woodrow Wilson mobilized the National Guard to restore
order. But a violent summer rainstorm had more of a dampening
effect. When the violence ended, a total of 15 people had died: 10
white people, including two police officers; and five black people.
Fifty people were seriously wounded and another 100 less severely
wounded. It was one of the few times in 20th-century riots of whites
against blacks that white fatalities outnumbered those of black
NAACP sent a telegram of protest to President Woodrow Wilson:
...the shame put upon the country by the mobs, including United States
soldiers, sailors, and marines, which have assaulted innocent and
unoffending negroes in the national capital. Men in uniform have
attacked negroes on the streets and pulled them from streetcars to
beat them. Crowds are reported ...to have directed attacks against any
passing negro....The effect of such riots in the national capital upon
race antagonism will be to increase bitterness and danger of outbreaks
elsewhere. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
calls upon you as President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces
of the nation to make statement condemning mob violence and to enforce
such military law as situation demands...
In Norfolk, Virginia, a white mob attacked a homecoming celebration
for African-American veterans of World War I. At least six people were
shot, and the local police called in Marines and Navy personnel to
Starting July 27, the summer's greatest violence occurred during
rioting in Chicago. The city's beaches along Lake Michigan were
segregated by custom. Eugene Williams, a black youth, swam into an
area on the South Side customarily used by whites, where he was
stoned, and drowned. When the
Chicago police refused to take action
against the attackers, young black men responded violently. Violence
between mobs and gangs of both races lasted thirteen days. The
resulting 38 fatalities included 23 black people and 15 whites. The
injured totaled 537, and 1,000 black families were left homeless.
Other accounts reported 50 people were killed, with unofficial numbers
and rumors reporting more. White mobs destroyed hundreds of mostly
black homes and businesses on the South Side of Chicago; Illinois
called in a militia force of seven regiments: several thousand men, to
At the end of July, the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women's
Clubs, at an annual convention, denounced the rioting and burning of
negroes' homes and asked President Wilson "to use every means within
your power to stop the rioting in Chicago and the propaganda used to
incite such." At the end of August, the
NAACP protested again to
the White House, noting the attack on the organization's secretary in
Austin, Texas the previous week. Their telegram said: "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?" 
August 30–31, the Knoxville Riot in Tennessee broke out when a white
mob gathered after a black suspect was arrested on suspicion of
murdering a white woman. A lynch mob stormed the county jail searching
for the prisoner. They liberated 16 white prisoners, including
suspected murderers. They attacked the African-American business
district, where they fought against the district's black business
owners, leaving at least seven dead and wounding more than 20
Will Brown, Victim of
Omaha, Nebraska violence
At the end of September, the race riot in
Omaha, Nebraska erupted when
a mob of more than 10,000 ethnic whites from South Omaha attacked and
burned the county courthouse to force the police to release a black
prisoner accused of raping a white woman. They destroyed property
valued at more than a million dollars. The mob lynched the suspect,
Will Brown, hanging him and burning his body. They spread out,
attacking black neighborhoods and stores on the north side. After the
mayor and governor appealed for help, the government sent Federal
troops from a nearby fort. They were commanded by Major General
Leonard Wood, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and a leading candidate
for the Republican nomination for President in 1920.
On October 1, a race riot broke out in rural Elaine, Arkansas, in
Phillips County. Distinctive because it occurred in the rural South
rather than a city, it arose from white minority resistance to labor
organizing by black farmers and fear of socialism. Black sharecroppers
were meeting in the local chapter of the Progressive Farmers and
Household Union of America. Planters opposed their efforts to organize
and tried to disrupt meetings. In a confrontation, a white man was
fatally shot and another wounded. The planters formed a militia to
arrest the African-American farmers, but the mob got out of hand and
attacked black people at random. In the riot they killed an estimated
100 to 237 black people, and five whites also died in the violence.
Charles Hillman Brough
Charles Hillman Brough appointed a Committee of
Seven to investigate. The group was composed of prominent local white
businessmen. They concluded that the
Sharecroppers' Union was a
Socialist enterprise and "established for the purpose of banding
negroes together for the killing of white people."
That report generated headlines such as the following in the Dallas
Morning News: "Negroes Seized in Arkansas Riots Confess to Widespread
Plot; Planned Massacre of Whites Today". Several agents of the Justice
Bureau of Investigation
Bureau of Investigation spent a week interviewing
participants, but they spoke to no sharecroppers. They also reviewed
documents. They filed a total of nine reports stating there was no
evidence of a conspiracy of the sharecroppers to murder anyone.
