The first large-scale riot that year occurred on April 13 in Jenkins County, Georgia, when two white lawmen bringing in a black prisoner were stopped by a wealthy black community leader named Louis Ruffin, who attempted to dissuade them from jailing the man. A fight broke out, guns were drawn, and when the smoke cleared both the white men and the black prisoner were dead. Louis Ruffin went into hiding, but a white mob formed, which then attacked the local black church he oversaw, killed two of his sons, and went on a rampage.
Hundreds of white men arrived on the scene and roamed the county for days. Three black Masonic lodges in the county seat of Millen were burned. The New York Tribune reported that seven black churches had been burnt down, and that a black man in the Millen prison was lynched.
In Sylvester, Georgia, on April 5, black WWI veteran Daniel Mack brushed against a white man, who was offended and accused him of disrespect. Mack was arrested. A few days later, a mob took him away and lynched him. He miraculously survived.
On May 5, in Pickens, Mississippi, another black veteran made the mistake of hiring a black woman he knew to write a letter to a white woman that someone deemed inappropriate. A mob lynched them both.
On the night of May 10 in Charleston, South Carolina, a group of white sailors who believed they had been cheated by a black man began attacking blacks randomly, so one black man fired a gun at them and was then killed. Mobs of white sailors then began pouring into the streets attacking blacks. Five black men were killed and another 17 were injured seriously. Businesses were destroyed, stores ransacked. Some 49 men were later arraigned on a variety of charges, including murder and riot, but all charges were dropped later.
In El Dorado, Arkansas, a black veteran named Frank Livingston was accused of murdering his employer, a man named William Clay, and the man’s wife as well, after a May 21 argument. Some 100 people tracked Livingston down, tied him to a tree, and burned him alive.
A lynching precipitated by white criminals was the pretext for ethnic cleansing in Milan, Georgia, on May 24. Early that morning, a 72-year-old black man named Berry Washington shot and killed one of two drunken white men attempting to rape two young black girls. Washington surrendered himself promptly. A mob removed him early the next morning, hung him from a post, and shot him repeatedly until his body fell apart. Then the mob ordered all blacks out of Milan; and so the black neighborhood had emptied by that night.
A handful of these “race riots” actually saw little interpersonal or lethal violence and were not the occasion of any deaths. In Putnam County, Georgia, arsonists burned down at least six black churches and multiple community buildings in and around Eatonton in late May, but no one was reported injured. These tensions spread locally. A few miles away, in Milledgeville, Georgia, white and black mobs armed themselves and roamed the town when an argument broke out after white and black schools chose the same colors. But no violence was recorded.
Initially, most of these “race riots” occurred in the South. But as the phenomenon spread, so did its geographical reach. One of the sites of racial rioting was New London, Connecticut, home of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. On May 30, 1919, about 20 sailors and soldiers were arrested after "negro sailors" entered the Coast Guard Academy and attacked white sailors. On June 29, 1919, another riot erupted, requiring the presence of Marines in restoring order.
Another riot, similar to the New London event, but this time in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 27, featured gunfire from a gang of white sailors who invaded a black community, intent on violence. Realizing they were outmanned, the sailors retreated, leaving two with gun wounds.
Some race riots had explicitly economic components, enforcing the system of indentured servitude that persisted in the South. On June 7 in Macon, Mississippi, a white mob attacked and beat several prominent blacks for organizing to improve work conditions. This event was an explicit case of ethnic cleansing. After looting stores, the mob ordered the victims to leave Macon and never return; the local paper reported that the blacks were "taken across the river." Another reported that some were first whipped by white mobs.
The rioting even spread out West. In Bisbee, Arizona, some black Buffalo Soldiers visiting from Fort Huachuca resisted the efforts of white police to relieve them of their guns, as the law required. The ensuing street battle lasted an hour, and many were wounded, but no one died.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there were similar racially divided street riots through most of the month of May, spurred mostly by black migration into once-white-dominated neighborhoods. On May 9, a large mob of whites broke open the door to the house of a newly arrived black family.
In Longview, Texas, the racial tensions engendered by the June 17 lynching of a black man, in jail for making “indecent advances” to a white woman, by a white mob simmered into July. Between July 10 and 12, whites attacked black areas, killed a black man, and burned down properties.
On July 15, another “insult to a white woman”—by another black WWI veteran, an 18-year-old named Robert Truett—in Louise, Mississippi, led to his lynching by a white mob.
A black man’s close proximity to a white woman on a street car while smoking was the excuse for a group of white men in Port Arthur, Texas, to riot on July 15, 1919. Two people were seriously injured, while dozens suffered minor injuries.
Then came July 19 in Washington, D.C., and the building bloodlust hit the fan. It all began when roaming mobs of white men, many in the military—all three branches—responded violently to the rumored arrest of a black man for the rape of a white woman. After randomly assaulting multiple black people and looting stores and businesses on the 19th, the mobs returned for four consecutive days, all unperturbed by police who refused to intervene. So the black community organized to fight back. National Guardsmen ended it.
When the violence was over, between five and 30 black people had died, and at least 10 white people, including two police officers, were dead. Fifty people were seriously injured, and another 100 wounded less severely.
A welcome home celebration for returning black World War I veterans in Norfolk, Virginia, on July 21 attracted a vicious mob of white men—many of them sailors and Marines who were handed weapons and told to enforce the peace. Two people were killed, six wounded.
