by William Trollinger
1919 was quite the dreadful year. The Red Scare, and the Red Summer.
In the Red Scare, the federal government targeted immigrants – particularly Russians, Germans, Hungarians, and Italians – for alleged radical activities, even deporting some to the Soviet Union. But the U.S. government was not only alarmed about immigrants. In 1919, the government was also very worried about African Americans. They were worried even though African Americans played a heroic role in the war effort. Not only had black workers contributed to wartime industrial production – with perhaps 500,000 African Americans moving from the South to cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit to work in the factories – but another 367,000 black soldiers served in Europe. The Army was segregated, and 90% of these African American soldiers were relegated to support roles. But many of those who saw combat served valiantly, most particularly the 369th Infantry Regiment, which was assigned to serve under French command because so many white American soldiers refused to fight alongside black soldiers. These “Harlem Hellfighters” fought the Germans almost continuously for six months, reportedly never giving up a foot of land. The French loved them, referring to them as the “lost children” (having been abandoned by the United States) and awarding 171 members of the regiment the French Legion of Merit.
Having served their country, black soldiers came home determined to seek better treatment for themselves and their race. But they came home to a place that had not changed. The federal government actively supported racial discrimination; for example, President Wilson had segregated federal offices, and he hosted a special White House screening of “Birth of a Nation,” the film celebrating the Ku Klux Klan. This government understood calls for racial equality under the law as dangerously un-American. During the war, the government’s gigantic espionage effort had included spying on a variety of black leaders as well as organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. After the war, the federal government – particularly J. Edgar Hoover and the anti-Radical Division – ratcheted up the surveillance of African Americans. African Americans who talked and wrote against racial oppression had their publications monitored, their phones tapped, their mail opened, their organizations and audiences infiltrated by spies. Racial equality was not only a frightening idea. It was Bolshevik. As Attorney General Palmer said before Congress in 1919, “’practically all of the radical organizations in this country have looked upon the Negroes as particularly fertile ground for the spreading of their doctrines . . .’ As a consequence, ‘the Negro is seeing red’” (Kornweibel, xii-xiv).
One black World War I veteran plaintively wrote: “America, will you let us fall?/After we so bravely answered your call?/Now why! Oh why! Is Freedom’s Door/Closed against us as it was before?” (McWhirter, 14). The answer was yes. In 1919, there was a renewed commitment to white dominance, a commitment that included the willingness to use the most horrific forms of violence to keep black people in their place. 84 African Americans were lynched in 1919. Black soldiers in uniform were favorite targets, the fear being that serving in the war had led them to forgetting that their place was at the bottom of American society. In one Georgia town, a uniformed soldier was dragged off a train by fifty whites, taken to the woods, shot, and then hacked into little pieces. In another Georgia town, a soldier was ordered by a white mob to take off his uniform and never wear it again; refusing the order, he was summarily executed. Often the explanation for a lynching was that a black man had made improper advances to a white woman. In Vicksburg, Mississippi 23-year-old Lloyd Clay was falsely accused of entering a white girl’s bedroom; while the sheriff stood by puffing on a cigar, Clay was covered with oil, set aflame, and raised onto a tree, where a crowd of a thousand whites took pot shots at him, and children cried for a piece of Clay’s charred finger. In Ellisville, Mississippi white citizens placed newspaper ads announcing the forthcoming burning of a black man who supposedly assaulted a white woman. The mayor and governor said they had no power to stop it, and a crowd of 3000 simultaneously burned and hanged their victim.
In the “Red Summer” of 1919, there were also 34 race riots, most involving whites attacking blacks while public officials stood by (at least, until blacks fought back). These riots took place north and south, in places such as Omaha, Charleston, Washington DC, San Francisco, Knoxville. In July, a terrible riot broke out in Chicago. Beginning as a conflict on a South Side beach, with the stoning of a black youth swimming in the lake, it quickly escalated when white gangs began pulling African Americans off streetcars and beating them; at the end there were 38 dead, 537 wounded, and 1000 people homeless. But this was not nearly as bad as what happened in Elaine Arkansas, when white landowners – fearful that their sharecroppers were about to unionize – murdered hundreds of African Americans, dumping many of the bodies in the Mississippi River in order to hide the evidence of slaughter.
100 years ago. A dreadful year.
Kornweibel, Jr., Theodore. “Seeing Red”: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy, 1919-1925. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
McWhirter, Cameron. Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011.