Not just Tulsa: Racist mobs were ‘widespread and a constant concern’ 100 years ago
The anti-Black mob violence that struck Tulsa in 1921 may be the most well known, but it’s not the only tragedy of its kind.
Between 1917 and 1923, more than 1,100 Americans were killed in such racist attacks, according to William Tuttle Jr., a retired professor of American studies at the University of Kansas and author of “Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919.”
That violence peaked over the course of 10 months in 1919 when more than 250 African Americans were killed by white mobs in at least 25 riots across the country.
The era, dubbed “Red Summer” by civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson, saw the “worst spate of anti-Black violence in American history,” said Cameron McWhirter, author of “Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America.”
The bloodshed occurred during a period of racial, social and political turmoil in the wake of World War I. Black veterans returned from the war demanding the constitutionally promised rights they’d fought for in Europe, and African Americans were migrating and competing with whites for jobs, McWhirter explained.
In response, white people who sought to uphold deeply entrenched white supremacy through the Jim Crow laws of the South and de facto segregation of the North seized on opportunities to react violently.
“This is American history and we need to understand it if we’re going to understand our country’s history going forward,” McWhirter said. “We need to understand that racial violence on this scale was widespread and a constant concern.”
The major race riots and lynchings during Red Summer, 1919. (Photo: www.cameronmcwhirter.com)
The violence left deep psychological wounds and set the stage for decades of continued economic and social oppression, including policies like redlining, and the contentious relationship between African Americans and the police that persists today, said David Krugler, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
Black Americans didn’t just physically resist the attacks. The NAACP emerged as the preeminent Black political organization to fight legal battles, and Black journalists like Ida B. Wells combatted misinformation about the conflicts, said Krugler, author of “1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back.”
More than a century later, experts say communities are beginning to acknowledge the violence, but it can be difficult to know the true scope of the damage.
“We don’t have an accurate death count, not only because it wasn’t done at the time, because in the decades that follow the communities didn’t want to draw attention to them,” Krugler told USA TODAY. “They didn’t want to dig up – literally and metaphorically – the horrors of white mobs targeting African Americans.”
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Here’s a look at four tragedies of this era that haven’t gained the same national recognition as the Tulsa Race Massacre:
East St. Louis, Illinois 1917: ‘Black skin was a death warrant’ after cops killed
Racial tensions had already been simmering for weeks in the industrial town of East St. Louis, Illinois, when white men in a Ford shot into Black homes on the night of July 1, 1917, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Another Ford drove past the homes and armed Black residents shot into it, killing two police officers. Over the next two days, white people beat and burned African Americans to death and destroyed homes and businesses.
“For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless negroes at Broadway and Fourth Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where Black skin was a death warrant,” Post-Dispatch reporter Carlos Hurd wrote in his eye witness account of the massacre. “There was a horribly cool deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it.”
W. E. B. Du Bois estimated nearly $400,000 of damage had been done – worth more than $8 million today – in the September 1917 edition of The Crisis, a publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
A Congressional investigation found the death toll was nine white and 39 Black Americans, although historians believe the true number could be as high as 100.
Chicago 1919: Teen killed, Black neighborhood attacked
Two years later, a week of terror in Chicago started on a hot day in July of 1919. Eugene Williams, a Black 17-year-old, was floating on a raft in Lake Michigan when he drifted toward the informally segregated white section of the beach.
White beachgoers hit him with rocks and the teenager drowned. Black residents demanded police arrest the person responsible and the police refused. Violence erupted. In total, 23 Black and 15 white people died and more than 500 people injured.
In this 1919 photo provided by the Chicago History Museum, a victim is stoned and bludgeoned under a corner of a house during the race riots in Chicago. Hundreds of African Americans died at the hands of white mobs during â€œRed Summer,â€ as the summer of 1919 came to be known, but little is known nationally about this summer of violence 100 years later. (Chicago History Museum/The Jun Fujita negatives collection via AP) (Photo: AP)
White mobs raided Black neighborhoods on the South Side, burning homes and attacking people. Black residents fought back with guns and fists.
Unlike many other communities that failed to thoroughly document such violence, Chicago officials convened a commission to investigate the cause of the racial tensions and suggest solutions that published a report in 1922.
Despite the suggestions laid out in the report, experts believe the riots helped harden the de facto segregation that existed in the city and keep certain Chicago neighborhoods white by concentrating the African American population in the city’s “black belt,” a string of neighborhoods on the South Side.
Elaine, Arkansas 1919: Violence follows Black farmers attempt to unionize
On Sept. 30, 1919, Black farmers gathered at a church in Hoop Sur, just outside of Elaine, Arkansas, to unionize. Black sharecroppers were the majority of the population in Phillips County, but white cotton brokers controlled the cotton industry.
A white railroad security officer showed up, shots were fired and the officer was killed. What followed was a rampage, in which hundreds of people from surrounding cities flocked to the area to quash what was called an “insurrection” by Black residents.
Red Summer 1919: Tree memorializing black Americans killed in Elaine, Arkansas, cut down
The property where a church used to stand where men gathered in 1919 to unionize which led to the 1919 Elaine Massacre. According to Equal Justice Initiative 245 people were lynched in Phillips County Arkansas, many during what is known as the 1919 Elaine Massacre. (Photo: Albert Cesare / Advertiser)
Then-Arkansas Gov. Charles Hillman Brough called in U.S. troops. An Arkansas Gazette employee alleged that soldiers “committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes, or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.”
More than 200 Black men, women and children were killed, according to recent research from the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Alabama-based nonprofit. Five white people were killed.
Hundreds of Black people were arrested and jailed while others were forced to flee. The first 12 Black men to face trial over the incident were convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
After a years-long legal battle supported by the NAACP, six of those convictions were overturned. The other six eventually went to the Supreme Court. In the 1923 Moore vs. Dempsey ruling, the court overturned the other six convictions because the trial court had failed to uphold the defendant’s right to due process.
No white people were tried.
Rosewood, Florida 1923: White mob destroys Black town after alleged assault
During a particularly cold winter in the majority-Black town of Rosewood, a 22-year-old white woman named Fannie Taylor from a neighboring town claimed she was assaulted by a Black man.
Although Taylor’s story was disputed by Black residents, the news spread and a posse of hundreds of men formed under the direction of the local sheriff in January 1923. As the mob, which reportedly included members of the Ku Klux Klan, searched for a suspect, they tortured, shot and hanged a Black man named Sam Carter.
Deliberate burning of an African American home in Rosewood, Florida, on January 4, 1923. (Photo: State Library and Archives of Florida)
Days later, a shootout erupted in the community and the white mob began burning Black homes and buildings as residents fled into the swamps. A 1993 report commissioned by the Florida Legislature recorded eight deaths – six Black, two white – but the true total may be higher. Black residents of the town never returned.
In 1994, the state legislature approved reparations payments for survivors and created a scholarship that has been given to hundreds of students.
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg
Contributing: Grace Hauck, USA TODAY; Brian Edwards, Montgomery Advertiser; The Associated Press
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