Red Summer: The Summer when Blacks Started Fighting Back
In the summer of 1919, America ran red with blood from racial violence. 100 years later, most people don’t even know it happened. It was called Red Summer because the bloodshed amounted to some of the worst white on black violence in American history.
Hundreds of black men, women and children were burned alive, shot, hung and beaten to death by white people. Thousands of black people saw their homes and businesses burned to the ground. This happened in cities from Elaine, Arkansas, Annapolis, Maryland, Syracuse, New York, Washington, DC and Chicago, Illinois.
There were family fortunes lost. This helped lead to distrust of white authority by black people. Most importantly this galvanized black people to defend themselves and their neighborhoods by any means necessary. It reinvigorated the NAACP and led to a new era of activism, gave rise to courageous reporting by black journalists and influenced the generation of leaders who would lead the civil rights movement.
“The people who were the icons of the civil rights movement were raised by the people who survived the Red Summer,” said Saje Mathieu, a history professor at the University of Minnesota.
There are no national observances marking Red Summer. History textbooks ignore it. Museums don’t acknowledge it. Why? Red Summer contradicts the post World War I era notion that America was making the world safe for democracy.
“It doesn’t fit into the neat stories we tell ourselves,” said David Krugler, author of “1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back.”
Researchers say that in a span of 10 months, more than 250 blacks were killed in at least 25 riots across the US by white mobs that never faced punishment. Historian John Hope Franklin called it “the greatest period of interracial strife the nation has ever witnessed.”
The bloodshed was the product of a collision of social forces. Black men were returning from World War 1 expecting the same rights they bled for in Europes and black families were moving north to escape the brutal Jim Crow laws of the south. Whites saw black people as competition for jobs, homes and political power.
Ethnic cleansing was the goal of white people. They wanted to kill as many black people as possible and terrorize the rest until they were willing to leave and live somewhere else.
The violence didn’t start or end in 1919. Some say it started in 1917 in East St Louis, Illinois when 24 blacks were killed. Some say it didn’t end until the Rosewood Massacre of 1923, when a black town in Florida was destroyed. All in all, at least 1,122 American were killed in racial violence over those six years.
In 1919 there was violence in New York, Memphis, Philadelphia, Charleston, Baltimore, New Orleans,Wilmington, Omaha, New London, Bisbee, Longview, Knoxville,Norfolk and Putnam County.
In Washington, DC, white mobs made up of members of the military, rampaged over the weekend of July 19-22, beating any black child they could find after false rumors of a white woman being assaulted by black men spread. Two black men were attacked and beaten directly in front of the White House.
In Elaine, Arkansas, black sharecroppers who dared to join a union were attacked. At least 200 blacks were killed.
Black journalists like Ida B Wells played an important role in getting the story out. “Black newspapers like the Chicago Defender were instrumental in providing an alternate voice that represented why blacks deserved to be here, deserved equal rights and were , in some cases, justified in fighting,” said Kevin Strait, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Red Summer also marked a new era of black resistance to white injustice, whith black standing up in unprecedented numbers and killing some of their tormentors. Returning black soldies from World War I led the charge, using skills refined in Europe.
The Germans weren’t the enemy. The enemy was white Americans.
In Washington, DC, Carrie Johnson, 17, became a hero for shooting at white invaders in her neighborhood. She fatally shot a white policeman who broke into her second story bedroom. She claimed self defense, and her manslaughter conviction was overturned.
The NAACP gained about 100,000 members in 1919. Blacks started going to Congress and pressing Congressmen and Senators to pass anti-lynching legislation. Blacks began fighting back in courts and filing lawsuits when people were mistreated.
The lessons of Red Summer continued to reveberate. Even 100 years later in the summer of 2019 after a white man in Dayton killed 6 black people, black people are saying, NEVER AGAIN.