The Red Summer of 1919

It’s no secret that race relations in America have had its ups and downs. Even in today’s 21st century, we’ve seen our nation come together, not once, but twice to elect its first-ever biracial President Barack Hussein Obama. While under Obama’s administration, we’ve seen racial tension increase as movements like the Tea Party and the “Alt-Right” (known for their overt white supremacist views) gained more & more political power.

Although we celebrate and acknowledge all the “ups” and progress we’ve made as a nation in terms of race relations, it’ extremely important that we don’t forget or overlook all the “downs” and moments of regression we encounter as a nation.

In this first piece on The Ghetto Activist, I wanted to shine some light on a time period in American history that many want to leave in the darkness.

The Red Summer of 1919

First, let me explain what The Red Summer of 1919 refers to…

The Red Summer of 1919 refers to a series of race riots that took place between May 1919 and October 1919.

Within those 153 days, America witnessed what many have called one of the bloodiest race riots in American history dubbing it the “Mini Civil War.”

Rock Island Argus Headline from 1919, September 29th

Although these race riots occurred in more than 30 cities (some historians have placed the number as high as 40) throughout the United States, the bloodiest events were in Chicago Illinois., Washington D.C., and Elaine, Arkansas.

The exact number of African Americans killed during the Red Summer is still unknown to this day.

How Could This Happen?

What could’ve caused such a massive span of race riots you might ask. Well, Several factors came into play pertaining to the riots, but for the sake of your attention span, I’ll highlight 3 key factors; Labor Shortages, The Great Migration, & White Supremacy

Labor Shortages

Industrial cities in the North and Midwest profited greatly from World War I. Yet, the factories also encountered serious labor shortages because white men were enlisting in World War I (estimates up to 5 million men enlisted in WWI came from these areas) and the United States government imposed various immigration bans that affected mainly Asia-Pacific, & European immigrants who could’ve potential fulfilled these positions. This then led to a time period in Black History called, “The Great Migration.”

The Great Migration

The demand for workers, incentives from industry agents (such as even paying to relocate some families), better educational and housing options as well as higher pay brought many African-Americans from the South to northern and Midwestern cities.

Between 1910 and 1970, an estimated six million African-Americans migrated from southern states to northern and Midwestern cities.1214

White Supremacy

When WWI ended (1918) many Northern and Midwestern white working class Americans came home to a “new America.” Some merely resented the presence of African-Americans and carried the same racial biases and beliefs many in the south had.

However, more importantly, many Northern and Midwestern white working class Americans resented competing for employment with African Americans mainly because many blacks were willing to accept lower wages than their white peers.


Although these race riots occurred in more than 30 cities (some historians have placed the number as high as 40) throughout the United States, the bloodiest events were in Chicago Illinois., Washington D.C., and Elaine Arkansas.

Charleston, South Carolina, May 10th, 1919

The first act of violence took place in Charleston, South Carolina, May 10, 1919.

A black man allegedly pushed Roscoe Coleman, a white Navy sailor, off the sidewalk. A white crowd of sailors and civilians gave chase to the man, who had escaped to a nearby house. A scuffle ensued where both sides threw bricks, bottles, and stones until four shots were fired into the air by a black man to disperse the crowd. Rumors immediately began to circulate of a sailor “shot by a Negro.”

For the next six months, riots occurred in small Southern towns such as Sylvester, Georgia and Hobson City, Alabama as well as larger northern cities such as Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Syracuse, New York. The largest riots, however, took place in Washington D.C., Chicago, Illinois, and Elaine, Arkansas.

Washington D.C., July 19th, 1919

On July 19, a mob of white men initiated a riot after hearing rumors of a black man had been accused of rape. The men beat random African-Americans, pulling them off of streetcars and beating street pedestrians.

African-Americans fought back after local police refused to intervene. For four days, African-American and white residents fought. After four days of violence and no police intervention, President Woodrow Wilson finally ordered nearly two thousand soldiers from nearby military bases into Washington to suppress the rioting.

The Washington D.C. riots were especially significant because it was one of the only instances when African-Americans aggressively fought back against whites.

Chicago, Illinois, July 27th, 1919

The headline of the Chicago Defender the day after the massacre

The most violent of all the race riots began on July 27. A young black man visiting Lake Michigan beaches accidentally swam on the South Side, which was locally known to be a whites-only section. As a result, he was stoned and drowned. After the police refused to arrest the young man’s attackers, violence ensued. For 13 days, white rioters destroyed the homes and businesses of African-Americans.

By the end of the riot, an estimated 1,000 African-American families were homeless, over 500 were injured and 50 people were killed.

Elaine, Arkansas, October 1st, 1919

The Elaine race riot of 1919

One of the last but most intense of all the race riots began on October 1st, 1919 after whites tried to disband the organization’s efforts of African-American sharecroppers.

On the night of September 30, 1919, approximately 100 African Americans, mostly sharecroppers on the plantations of white landowners, attended a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and the Household Union of America at a church. They hoped by organizing their efforts they could obtain better payments for their cotton crops. However, the planters opposed the worker’s organization and attacked African-American farmers.

Though sharp debate exists as to who fired first, the blackguards shot to death a white security officer from the Missouri-Pacific railroad, W.A. Atkins, and injured Charles Pratt, the county’s white deputy sheriff.

The next morning, a posse was sent to arrest the suspects. Though they encountered little opposition from the black community, the fact that blacks outnumbered whites ten to one in this area resulted in great fear of an “insurrection.”

The concerned whites formed a mob numbering up to 1,000 armed men, many of whom came from the surrounding counties and as far away as Mississippi and Tennessee.  The mob upon reaching Elaine began killing blacks and ransacking their homes. As word of the attack spread within the Elaine African American community, some residents fled while others armed themselves in defense.

Meanwhile, local white newspapers reported deliberately planned black uprisings, further inflaming tensions. By October 2, U.S. Army troops arrived in Elaine. Federal troops and remaining citizens rounded up and placed several hundred blacks in temporary stockades. Reports of torture occurred, and the men were not released until they had been vouched for by their families. Many blacks believed that perhaps as many as 200 were killed, their bodies dumped in the Mississippi River or left to rot in the canebrake. The white establishment charged that blacks had formed a secret conspiracy to rise up and overthrow the white planters, take their land and rape their women. No evidence was ever produced to substantiate the charge. 

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

Frederick Douglass

I know this first piece is a tough one to read, especially if you’ve never heard of the Red Summer of 1919. Frederick Douglass once said, “ If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” I couldn’t agree more.

It’s through struggles like The Red Summer, African American’s, time in & time out, were able to come together and unite as a community to fight for justice and equality for all.

Until the next post. Stay black bruh. 



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