In the decade immediately preceding World War I, a pattern of racial violence began to emerge in which white mob assaults were directed against entire Black communities. These race riots were the product of white society’s desire to maintain its superiority over Blacks, vent its frustrations in times of distress, and attack those least able to defend themselves. In these race riots, white mobs invaded Black neighborhoods, beat and killed large numbers of Blacks and destroyed Black property. In most instances, Blacks fought back and there were many casualties on both sides, though most of the dead were Black.
Gunnar Myrdal opposed the use of the term “riots” to describe these interracial conflicts. He preferred to call this phenomena “a terrorization or massacre, and (considered) it a magnified, or mass, lynching.”
Race riots occurred in both the North and South, but were more characteristic of the North. They were primarily urban phenomena, while lynching was primarily a rural phenomenon.
Although lynchings were decreasing slightly by the turn of the century, race riots were perceptibly on the increase. Large-scale interracial violence became almost epidemic, as increasing numbers of Blacks migrated to Northern cities. The greatest number of race riots occurred during and just after World War I. During this period the North was concerned with the tremendous migration of Blacks from the South, and the displacement of some whites by Blacks in jobs and residences, which escalated social tensions between the races. The South was concerned about the possible demands of returning Negro soldiers, who were unwilling to slip quietly back into second class citizenship.
The summer of 1919, called “The Red Summer” by James Weldon Johnson, ushered in the greatest period of interracial violence the nation had ever witnessed. During that summer there were twenty-six race riots in such cities as Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Elaine, Arkansas; Charleston, South Carolina; Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee; Longview, Texas; and Omaha, Nebraska. More than one hundred Blacks were killed in these riots, and thousands were wounded and left homeless.
The seven most serious race riots were those which occurred in Wilmington, N. C. (1898), Atlanta, Ga. (1906), Springfield, Ill. (1908), East St. Louis) Ill. (1917), Chicago, Ill. (1919), Tulsa, Okla. (1921) and Detroit, Mich. (1943). What follows is a brief summary of the facts concerning each riot.
Just before the turn of the century, in November 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina exploded in the first major race riot since Reconstruction. The Wilmington riot followed an impassioned election campaign in which intimidation and fraud brought in a white supremacist government. Plans were drawn up before the election to coerce the Black voters and workers, and to expel the editor of the Black newspaper. Two days after the election, as whites began to execute their plan, the riot flamed. About thirty Blacks were killed in the massacre and many left the city. The white mob suffered no casualties.
One of the South’s most sensational riots occurred in Atlanta, Georgia in September 1906. For months the city had been lashed into a fury of race hatred by a movement to disfranchise Blacks. The Atlanta press had begun to treat Black crime, especially assault and rape, in an inflammatory fashion. Twelve rapes of white women were reported in one week, giving the impression that there was an epidemic of Black rape. This touched off a riot. White mobs, meeting ineffective resistance by city police, murdered Blacks, destroyed and looted their homes and businesses. Blacks attempted to resist, but were outnumbered. Some Blacks were arrested for arming themselves in self-defense. When the four days of rioting ended, ten Blacks and two whites were dead, hundreds were injured, and over a thousand fled the city.
In Springfield, Illinois, during August 1908, a three-day riot took place, initiated by a white woman,s claim of violation by a Negro. Inflamed by newspapers’ sensationalism, crowds of whites gathered around the jail demanding that the Negro, who had been arrested and imprisoned, be lynched. When the sheriff transferred the accused and another Negro to a jail in a nearby town, white mobs headed for the Negro section and attacked homes and businesses. Two Blacks were lynched, others were dragged from their houses and streetcars and beaten. By the time the National Guardsmen reached the scene, six persons were dead—four whites and two Negroes. This riot, in the home town of Abraham Lincoln, shocked white liberals, who met the following year in New York City, with several prominent Blacks, to form the NAACP “to promote equality of rights and eradicate caste or race prejudice...”