The local government tried 79 black people, who were all convicted by
all-white juries, and 12 were sentenced to death for murder. (As
Arkansas and other southern states had disenfranchised most black
people at the turn of the 20th century, they could not vote, run for
political office, or serve on juries.) The remainder of the defendants
accepted prison terms of up to 21 years. Appeals of the convictions of
six of the defendants went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed
the verdicts because of failure of the court to provide due process.
This was a precedent for heightened Federal oversight of defendants'
rights in the conduct of state criminal cases.
Based on Haynes' report as summarized in the New York Times (1919),
except as noted.
Charleston, South Carolina
Putnam County, Georgia
New London, Connecticut
Port Arthur, Texas
New Orleans, Louisiana
Hobson City, Alabama
Newberry, South Carolina
Syracuse, New York
New York City, New York
"We appeal to you to have your country undertake for its racial
minority that which you forced Poland and Austria to undertake for
their racial minorities."
National Equal Rights League to President Woodrow Wilson
November 25, 1919
In September 1919, in response to the Red Summer, the African Blood
Brotherhood formed in northern cities to serve as an "armed
Protests and appeals to the federal government continued for weeks. A
letter in late November from the
National Equal Rights League appealed
to Wilson's international advocacy for human rights: "We appeal to you
to have your country undertake for its racial minority that which you
forced Poland and Austria to undertake for their racial
The report by Dr.
George Edmund Haynes of October 1919 was a call
for national action; it was published in
The New York Times
The New York Times and other
major newspapers. He noted that lynchings were a national problem. As
President Wilson had noted in a 1918 speech: from 1889–1918, more
than 3,000 people had been lynched; 2,472 were black men, and 50 were
black women. Haynes said that states had shown themselves "unable or
unwilling" to put a stop to lynchings, and seldom prosecuted the
murderers. The fact that white men had been lynched in the North as
well, he argued, demonstrated the national nature of the overall
problem: "It is idle to suppose that murder can be confined to one
section of the country or to one race." He connected the lynchings
to the widespread riots in 1919:
"Persistence of unpunished lynchings of negroes fosters lawlessness
among white men imbued with the mob spirit, and creates a spirit of
bitterness among negroes. In such a state of public mind a trivial
incident can precipitate a riot.
"Disregard of law and legal process will inevitably lead to more and
more frequent clashes and bloody encounters between white men and
negroes and a condition of potential race war in many cities of the
"Unchecked mob violence creates hatred and intolerance, making
impossible free and dispassionate discussion not only of race
problems, but questions on which races and sections differ."
Headline of The Gazette, Elaine, Arkansas, October 3, 1919
In mid-summer, in the middle of the Chicago riots, a federal official
The New York Times
The New York Times that the violence resulted from "an agitation,
which involves the I.W.W.,
Bolshevism and the worst features of other
extreme radical movements". He supported that claim with copies of
negro publications that called for alliances with leftist groups,
praised the Soviet regime, and contrasted the courage of jailed
Eugene V. Debs
Eugene V. Debs with the "school boy rhetoric" of traditional
black leaders. The Times characterized the publications as "vicious
and apparently well financed", mentioned "certain factions of the
radical Socialist elements", and reported it all under the headline:
"Reds Try to Stir Negroes to Revolt".
In response, some black leaders such as Bishop Charles Henry Phillips
of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church asked black people to shun
violence in favor of "patience" and "moral suasion." Phillips opposed
propaganda favoring violence, and he noted the grounds of injustice to
the black people:
I cannot believe that the negro was influenced by Bolshevist agents in
the part he took in the rioting. It is not like him to be a traitor or
a revolutionist who would destroy the Government. But then the reign
of mob law to which he has so long lived in terror and the injustices
to which he has had to submit have made him sensitive and impatient.
The connection between black people and
Bolshevism was widely
repeated. In August 1919,
The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal wrote: "Race riots
seem to have for their genesis a Bolshevist, a Negro, and a gun." The
National Security League
National Security League repeated that reading of events. In
presenting the Haynes report in early October, The New York Times
provided a context which his report did not mention. Haynes documented
violence and inaction on the state level.
