Black History Month: The Redux-Red Summer Pt. 1

Armed National Guards and African American men standing on a sidewalk during the race riots in Chicago, Illinois, 1919.-Courtesy NPR

4. Red Summer-A Three Part Series

As WW1 ended, how did white fear, intolerance, and outright hostility lead to the worst outbreak of racial violence this country has ever witnessed?

Part 1-Tensions Brewing

On a particularly hot July afternoon in 1919, Eugene Williams, a black teenager living in Chicago’s south side, was swimming with others in Lake Michigan. As the sun beat down on the water, Williams inadvertently drifted into a white’s only beach, crossing Chicago’s unofficial but strictly enforced color line. Angry white beachgoers threw stones at Williams, eventually causing him to drown. When police arrived on the scene, no one responsible for the drowning was arrested, but a black man was. This plunged the city into a week of horrific racial violence which left 38 black and white residents dead, over 500 injured, and 1000’s of homes burned–mostly black owned.

The months between April and October of 1919 became known as “Red Summer,” a term coined by African American journalist James Weldon Johnson in response to the two dozen cities that succumbed to white-instigated racial violence. Post-war tensions in America were high due to a myriad of factors, some of which included a depressed economy, increased inflation, labor strife, a red scare ignited by the communist Russian revolution, and the Great Migration.

Started in 1916, the Great Migration was an movement led by southern blacks seeking better job opportunities, the right to vote and have it counted, safety from lynchings, and other basic civil rights afforded them as citizens. The north offered better paying factory jobs, such as those at automobile and meat packing plants, but itself was not free from the hostility which would arise as whites felt their employment and housing encroached upon.

White fear was only further stoked by the return of black soldiers from WW1 ready to enter the workforce and reluctant to accept a second-class citizen status after years of better treatment while abroad. Civil Rights leader, author, and newspaper editor W.E.B. Dubois summed it up, “We return, we return from fighting, we return fighting.”

The first incident occurred that April in Jenkins County, Georgia. On the way to church, Mr. Ruffin, a wealthy farmer and black community leader, noticed a friend of his in the back of a police vehicle. He pulled over and offered to pay the officers for his release in cash, but they demanded a check. As the farmer intervened to lead the man away, the officer struck him with his pistol, which discharged. The farmer’s son, believing his father dead, shot and killed the officer.

When order was restored, two white officers and four black men were dead. Hundreds of whites rushed through town in response, churches and black masonic lodges were burned, and two of Ruffin’s others sons were lynched. Several others were killed by the mob, but exact numbers aren’t known. Ruffin himself escaped thanks to the aide of a local sheriff, but was charged with murder. Although he never served any prison time, the legal expenses precipitated his decent into poverty interstate migration to South Carolina. No charges were ever filed against the white men who killed Ruffin’s sons or destroyed black property. This incident set the wheels in motion for a spate of tragic events that would shed blood throughout the nation’s streets and black communities that summer.

Next Entry: Part 2-Violence Descends on the Nation’s Capital

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