Uphill All the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929
By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Three: Chaos at Home

Progressives in the Crucible of 1919

X. The Red Summer

I. Terror Comes to R St.
II. The Storm Before the Storm
III. Enemies in Office, Friends in Jail
IV. Mobilizing the Nation
V. The Wheels Come Off
VI. On a Pale Horse
VII. Battle in Seattle
VIII. The Great Strike Wave
IX. Steel and Coal
X. The Red Summer
XI. The Forces of Order
XII. Mr. Palmer's War
XIII. The Fever Breaks
XIV. The Best Laid Plans

As the October incident in Gary, Indiana made plain, the line between labor and capital was only one of the seams along which America in 1919 began to tear. Indeed, even before the autumn of labor conflict began in earnest, the nation had experienced what the NAACP's James Weldon Johnson deemed the "Red Summer" and what historian John Hope Franklin has argued was "the greatest period of interracial strife America has ever witnessed." In Chicago, in Washington DC and San Francisco, in Charleston, Omaha, Knoxville, and Longview - all over the country, tensions flared between black and white Americans. In total, twenty-six major cities saw racial violence erupt in the summer and fall of 1919, with African-Americans almost always on the wrong end. In short, like labor strikes, race riots too became a horrifying norm in the year after the war.1

As with so much else that went wrong in 1919, the racial turbulence had its origins in both the experience of the war and the expectations it had aroused. Those African-Americans who fought in the American Expeditionary Force returned home from the war to end all wars with pride in their service and a renewed commitment to defeating autocracy at home. The World War also helped to fuel what later became known as the Great Migration, as millions of African Americans moved out of the former Confederacy north and west, taking jobs in industry that were now open to support the war effort.

"[We] fought gladly and to the last drop of blood for America, a nation that represents and gloats in lynching, disfranchisement, caste, brutality, and devilish insult," wrote W.E.B. DuBois of the "Returning Soldiers" in The Crisis of May 1919. "By the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land." Similarly, NAACP boardmember and journalist Herbert Seligmann attributed the new militancy among African-Americans in 1919 to the fact that "the United States government called upon the Negro to die for democracy" and "spent enormous effort in making that concept a reality." This experience was "most distinctively educative":2
The war has meant a vital change in the position of the Negro and in his own feeling about the position. In the Southern states he contributed almost as many men as did the whites. He bought Liberty Bonds, subscribed to Red Cross and other funds, and played his part in the crisis voluntarily and involuntarily as did the white man. Now he feels the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness which is accorded him as in some sense a supreme test of his country's professions. If the white man tries to "show the nigger his place" by flogging and lynching him, the Negro, when the government does not defend him, will purchase arms to defend himself. 12
Or, as poet Claude McKay put it more succinctly in his 1919 poem "If We Must Die": "If we must die, let it not be like hogs/Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot...Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack/ Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!"4

Another indication of new black militancy in the face of oppression was the meteoric rise of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association. Garvey, a Jamaican, founded the UNIA in July 1914 to "embrace the purpose of all black humanity." By 1917, Garvey had come to the United States and begun to gather a following in Harlem, mostly among, according to historian David Levering Lewis, African-Americans and Afro-Caribbean immigrants that were "younger, angrier, poorer, and darker than the typical card-carrying members of the NAACP or the National Urban League." Stressing economic self-sufficiency, racial pride, and the re-colonization of Africa, Garvey envisioned a world where "the black man would not continue to be kicked about by all the other races and nations of the world…a new world of black men, not peons, serfs, dogs, and slaves, but a nation of study men making their impress upon civilization and causing a new light to dawn upon the human race." By the early 1920's - much to the consternation of DuBois, who looked warily upon this new rival - the UNIA boasted two million members around the world, as well a chain of grocery stores, a publishing house, the most popular black newspaper in the country, the Negro World, and a line of steamships, the Black Star Line.5

Further adding to African-Americans' new resolve was the sheer fact that many cities of the North and West had seen burgeoning black communities arise virtually overnight. Reduced foreign immigration, a boll weevil infestation in southern cotton just before the war, the wartime ramp-up of northern industry, higher wages in the north, the persistence of Jim Crow -- All conspired to encourage over four hundred thousand African-Americans to move north between the onset of war and 1920. "Brothers, come North," argued The Crisis in January 1920. "The North is no paradise…but the South is at best a system of caste and insult and at worst a Hell…We can vote in the North. We can hold office in the North." Detroit, home to the nascent automobile industry, had less than 1000 African-American residents in 1914. By 1919, it was estimated to have between 12,000 and 15,000. Pittsburgh saw the number of African American steelworkers double at many plants. Chicago's African-American population jumped from 44,000 in 1910 to 109,000 in 1920. In the spring of 1917, St. Louis saw 2000 African-American arrivals a week.6

