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Remembering the ‘Red Summer,’ all these years later

1919 was plagued by race riots nationwide that had everlasting impact

A view of two young boys outside a home with broken windows and debris in the front yard, which had been vandalized during a race riot in Chicago, in the summer of 1919. The riot reportedly began following an incident at an informally segregated Chicago beach where a young Black boy drowned after a white man threw rocks at him -- resulting in a week-long riot with dozens of deaths and more than 1,000 left homeless. The events in Chicago were just one of a number of violent confrontations, grouped as the "Red Summer" events that occurred that year in the United States as a result of post-war economics, labor unrest, and racial tensions stoked by white supremacist groups. (Getty Images)

It has been more than 100 years since our country experienced an unfortunate period of racial unrest all across the United States dubbed “The Red Summer.”

Journalist Cameron McWhirter called the summer of 1919 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 the desire of many white Americans to have society return to what they felt was a pre-war status quo, where segregation, exclusion and discrimination were rampant in workplaces, housing, elections and businesses.

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

Black people 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 Black people 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, Black people 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 in which Black people 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 in which Black people 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.


This story was first published in 2019. It has since been updated.


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