Remembering the 'Red Summer' 100 years later

1919 was plagued by race riots nationwide that had everlasting impact

Image from Pexels.
Image from Pexels.

This year will mark the 100-year anniversary of an unfortunate period of racial unrest all across the United States dubbed, “The Red Summer.”

Journalist Cameron McWhirter called the summer of 1919 as the “worst spate of race riots and lynchings in American history.”

For roughly an eight-month period that stretched from late winter to fall, the country was plagued by dozens of racial riots throughout the country following the end of World War I.

The fighting resulted in hundreds of deaths and caused civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson to coin the term “Red Summer.”

Sadly, there probably wasn’t a more appropriate term for what took place.

The cause of the riots was a desire of many white Americans to have society return to what they felt was a prewar status quo, where segregation, exclusion and discrimination were rampant in workplaces, housing, elections and businesses.

During the war, industries that typically segregated blacks allowed them to work for their companies due to labor shortages.

Blacks also fought overseas in the war and hoped once the war ended, there would be more equality for them in society as a result of their contributions.

That didn’t turn out to be the case.

During a riot in Chicago, 38 people died, 23 of them were black. In Elaine, Arkansas, an estimated 100 to 237 blacks were killed along with five white men.

Both in Chicago and during another riot in Washington, D.C., McWhirter, who authored, “Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America,” noted that white rioters set up barricades to protect their neighborhoods and had marksmen with rifles on rooftops.

McWhirter also said in Knoxville, Tennessee, blacks tried to stop white attackers by shooting out streetlights.

In the fall of 1919, Dr. George Edmund Haynes, director of Negro Economics for the U.S. Department of Labor, identified 38 separate racial riots where blacks were attacked by white people.

If there is a legacy of the “Red Summer,” it has been credited as being among the first series of race riots where blacks fought back against white attackers, in the process setting a precedent for future civil rights battles.

McWhirter noted that “Black America awakened politically, socially and artistically like never before,” as a result of 1919.

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