Whatever the impact of the World War and the Great Migration, conservative forces and national newspapers were all too happy to ascribe postwar racial tensions to their favorite new bugaboo, the Red Menace, as well as to concomitant mischief by black leaders. "Reds Try to Stir Negroes to Revolt," and "Radicals Inciting Negro to Violence," warned the New York Times in July 1919. A month later, it was "Negroes of World Prey to Agitators," and, from the New York Tribune, "Plot to Stir Race Antagonism in United States Charged to Soviets." "[N]o element in this country is so susceptible to organized propaganda…as the least informed class of Negroes," opined the Times in October, reporting that "Bolshevist[s]…are winning many recruits among the colored races." For its part, the Wall Street Journal ascribed the usual origins of race riots to "a Bolshevist, a Negro, and a gun."7

Along with the standard-issue Bolshevists, newspapers also faulted black leaders for turning away from the congenial acquiescence toward racial slight that had defined the philosophy of Booker T. Washington. When W.E.B. Du Bois argued in The Crisis that "when the armed lynchers gather, we too must gather armed," the Times saw only a failure of black leadership, for in the olden days "there was still active among the negro leaders a sense of appreciation tracing back to the civil war period" of "the great benefits granted the negro race in this country." Or, as the Times put it elsewhere, before the Great War, the "majority of the Negroes in Washington…were well behaved…most of them admitted the superiority of the white race and troubles between the two races were undreamed of."8

Map of Race Riots during the Red Summer of 1919 (Found at WTTW: Chicago Tonight.)

While the actual flashpoints instigating the riots differed, they tended to follow a general pattern. In most cases, African-Americans had usually either asserted a right that white people considered privileged to them only, or subsequently refused to back down once attacked. For example, the most infamous riot of the year, in Chicago, began on July 27, 1919 when Eugene Williams, an African-American boy, accidentally swam across an invisible barrier and into the white zone of the 29th Street Beach. For this transgression, he was pelted with rocks until he drowned. When Chicago police tried to arrest a black man for the crime, fighting broke out that would rage across the Second City for almost a fortnight. After the dust had settled, 38 were dead - 23 blacks and 15 whites - 537 were injured, and 1000 African-American families had lost their homes. Reviewing the Chicago riot in The Crisis, Walter White noted that "[o]ne of the greatest surprises to many of those who came down to 'clean out the niggers' is that these same 'niggers' fought back. Colored man saw their own kind being killed, heard of many more, and believed that their lives and liberty were at stake. In such a spirit most of the fighting was done."9

Similarly in Charleston, South Carolina, violence erupted in May 1919 when a white sailor named Roscoe Coleman and his friends chased down a black man who had bumped into him on the street. A fight broke out and eventually an African-American fired shots into the air. This led to rumors of a sailor shot dead by a black man, resulting in two days of rioting, the imposition of martial law, 23 injured (18 black, 5 white) and three men dead, all black.10

The Charleston riot was one of the earliest of the summer, and one of many to involve conflicts involving military men. In June, tensions between black and white soldiers at the naval base in New London, Connecticut degenerated into a fight that the police and fire department could not stop - The marines had to be called in. In July, local police tried to disarm African-American troops stationed at Fort Huachuca in Bisbee, Arizona. The troops refused, and in the ensuing gunfight, five people ended up shot. Later that month, two were shot and many more injured in Norfolk, Virginia when police there warred against returning black War veterans.11

Other large-scale riots of the year began as attempted lynchings that turned into city-wide conflagrations. Four days in late July saw nine dead, thirty fatally wounded, and 180 more wounded in the nation's capital, where a white mob had gone on a spree of violence after the questioning and release of a presumed suspect in a sexual assault case. After reviewing the scene, James Weldon Johnson felt "disquieted, but not depressed…[It might have been worse. It might have been a riot in which the Negroes, unprotected by the law, would not have the spirit to protect themselves." As it is, "[t]he Negroes saved themselves and saved Washington by their determination not to run, but to fight."12

