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 2-Violence Descends on D.C.
“I’d been fighting the wrong war. The Germans weren’t the enemy, the enemy was right here at home.”-Harry Haywood, WW1 Veteran and Civil Rights Activist
As the summer months wore on, more riots, massacres, and lynchings pierced the nation’s thin racial skin throughout the country. Washington D.C. was no exception as it sank into four days of heated racial mob violence, the flames of which were fanned by newspapers such as the Washington Post.
At the time, the owner of the Post had displayed a propensity for fictitious reporting of black on white crime. Multiple write-ups of black crime perpetuated against white women were printed, almost all of which were discredited. D.C. was also experiencing a population swell which carried with it a clamor for jobs and housing amongst returning veterans. When a report of two black men attempting to steal a the umbrella of a white woman walking home, the city was ripe for the ensuing implosion. One headline read: Negroes Attack Girl, White Men Pursue in Vain.
Rumors began spreading amongst white service men that white women were being raped, which set in motion the terror of night one, punctuated by drunken violence of mobsters hunting alleged assailants, destruction, and murder of blacks in their neighborhoods. Peace seemed to have been restored the next day, but as night fell, tensions rose, the white mob now fanned out across the city to inflict more horror on its black residents.
One recently returned black veteran boarded a street car in a black neighborhood and noticed that its passengers were almost all-white, which was unusual. When he went to sit down he was blocked, which rapidly escalated in calls for his death by lynching. Narrowly escaping out the back of the trolley, his head was cut open by a projectile and the conductor fired three shots as him as he crashed into the pavement. He happened to notice another black woman still riding on the street car as it pulled away–he never found out what became of her.
Scenes like this were painfully common throughout the riots as black residents were pulled from street cars and beaten, black owned businesses were burned, and terror seeped into the pores of the entire black community. Another black man was beaten rocks wrapped in handkerchiefs and left for dead just a stone’s throw away from the White House.
The first two nights saw D.C’s black population on the defensive, but possibly feeling empowered by the presence of black war veterans, the third day saw many take the offensive. They began purchasing firearms at an incredible rate from gun stores and pawn shops to protect their neighborhoods. Around the Shaw neighborhood and Howard University, streets like 7th and U became a scene of Model-T drive-by shootings against the white mob. Sharpshooters perched atop the historic Howard Theater, one woman fired into a white mob from her apartment window before engaging police entering her home.
The police had done little to quell the overwhelming violence and a “Home Defense League” of police volunteers had actually actively taken part in it. Arguably worse than the police response was the newspaper reporting, as evidenced by The Washington Post actively calling for a mobilization of white residents to “clean-up” the city during the riots.
2000 troops were authorized to bring the violence to an end, but a timely thunderstorm probably had more to do with the cessation of turmoil. In the end, 15 people, both white and black, were reported dead, but historians estimate the number was actually closer to three times that amount. Chicago would soon fall victim to a similar fate.
Next Entry: Part 3-Violence Sweeps Through The Windy City and Aftermath