The East St. Louis, Illinois riot in 1917 was touched off by the fear of white working men that Negro advances in economic, political and social status were threatening their own status. When the labor force of an aluminum plant went on strike in April, the company hired Negro workers. Although the strike was crushed by a combination of militia, injunctions, and both Black and white strike breakers, the union blamed its defeat on the Blacks. A union meeting in May demanded that “East St. Louis must remain a white man’s town.” A riot followed, sparked by a white man, during which mobs demolished buildings and Blacks were attacked and beaten. Policemen did little more than take the injured to hospitals and disarm Negroes. Harassments and beatings continued through June.
On July 1, some whites in a Ford drove through the main Negro district, shooting into homes. Blacks armed themselves. When a police car, also a Ford, drove down the street to investigate, the Blacks fired on it, killing two policemen. The next day, as reports of the shooting spread, a new riot began. Streetcars were stopped, Blacks were pulled off, stoned, clubbed, kicked and shot. Other rioters set fire to Black homes. By midnight the Black section was in flames and Blacks were fleeing the city. The official casualty figures were nine whites and thirty-nine Blacks, hundreds wounded, but the NAACP investigators estimated that between one hundred to two hundred Blacks were killed.
Over three hundred buildings were destroyed.
The worst of the post-War race riots took place in Chicago, Illinois. It began late in July 1919 when a young Black “encroached” upon a swimming area that the whites had marked off for themselves, and was stoned until he drowned. By the time the riot ended, thirteen days later, thousands of both races had been involved in a series of frays, fifteen whites and twenty-three Negroes were killed, and 178 whites and 342 Blacks were injured. More than one thousand families, mostly Blacks, were left homeless due to the burnings and general destruction of property.
The Tulsa, Oklahoma riot took place from May 31 to June 1, 1921. A white girl charged a Black youth with attempted rape in an elevator in a public building. The youth was arrested and imprisoned. Armed Blacks came to the jail to protect the accused youth, who, it was rumored, would be lynched. Altercations between whites and Blacks at the jail led to a “race war”. A mob, numbering more than ten thousand attacked the Black district. “Machine-guns were brought into.use; eight aeroplanes were employed to spy on the movements of the Negroes and according to some were used in bombing the colored section.”
Four companies of the National Guard were called out, but by the time order was restored, fifty whites and between 150 and 200 Blacks were killed. Many homes were looted and $1,500,000 worth of property was destroyed by fire.
The riot in Detroit, Michigan in 1943 flared from the increased racial friction over the sharp rise in the Negro population, which led to competition with whites on the job and housing markets. On June 20, rioting broke out on Belle Isle, a recreational area used by both races but predominately by Negroes. Fist fights escalated into a major conflict. The first wave of looting and bloodshed began in the Black ghetto “Paradise Valley” and later spread to other sections of the city. White mobs attacked Blacks in the downtown area, and traveled into Black neighborhoods by car, where they were met by sniping. By the time federal troops arrived to halt the riot, 25 Blacks and nine whites were killed and property damaged exceeded $2 million.
Race riots were caused by a great number of social, political and economic factors. Joseph Boskin, author of
Urban Racial Violence
observed that there were certain general patterns in the major twentieth century race riots:
1. In each of the race riots, with few exceptions, it was white people that sparked the incident by attacking Black people.
2. In the majority of the riots, some extraordinary social condition prevailed at the time of the riot: prewar social changes, wartime mobility, post-war adjustment, or economic depression.
3. The majority of the riots occurred during the hot summer months.
4. Rumor played an extremely important role in causing many riots. Rumors of some criminal activity by Blacks against whites perpetuated the actions of white mobs.
5. The police force, more than any other institution, was invariably involved as a precipitating cause or perpetuating factor in the riots. In almost every one of the riots, the police sided with the attackers, either by actually participating in, or by failing to quell the attack.
6. In almost every instance, the fighting occurred within the Black community.