Then came the largest of the Red Summer riots: in Chicago, from July 27 to Aug. 3, a full week of straight-up ethnic cleansing by mobs of rampaging whites. It began when a white man intent on keeping black kids out of a white swimming area hit one with a rock, leading to the child drowning. When cops not only refused to arrest the rock-tosser but arrested a black man on bogus charges instead, black people took to the streets to protest. They were met by mobs of whites who freely indulged in lethal force—for the next week.
The Illinois National Guard arrived on Aug. 3 and ended the riots. By then, some 38 people had been killed—23 black, 15 white—with over 500 injuries, two-thirds of them sustained by blacks. President Woodrow Wilson pronounced “the white race” the “aggressors” in both D.C. and Chicago.
Another black WWI veteran, Elisha Harper, 25, was accused by a 14-year-old girl in Newberry, South Carolina, of insulting her. He was jailed by authorities; a mob came to lynch him. He was saved by a quick-thinking sheriff who spirited him out of town. The local headlines read “Negro Ex-Soldier Insults Little White Girl,” and “Newberry Negro Sought By Crowd; White Girl Insulted by Former Soldier.”
“This is a free man’s country.” That retort—to a white woman who was angry that he had failed to get off a sidewalk she was walking on in Lincoln, Arkansas—cost another WWI veteran, Clinton Briggs, his life on Aug. 3. A mob tied him to a tree and shot him to pieces.
In Laurens County, Georgia, a mob of white men kidnapped a black man perceived to be a leader in the black community and lynched him in Ocmulgee. Then they proceeded to burn down three black churches and a community building.
Another lynch mob—this time in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Aug. 30—inspired a broader race riot as well. This mob came after a black man accused of killing a white woman; when it found him spirited away by the sheriff, it turned to a black neighborhood and engaged in a pitched gun battle.
A similar dynamic fueled one of the most horrific of the riots, the Omaha riot of Sept. 28-29. A white woman identified a 41-year-old black man named Will Brown as her rapist on dubious grounds, but when a mob came for him at the jail, a pitched battle resulted. Eventually, the mob was able to overcome a determined police force that did its best to protect Brown. In the process, the mob actually took away the city’s white mayor, Edward Smith, and lynched him. He was rescued in the nick of time, and eventually recovered.
The mob shot Brown to death when it cornered him inside the prison, then toyed with his corpse in the usual gruesome fashion: it was dangled from a telephone post, shot to pieces, tied to the rear end of a car and dragged through the streets, then tossed onto a bonfire.
None of these events, however, approached the events of Sept. 30-Oct. 1 in Elaine, Arkansas—in many ways the horrifying climax of the Red Summer—for sheer lethality: An estimated 100 to 237 black people, most of them poor farmers, were killed, along with five white men. The Elaine Massacre was fueled by racial animus, but the ongoing system of economic oppression in the South was also key: At a Sept. 30 gathering of about 100 sharecroppers for a Progressive Farmers and Household Union event, gunfire broke out in the front lot.
Even before this gathering, whites had been fed a bizarre set of vicious smears about the Progressive Farmers organization—such as a headline in a Helena, Arkansas, paper describing it as “established for the purpose of banding Negroes together for the killing of white people.” Two white men who had pulled up in a car were shot, one of them fatally. A posse estimated at as many as 1,000 men arrived to put down the “insurrection.” Troops intervened, so the white mobs spread out across the countryside and began slaughtering black people.
It was indiscriminate slaughter. Even the troops who had been sent to stop the rioting wound up shooting black people randomly. It only ended after troops had been there several days. Afterward, black landowners claimed their land was stolen, too.
One of the last Red Summer riots, fittingly, was also explicitly eliminationist in nature: the expulsion of the black community from Corbin, Kentucky, on Oct. 31. Fueled by a crime allegedly committed by two black men, it culminated in a mass ethnic cleansing. James Loewen explores these events in his landmark book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism:
On Halloween Night 1919, whites in Corbin, Kentucky, a railroad town of about 3,400, forced their African Americans out of town after two white switchmen lost all their money in a poker game with black track layers. To cover their losses, the switchmen said the African Americans had robbed them. A mob formed “and search the city for Negroes,” according to the account in the Lexington Herald:
The Negroes who felt the fury of the mob in the greatest degree were a gang of about 200 Negroes working on the Louisville and Nashville grade for another ten months at South Corbin, where the railroad company is making big improvements. Crowds went to restaurants and other public places, caught all the Negro employees they could, and drove them singly or in gangs at the point of guns to the depot. Many Negroes were beaten, and 200 were driven out of town.
At gunpoint whites then forced almost the entire African American population onto railroad cars and shipped them to Knoxville, Tennessee.
As Loewen goes on to note, the Corbin expulsion actually inspired a copycat event in nearby Ravenna a few months later, in which black workers were similarly rounded up and put on a train out of town.
The last major Red Summer riot occurred on Nov. 13, 1919, in Wilmington, Delaware. It was sparked when a police raid on a trio of black men suspected of gun theft resulted in two cops being shot, one fatally. A white mob gathered to lynch the men. However, their plans were frustrated by police, who spirited the men away to Philadelphia. So the mob attacked the black community, rampaging through the neighborhood, assaulting blacks at will, ending in a brief gun battle with one black man wounded.
As you can see, the “Red Summer” actually lasted for the entire year. All told, there were 27 significant events that summer involving mob action, and 16 large-scale “race riots” in which people were killed or injured, in addition to a large number of smaller-scale riots.
Indeed, the trendline that the Red Summer of 1919 represented did not immediately change: Mob violence and race riots continued apace for the next several years. Some of these events surpassed 1919 in their horror and their damage—especially in Tulsa.
Next: The legacy that will not die