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Race Riots of 1919

An increased desire and urgency of many African Americans for full equality came with their participation in World War I and the great migration of more than one million blacks by 1918 who had left the South for jobs in the North and the West. During this time, Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican activist, introduced an alternative to integration espoused by the NAACP. On August 1, 1914, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a separatist movement that attracted a lower social and economic level of blacks than the NAACP and "promoted black social and moral independence within white society." Garvey exalted race pride and "everything black." He received a wide following that "offered the best testimony to the sense of betrayal the war and its aftermath kindled in black communities."

The importation of a million negroes into the Northern States, to fill the places of white artisans and laborers drafted for the Great War, had its tragic sequel in the race riots which occurred during July and September, 1919, in four cities - Washington, Chicago, Omaha and Elaine, Arkansas. In three of the four cities, except Chicago, Regular Army troops were required to restore order. Overall, black hopes for equality were diminished in the summer of 1919 that marked a new watershed in racial disturbances that "spread like wildfire" across the nation. These riots, resulting in 62 deaths and hundreds of injuries, were in part due to negro assurance, based upon the wide acceptance among the blacks of the doctrine of the social equality of the races as enunciated by negro editors. Other contributing causes were the alleged assaults committed by blacks upon white girls, and the industrial enmities engendered by the transplanting of these blacks on Northern soil, displacing white men not only from positions of lucrative employment, but, dispossessing them of their homes as well.

The riots in Washington, D. C., began on Saturday, July 19, 1919. The riot was the the responsibility of the mob composed of white men - soldiers, sailors and marines - which ran amuck through the streets of the national capital, maiming, injuring and killing innocent Colored citizens, the alleged provocation being a succession of assaults committed by negroes on white women. Bands of soldiers, sailors, marines and civilians made their way to the Center Market district in the heart of the city, dragging many negroes from street cars and automobiles and assaulting them. The Police Reserves were called out, but could not quell the rioting, which by nightfall had spread to other parts of the city. A score of badly injured negroes by this time had been removed to the Emergency Hospital.

According to one contemporary account "The newspapers in other sections of the country (some of them) have attempted to justify these riots on the ground that Negroes in Washington attempted to rape white women. A more vicious and cowardly libel on the Negroes of Washington was never uttered. The Negroes of Washington, D.C., have for more than a hundred years maintained a reputation for law and order, and respect for womanhood unequaled by the Negroes of any other section of the country. That they have now suddenly developed into rapists with a penchant for second or third class white women will not be believed even by the liars who make the charge to divert attention from the real cause of these outbreaks."

"We do want to call attention, however, specifically to the claim that the Washington riots followed 'assaults upon white women by Negroes.' It has been very clearly proven that there was no series of assaults. To use the strongest language possible there were only attempted 'assaults.' These attempted assaults were mere approaches, the motive for which is not perfectly clear. There was only one Negro who made the approach upon four women. Three of these women were not hurt. The fourth woman was colored; she was of such fair complexion that she was mistaken for white and the Negro who made the assault and the papers who exploited assault were likewise deceived. We have wondered quite often that if the newspapers of Washington knew that this fair skinned woman was colored whether they would have made such a howl about this particular assault as they did."

For three days and nights the rioting continued, but on the 22d, Major-Gen. Ham, in co-operation with the police, apparently had the situation well in hand. On that day, without warning, the riots broke out anew. This time the negroes were the aggressors. The retaliation which followed on the part of the Colored people, although to be deplored, was, under the circumstances, but natural. Bent upon retaliation they rode about in automobiles, shooting promiscuously at the whites. The whites accepted the challenge and a violent clash ensued. Troops were called out and by evening order was restored. As a result of the day's bloody work, four blacks and three whites were killed and 70 injured. Hundreds of rioters were arrested. That night Washington was policed by a large force of soldiers and marines. No further outbreak occurred at the Capital.

News of the Washington riots stirred Chicago, where 50,000 blacks had displaced as many whites from places of employment in the preceding two years. The blacks, moreover, had overflowed into the better residential districts, occupying houses usually reserved for whites. Property values had fallen in consequence of the "negro invasion," with much ill feeling among landlords and houseowners.

The worst riot began a week later on a Lake Michigan beach in Chicago when a black boy drifted into the "whites only" swimming area. White swimmers demanded that the boy return to his section of the beach and some threw stones at him. The youth drowned, but there was no indication that he had been stoned. Accepting this report as true, a number of negroes crossed the dividing line to the white section of the beach and demanded satisfaction. Rumors of the incident sparked thirteen days of violence despite the presence of the state militia. The police were unable to control the situation.

From the beaches, the rioting spread through the "Black Belt," and for several days this part of the city was the scene of much disorder, accompanied by shooting, stabbings, assaults and some incendiarism. On July 28th, five negroes and nine whites were killed in a battle lasting five hours, the blacks firing from windows, roofs and other points of vantage. On the following day the battle continued with unabated fury. Fourteen participants were killed and 500 injured. One negro who had been riddled with bullets, was burned to a cinder. Hundreds of rioters were arrested for carrying concealed weapons or for disorderly conduct.

On July 30th, on request of the mayor of Chicago, Gov. Frank O. Lowden called out 5,000 State Troops. Members of the National Guard and veterans of the World War also assisted. On July 31st, 36 incendiary fires were started with the evident purpose of "smoking out" the blacks; one negro was killed and six negroes were badly beaten. By August 3d calm had been restored throughout Chicago and five days later the 6,000 state troops guarding the city were sent home. In the end 38 people died, including 15 whites and 23 blacks, and 537 people were injured.

At Omaha, Nebraska, on September 19th, a mob of several thousand white citizens stormed the Douglas County Court House in their efforts to seize William Brown a negro confined in the jail there awaiting trial for an alleged assault on a white girl named Lobeck. The police held back the mob for a time. Mayor E. P. Smith of Omaha, a former law partner of counsel for the negro's defense, attempted to quell the disturbance by appealing to the rioters to await the orderly processes of the law. In the midst of his address he was seized, a rope placed around his neck and he was strung up twice, being cut down when life was almost extinct. He recovered after two weeks' hospital treatment. After assaulting the mayor, the rioters set fire to the $1,000,000 courthouse, which was practically destroyed, and secured the prisoner. He was immediately hanged and his body burned to a crisp. Fifteen hundred Federal troops were sent to the scene from Fort Crook and Fort Omaha. Gen. Leonard Wood, Commander of the Central Department, arrived on September 30th, and quickly restored order. During the rioting Louis Young, a 17 years old boy, was shot and killed by the police while attempting to enter the courthouse, and a man named H. J. Hykell was fatally injured. Hundreds of persons sustained injuries. Of the hundreds of rioters arrested, 150 were charged with murder, being identified from photographs taken during the disturbance.

Dreadful race riots broke out at Elaine, Arkansas, on October 1 and 2, 1919. At the time many African-American sharecroppers had not received their share of wages and they wanted to join the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. The killing of W. D. Adkins, a railroad special agent at Elaine, on September 30, was the immediate cause of the conflict between the whites and blacks. For several days there was serious fighting between the two races throughout Phillips' County, but with the arrival of 500 Regular Army troops the disturbance was quelled. In the rioting eleven negroes and five white men were killed. At the end of the violence, 65 African-Americans were brought to trial. Twelve were sentenced to death and the others appealed to higher courts. With assistance from the (then) newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the condemned men were set free.



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