The following month, a white mob in Knoxville seeking to lynch a black murder suspect broke into the local jail, freed sixteen white prisoners from jail, and then marched against black neighborhoods, leaving seven dead and twenty wounded. Similar stories played out in Longview, Texas in July and Wilmington, Delaware four months later. And in Omaha that September, yet another white mob of vigilantes lynched Will Brown, another sexual assault suspect, burned his body, attempted to lynch the mayor when he tried to intervene, and then went on a rampage through the black part of town. By the time Leonard Wood arrived with federal troops to put down the riots, three were dead and fifty were injured. (Wood would be off to Gary a few weeks hence.)13

Speaking of Gary, it was not the only site of racial unrest with roots in labor disputes. In July, white ethnic laborers clubbed and beat black strikebreakers in Syracuse. And, in the bloodiest riot of the year, attempts by African-American sharecroppers and tenant farmers to start their own union in Elaine, Arkansas turned into an outright massacre. When two white men - one a police officer, the other a railroad worker - tried to break up the organizational meeting at a local church on September 30th, the railroad man was shot at and killed. In retaliation, hordes of white vigilantes went on a quasi-sanctioned murdering spree in order to put down what they later argued was a Bolshevist-inspired race uprising.14

The final official tally was five whites and 25 African-Americans dead, although blacks - and later historians - have argued the latter number easily ranged into the hundreds. "Negro uprising,' 'Negro insurrection,' etc. was sent broadcast," noted The Crisis in their examination of the riot. "The white planters called their gangs together and a big 'nigger hunt' began…Train loads and auto loads of white men, armed to the teeth, came from Marianna and Forest City, Ark., Memphis, Tenn., and Clarksdale, Miss. Rifles and ammunition were rushed in. The woods were scoured, Negro homes shot into. Negroes who did not know any trouble was brewing were shot and killed on the highways." One local white leader, planter E.M. Allen, told a newspaper after all the shooting was done that their vigilantism was a necessity: "The present trouble with the Negroes in Phillips County," he argued, "is not a race riot. It is a deliberately planned insurrection of the Negroes against the whites directed by an organization known as the 'Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America,' established for the purpose of banding Negroes together for the killing of white people."15

As ridiculous as that sounds, official Justice Department inquiries into "sedition" among African-Americans were scarcely less extreme. "[T]he more radical Negro publications," read a DOJ report on the subject in January 1920, "have been quick to avail themselves of the situation as cause for the utterance of inflammatory sentiment, utterances which in some cases have reached the limit of open-defiance and a counsel of retaliation." As such, it concluded that "[t]here can no longer be any question of a well-concerted movement among a certain class of Negro leaders of thought and action to constitute themselves a determined and persistent source of a radical opposition to the government, and to the established rule of law and order." This report on threats to "the established rule of law and order," noted James Weldon Johnson, refrained from mentioning lynching in any way. In fact, the administration - which had reintroduced segregation in federal buildings once Wilson took office - took no real action against white-on-black violence at all. In August 1919, The NAACP sent Wilson a telegram "respectfully enquir[ing] how long the Federal Government under your administration intends to tolerate anarchy in the United States?" No answer was forthcoming.16

Surveying the race riots as a whole, Herbert Seligmann saw less sedition and more simple self-respect at work in the new militancy in the African-American community. Writing in TNR, he argued that the race riots "are symptomatic of the changing temper of Negroes as well as of white men toward race relations:
Scratch the surface of public opinion…and you found beneath the talk of assaults upon women and of 'crime waves,' a determination to put the Negro back to where he was before the war. White workmen would tell you that Negroes were getting too high wages and were becoming 'independent,' i.e. were no longer as servile as the southern white man wished… 'Crime waves' are becoming a thin and transparent pretext for assault upon Negroes. The question which the American people will have to face is that of the economic and social status which will be accorded the Negro as a citizen…The war has meant a vital change in the position of the Negro and in his own feeling about the position. In the Southern states he contributed almost as many men as did the whites. He bought Liberty Bonds, subscribed to Red Cross and other funds, and played his part in the crisis voluntarily and involuntarily as did the white man. Now he feels the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness which is accorded him as in some sense a supreme test of his country's professions. If the white man tries to 'show the nigger his place' by flogging and lynching him, the Negro, when the government does not defend him, will purchase arms to defend himself.17
"[T]he fundamental basis of proper relations between the races," Seligmann concluded, "must be a recognition of the Negro's prerogatives as a human being and as a citizen." Without that foundation, America ran the risk of seeing "a hopeless condition of race war in the United States."18