The Times saw "bloodshed on a scale amounting to local insurrection"
as evidence of "a new negro problem" because of "influences that are
now working to drive a wedge of bitterness and hatred between the two
races". Until recently, the Times said, black leaders showed "a
sense of appreciation" for what whites had suffered on their behalf in
fighting a civil war that "bestowed on the black man opportunities far
in advance of those he had in any other part of the white man's
world". Now militants were supplanting Booker T. Washington, who
had "steadily argued conciliatory methods". The Times continued:
Every week the militant leaders gain more headway. They may be divided
into general classes. One consists of radicals and revolutionaries.
They are spreading Bolshevist propaganda. It is reported that they are
winning many recruits among the colored race. When the ignorance that
exists among negroes in many sections of the country is taken into
consideration the danger of inflaming them by revolutionary doctrine
may [be] apprehended.... The other class of militant leaders confine
their agitation to a fight against all forms of color discrimination.
They are for a program on uncompromising protest, "to fight and
continue to fight for citizenship rights and full democratic
As evidence of militancy and Bolshevism, the Times named
W. E. B. Du Bois and quoted his editorial in The Crisis,
which he edited: "Today we raise the terrible weapon of
self-defense ... When the armed lynchers gather, we too must
gather armed." When the Times endorsed Haynes' call for a bi-racial
conference to establish "some plan to guarantee greater protection,
justice, and opportunity to negroes that will gain the support of
law-abiding citizens of both races", it endorsed discussion with
"those negro leaders who are opposed to militant methods".
In mid-October government sources provided the Times with evidence of
Bolshevist propaganda appealing to America's black communities. This
account set Red propaganda in the black community into a broader
context, since it was "paralleling the agitation that is being carried
on in industrial centres of the North and West, where there are many
alien laborers." The Times described newspapers, magazines, and
"so-called 'negro betterment' organizations" as the way propaganda
about the "doctrines of Lenin and Trotzky" was distributed to black
people. It cited quotes from such publications, which contrasted
the recent violence in Chicago and
Washington, D.C. with:"
...Soviet Russia, a country in which dozens of racial and lingual
types have settled their many differences and found a common meeting
ground, a country which no longer oppresses colonies, a country from
which the lynch rope is banished and in which racial tolerance and
peace now exist.
The Times noted a call for unionization: "Negroes must form cotton
workers' unions. Southern white capitalists know that the negroes can
bring the white bourbon South to its knees. So go to it."
Coverage of the root causes of the riot in
Elaine, Arkansas evolved as
the violence stretched over several days. A dispatch from Helena,
Arkansas, to the New York Times datelined October 1 said: "Returning
members of the [white] posse brought numerous stories and rumors,
through all of which ran the belief that the rioting was due to
propaganda distributed among the negroes by white men." The next
day's report added detail: "Additional evidence has been obtained of
the activities of propagandists among the negroes, and it is thought
that a plot existed for a general uprising against the whites." A
white man had been arrested and was "alleged to have been preaching
social equality among the negroes". Part of the headline was: "Trouble
Traced to Socialist Agitators". A few days later a Western
Newspaper Union dispatch captioned a photo using the words "Captive
During the Chicago riot, the press learned from Department of Justice
officials that the IWW and Bolsheviks were "spreading propaganda to
breed race hatred." FBI agents filed reports that leftist views
were winning converts in the black community. One cited the work of
NAACP "urging the colored people to insist upon equality with
white people and to resort to force, if necessary. J. Edgar
Hoover, at the start of his career in government, analyzed the riots
for the Attorney General. He blamed the July Washington, D.C., riots
on "numerous assaults committed by Negroes upon white women". For
the October events in Arkansas, he blamed "certain local agitation in
a Negro lodge." A more general cause he cited was "propaganda of a
radical nature." He charged that socialists were feeding
propaganda to black-owned magazines such as The Messenger, which in
turn aroused their black readers. He did not note the white
perpetrators of violence, whose activities local authorities
documented. As chief of the Radical Division within the U.S.
Department of Justice, Hoover began an investigation of "negro
activities" and targeted
Marcus Garvey because he thought his
Negro World preached Bolshevism. He authorized the
hiring of black undercover agents to spy on black organizations and
publications in Harlem.
On November 17, Attorney General
A. Mitchell Palmer
A. Mitchell Palmer reported to
Congress on the threat that anarchists and Bolsheviks posed to the
government. More than half the report documented radicalism in the
black community and the "open defiance" black leaders advocated in
response to racial violence and the summer's rioting. It faulted the
leadership of the black community for an "ill-governed reaction toward
race rioting ... In all discussions of the recent race riots
there is reflected the note of pride that the Negro has found himself.
that he has 'fought back,' that never again will he tamely submit to
violence and intimidation." It described "the dangerous spirit of
defiance and vengeance at work among the Negro leaders."
