The Red Summer of 1919 was marked by racial riots in numerous U.S. cities between black and white Americans. The culminating event was the Chicago riots, which left 15 white people and 23 black people dead, and more than 500 injured. Additionally, 1,000 black families were displaced from their homes which were destroyed by fire from white rioters.
The Event that Sparked the Red Summer
- In the summer of 1919, on July 27, an African-American teenager violated the "unofficial segregation of Chicago's beaches" and was stoned by several young white people. The teenager, Eugene Williams, who was 17-years-old eventually drowned in Lake Michigan.
- Williams was swimming in Lake Michigan with his friends when he accidentally crossed 29th Street, which was the unofficial barrier between "white" and "black" beaches.
- Chicago police officers refused to arrest the white men who were identified as the people responsible for starting the stoning. Instead, a black man was arrested.
- Angry crowds began gathering at the beach and "reports of the incident–many distorted or exaggerated–spread quickly," which triggered a week of riots between "gangs of black and white Chicagoans, concentrated on the South Side neighborhood surrounding the stockyards."
- On eye witness reported that a particularly angry black man "pulled out a gun and fired into a knot of police. He was shot dead immediately."
- The Chicago police was unable to end the fighting, so, on the fourth day of the riots, the state militia was summoned. However, the fighting did not end until August 3.
- By the time the riots ended on August 3, 15 white people and 23 African Americans had been killed and over 500 people had been injured. About 60% of those injured were African American.
- Due to fires that were set to African Americans' homes, "an additional 1,000 black families were left homeless."
- Immediately following the riots, there were some suggestions to implement "zoning laws to formally segregate housing in Chicago, or restrictions preventing blacks from working alongside whites in the stockyards and other industries."
- African Americans and liberal white Chicagoans rejected those proposals and city officials responded by creating the Chicago Commission on Race Relations to examine the riots and determine the underlying cause.
- The Chicago Commission on Race Relations consisted of six white men and six black men eventually pinpointed issues such as "competition for jobs, inadequate housing options for blacks, inconsistent law enforcement and pervasive racial discrimination" as the root causes of racial tensions in the city.
- U.S. President Woodrow Wilson stated publicly that whites were to blame for the Chicago riots and began working toward legislation that would encourage racial harmony.
- Not only did the Red Summer draw the American public's attention to racial problems in urban areas, but it also "marked the beginning of a growing willingness among African Americans to fight for their rights in the face of oppression and injustice."
- White participants in the stoning of Williams and the subsequent violence were never arrested or prosecuted for their involvement.
- The Red Summer is generally ignored in history books, possibly due to the fact that historians believe it "contradicts the post-World War I-era notion that America was making the world safe for democracy."
- As a result of African-Americans beginning to fight back against racial oppression, the NAACP gained 100,000 members in 1919 and black people began going to Congress and pressuring their representatives to pass anti-lynching legislation.
- Many historians believe that the Red Summer was the "awakening of black America."
- While the incident in Chicago was the culminating event that led to the Red Summer, there were additional riots in Washington D.C. between July 19 and 23 that led to the death of four whites and two blacks.
- A false rumor that a black man had "assaulted a white woman incited mobs to attack local black neighborhoods and assault random African American individuals on the streets."
- The local police department could not handle the chaos and the black community armed themselves with "bats, clubs, pistols and knives" and began "attacking white passersby just as indiscriminately as whites did to blacks."
- This event represented the first time that African Americans fought back against their oppression and "whites were astonished that blacks dared to fight back."
- Between October 1 and 3, Phillips County, Arkansas became the scene of a race war that began when a white police officer questioned a gathering of African Americans at a church, which was meant to "organize a sharecroppers' and tenant farmers' union."
- Shots were exchanged and a white police officer was killed and the other was injured. The local sheriff requested assistance from white men to hunt the African American who were responsible, stating that the "blacks had formed a secret conspiracy to rise up and overthrow the white planters, take their land and rape their women."
- According to an eye witness, "There were 300 or 400 more white men with guns, shooting and killing women and children." By the time the situation was back under control, 25 blacks and five whites were officially killed, but African Americans believed that more than 200 were killed and their bodies were "dumped in the Mississippi River or left to rot in the canebrake."
- Overall, in the span of 10 months in 1919, "more than 250 African Americans were killed in at least 25 riots across the U.S. by white mobs that never faced punishment."