After the Union victory in the US Civil War, the next significant step in giving African-American people equal rights was when the Civil Rights Movement took on various states nearly a century later.
Often forgotten is a terrible period of less than 5 months during 1919, which became known as the Red Summer, a time when race riots took place from North to South, and East to West, leaving several dozen people dead, often by horrific means, and many more injured.
Today these events are included with the Red Scare of 1919-1920, when anti-Communist feelings ran very high, but a US Senate Committee identified at least 38 separate riots in which white communities attacked black communities during this short period.
While anti-Communism feelings did contribute in part, there were other contributing factors. During WWI many industrial cities in the north found themselves short of labour, and it’s estimated that as many as 500,000 African-Americans emigrated from the south during this time, leading to a clash with returning soldiers, many of whom found themselves out of work and facing rising inflation.
Newspapers of the time did not help, with various headlines stoking tensions, such as this link to a headline from the New York Times.
One of the first riots was in Charleston, South Carolina, with white sailors and civilians fought against black civilians, and within hours 3 black were shot dead, with 18 more injured, with five white men injured as well. The city imposed martial law, and a subsequent Naval investigation found 4 sailors and a civilian responsible for initiating the riots.
One of the worst was in Chicago, Illinois, which started when a white man started throwing stones at a number of black beach goers, killing Eugene Williams. A nearby police officer refused to arrest the man, instead arresting another black man for protesting at this outrage. Groups of white men then started looking for black people, and stoning those unfortunate to be caught, while many buildings were set ablaze.
Before the Government called in 6,000 National Guard troops to restore order, 23 African-Americans and 15 white people were dead, with over 530 more people injured. Hundreds of people were left homeless by the fires, with having been thrown on some roads to prevent fire trucks from reaching the fires. It is not known how many black people were forced to flee Chicago, fearing for their lives.
Despite the coroner’s report of the responsibility of white people for the extensive rioting and damage, of the 17 men indicted, all were black.
Another brutal riot occurred in Omaha, Nebraska, after sensational reporting of the rape of Agnes Loebeck. Local reports suggested this had been one of several attacks on white women by black men, so when Will Brown was arrested the next day, a mob gathered to demand his lynching, but they were turned away
The next day a large mob turned up at the court house after lunch, and faced up to a police force of 30 officers, but they were turned away. Three hours later, 4,000 people turned up, charging at the officers in charge, and throwing bricks through the windows of the court house.
The officers tried turning a water hose on the crowd and even fired a number of shots to frighten off the crowds. The chief of police arrived and tried to talk to the crowds, but he was ignored. Any black person in the area was severely beaten, and anyone who tried to help them was also beaten. Nearby hardware stores were broken into, and more than a thousand revolvers and shotguns were reported stolen.
As the officers barricaded themselves inside the courthouse, together with the mayor, trying to protect Will Brown, it was set alight by the rioters. Mayor Smith came out at 11pm to appeal again to the crowd, but as the crowd started to quiet down, a shot rang out and a man screamed out that he’d been shot by Smith. The crowd surged forward and Smith was hit on the head with a baseball bat, and a noose put around his neck. Despite some people trying to protect Smith from the crowd, he was dragged to a traffic signal tower and hanged by the neck. He was saved by four state agents who drove at the crowds, reached Smith and cut him down, before taking him away to Hospital. Despite recovering, Smith died 2 years later.
Fearing they would be burned alive inside the Court House, other prisoners inside eventually managed to grab Brown and handed him to the mob. He was dragged out and hanged from a nearby telephone post. Hundreds of shots were fired at his body as it dangled, and when they cut him down, they dragged his body through several streets before setting his body alight.
Members of the mob continued to haul Brown’s burned body through the streets for several hours more.
Federal troops from nearby Fort Omaha and Fort Crook arrived by 3am and took several positions in the city, some with machine guns, to stop any further mob violence.
Despite 120 people indicted on charges of murder, arson and other charges, few were successfully prosecuted, and none of them served any time in prison.
In the 30 years prior to 1919, it is estimated that some 2,500 black people had been lynched in the US, but in the summer of 1919 many more were injured and forced to flee their homes because of full scale riots that took place from as far north as New York, to as far south as Texas, and from as far west as Arizona, to as far east as Maryland and Washington DC.