Red Summer of 1919: How Black WWI Vets Fought Back Against Racist Mobs

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tags: civil rights, race riots, Summer of 1919

The ink had barely dried on the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended World War I, when recently returned black veterans grabbed their guns and stationed themselves on rooftops in black neighborhoods in Washington D.C., prepared to act as snipers in the case of mob violence in July of 1919. Others set up blockades around Howard University, a black intellectual hub, creating a protective ring around residents.

White sailors recently home from the war had been on a days-long drunken rampage, assaulting, and in some cases lynching, black people on the capitol’s streets. The relentless onslaught proved contagious, escalating in dozens of cities across the U.S. in what would become known as the The Red Summer

The racist attacks in 1919 were widespread, and often indiscriminate, but in many places, they were initiated by white servicemen and centered upon the380,000 black veterans who had just returned from the war. “Because of their military service, black veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination,” notes a report by the Equal Justice Initiative.

Indeed, many African American soldiers returned from the war armed with a renewed determination to fight segregation and a near-constant barrage of brutality. 

A postal official wrote at the time that “As far back as the first movement of the American troops to France the negro publicists began to avail themselves of the argument that since the negro was fit to wear the uniform he was, therefore, fit for everything else.” In Texas, a federal agent reported, “One of the principal elements causing concern is the returned negro soldier who is not readily fitting back into his prior status of pre-war times.”

At the same time, cities across the north were being reshaped by the Great Migration. By the end of 1919, about 1 million African Americans had fled segregation and a total lack of economic opportunities in the south for northern cities. Between 1910 and 1920, the black population in Chicago grew by 148 percent and in Philadelphia by 500 percent, creating massive anxiety among white people in northern cities that black people were taking jobs, housing, and security from them. 

During the Red Summer, massive anxiety became mass violence. Between April and November of 1919, there would be approximately 25 riots and instances of mob violence, 97 recorded lynchings, and a three day long massacre in Elaine, Arkansas during which over 200 black men, women, and children were killed after black sharecroppers tried to organize for better working conditions. The Ku Klux Klan, which had been largely shut down by the government after the Civil War, experienced a resurgence in popularity and began carrying out dozens of lynchings across the south.

Just a few years earlier, many young black men had heeded Wilson’s call to make the world “safe for democracy” and gone off to fight for America in one of history’s bloodiest wars. Now they had come back to a country that recognized neither their service nor their humanity. Having just returned from battle, however, black veterans were not inclined to take the abuse lying down. Across the country, former soldiers used their government-provided weapons training to defend their neighborhoods against vicious white mobs.

“Black people [formed] ad hoc self-defense organizations to try to keep white folks from terrorizing their communities,” says Simon Balto, a Professor of African American History at The University of Iowa and author of Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power. “Black veterans are instrumental in that.”

Black veterans were a large part of what made the summer of 1919, in the words of historian David F. Krugler, the year that African Americans fought back.

“This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return. This is the fatherland for which we fought!” W.E.B DuBois, a civil rights activist and prominent intellectual, wrote in Crisis Magazine in May 1919, a month after the earliest event of the Red Summer, a riot in Georgia where six people—two white officers and four black men—were killed at a church. "But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that that 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.” 

Read entire article at History Channel

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