Writing about the Red Summer in 1919, W.E.B. Du Bois warned his readers not to let "justifiable self-defense against individuals become blind and lawless offense against all white folk." Nonetheless, there was no turning back now. "Brothers we are on the Great Deep," he wrote:
We have cast off on the vast voyage which will lead to Freedom or Death. For three centuries we have suffered and cowered. No race ever gave Passive Resistance and Submission to Evil longer, more piteous trial. Today we raise the terrible weapon of Self-Defense. When the murderer comes, he shall no longer strike us in the back. When the armed lynchers gather, we too must gather armed. When the mob moves, we propose to meet it with bricks and clubs and guns. 12
"Honor, endless and undying Honor, to every man, black or white, who in Houston, East St. Louis, Washington and Chicago gave his life for Civilization and Order," he concluded. "If the United States is to be a Land of Law, we would live humbly and peaceably in it….if it is to be a Land of Mobs and Lynchers, we might as well die today as tomorrow."20

Continue to Chapter 3, Pt. 11: The Forces of Order.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America (New York: Henry Holt, 2011), 12-15. Barry, Rising Tide, 139.
2. "Returning Soldiers," The Crisis, XVIII (May, 1919), 13-14. Quoted in Noggle, Into the Twenties, 41-42. Herbert Seligmann, "Democracy and Jim-Crowism," The New Republic Vol. XX, No. 252, Sept. 3, 1919, 151-152.
3. Herbert Seligmann, "Race War?" The New Republic, Vol. XX, No. 249, Aug. 13, 1919, 48.
4. Alan Brinkley, American History: A Survey (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishers, 2007). Among the young African-American veterans transformed by the experience of the war was a First Lieutenant stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, Charles Hamilton Houston. "The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans," Houston wrote, "convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them. I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back." NAACP History: Charles Hamilton Houston (http://www.naacp.org/pages/naacp-history-charles-hamilton-houston)
5. David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century 1919-1963 (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), 54-55. Miller, New World Coming, 114-115.
6. Emmett Jay Scott, Negro Migration During the War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1920), 13-16. "Brothers, Come North," The Crisis, January, 1920, Vol. 19-No. 3, 105. Walter White, "The Success of Negro Migration," The Crisis, January, 1920, Vol. 19-No. 3, 112-114. "For Action on Race Riot Peril," New York Times, October 5, 1919. Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 16. John Buescher, "The East St. Louis Massacre," http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/24297
7. Herbert J. Seligmann, The Negro Faces America (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1920), 143. McWhirter, 160."For Action on Race Riot Peril," New York Times, October 5, 1919.
8. Ibid. Seligmann, "Race War?"
9. Jan Voogd, Race, Riots and Resistance: The Red Summer of 1919 (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008), 43. Richard Wormser, "Red Summer," PBS: The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_red.html) Walter White, "Chicago and its Eight Reasons," The Crisis, October 1919, 297.
10. Voogd, 88-89.
11. Jan Voogd, "90th Anniversary of the Red Summer," http://janvoogd.wordpress.com/category/history/red-summer-of-1919/.
12. James Weldon Johnson, "The Riots," The Crisis, September 1919, Vol. 18-No. 5, 242-243.
13. Peter Perl, "Race Riot of 1919 Gave Glimpse of Future Struggles," Washington Post, March 1, 1999, A1. Voogd, "90th Anniversary of the Red Summer"
14. In fact, the summer of 1917 saw one of the worst race riots of the century in East St. Louis, leaving between 40 and 150 dead and 6000 homeless. It originated in a dispute between the local unions and African-American strikebreakers. Buescher.
15. Ibid. Wormser, "Red Summer." "The Real Causes of Two Race Riots," The Crisis, December 1919, Vol. 19-No. 2, 56-59. "The Elaine Massacre," Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. http://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=1102
16. "Negro 'Sedition," The Survey. January 24, 1920, 448.
17. Seligmann, "Race War?"
18. Ibid.
19. "Let Us Reason Together," The Crisis, September 1919, Vol. 18-No. 5, 231.
20. Ibid.

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