Claude McKay's sonnet, "If We Must Die", was prompted by the
events of Red Summer.
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List of incidents of civil unrest in the United States
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q New York Times: "For Action on
Race Riot Peril," October 5, 1919, accessed January 20, 2010. This
newspaper article includes several paragraphs of editorial analysis
followed by Dr. George E. Haynes' report, "summarized at several
^ a b Alana J. Erickson, "Red Summer", in Encyclopedia of
African-American Culture and History (NY: Macmillan, 1960), 2293-4
^ George P. Cunningham, "James Weldon Johnson", in Encyclopedia of
African-American Culture and History (NY: Macmillan, 1960),
^ a b David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American
Society (NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 279, 281–282
^ Barnes, Harper (2008). Never Been A Time. New York: Walker & Co.
p. 4. ISBN 978-0-8027-1575-3.
^ McWhirter, 56
^ McWhirter 19, 22–24
^ McWhirter, 13
^ McWhirter, 15
^ McWhirter, 14
^ McWhirter, 31–32, emphasis in original
^ Walter C. Rucker, James N. Upton. Encyclopedia of American Race
Riots. Volume 1. 2007, page 92-3
^ Rucker, Walter C. and Upton, James N. Encyclopedia of American Race
Riots (2007), 554
^ "Washingtonpost.com: Washington Century".
Washington, D.C. Race Riot (1919) - The Black Past: Remembered and
^ a b c d e Kenneth D. Ackerman, Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red
Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties (NY: Carroll & Graf,
^ New York Times: "Protest Sent to Wilson," July 22, 1919. Retrieved
January 21, 2010.
^ Encyclopædia Britannica: "
Chicago Race Riot
Chicago Race Riot of 1919". Retrieved
January 24, 2010.
^ New York Times: "Negroes Appeal to Wilson,"" August 1, 1919.
Retrieved January 21, 2010.
^ New York Times: Negro Protest to Wilson," August 30, 1919. Retrieved
January 21, 2010.
^ Bruce Wheeler, "Knoxville Riot of 1919," Tennessee Encyclopedia of
History and Culture. Retrieved January 25, 2010.
^ Robert Whitaker, On the Laps of Gods: The
Red Summer of 1919 and the
Struggle for Justice that Remade a Nation (NY: Random House, 2008), 53
^ Matthew Lakin, "'A Dark Night': The Knoxville Race Riot of 1919",
Journal of East Tennessee History, 72 (2000), pp. 1–29.
^ Lewis, David Levering, W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography, 2009, p 383
^ David, Pietrusza, 1920: The Year of Six Presidents (NY: Carroll
& Graf, 2007), 167–172
^ Eric M. Freedman, Habeas Corpus: Rethinking the Great Writ of
Liberty (New York University Press, 2001), 68
^ Robert Whittaker, On the Laps of Gods: The
Red Summer of 1919 and
the Struggle for Justice that Remade a Nation (NY: Random House,
2008), 131–142. Whittaker's work is a detailed account of the
Arkansas events, not a general study of Red Summer.
^ Robert Whitaker, On the Laps of Gods: The
Red Summer of 1919 and the
Struggle for Justice that Remade a Nation (New York: Random House,
^ New York Times: "Ask Wilson to Aid Negroes," November 26, 1919.
Retrieved January 21, 2010.
^ a b New York Times: "Reds Try to Stir Negroes to Revolt", July 28,
1919. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
^ "Denies Negroes are 'Reds'" New York Times August 3, 1919, accessed
January 28, 2010. Phillips was based in Nashville, Tennessee.
^ a b McWhirter, 160
^ a b c d New York Times: "Reds are Working among Negroes," October
19, 1919. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
^ New York Times: "None Killed in Fight with Arkansas Posse," October
2, 1919. Retrieved January 27, 2010.
^ New York Times: "Six More are Killed in Arkansas Riots", October 3,
1919. Retrieved January 27, 2010.
^ New York Times: "[untitled]" October 12, 1919. Retrieved January 27,
^ a b McWhirter, 159
^ a b McWhirter, 239–241
^ "If We Must Die" poetryfoundation.org, accessed May 5, 2015
^ McKay, Claude. "McKay on 'If We Must Die'". Modern American
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Krist, Gary. City of Scoundrels: The Twelve Days of Disaster That Gave
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