The “Red Summer” of 1919

You can imagine my horror when I recently learned that Wall Street Journal reporter Cameron McWhirter had written a book about the national violence of 1919. Wait, I’m writing about that–and other things. This is not good. I say that with tongue only partially in cheek.

In truth, my vanity aside, McWhirter has done American history a great service. He has compiled for the first time in one place a narrative history of the “Red Summer” racial and labor violence of 1919. It was actually the “Red Spring, Summer and Fall,” but we today don’t get to name it. It’s a quick, vibrant read and ought to be as mandatory in high schools as reading about the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement. Go buy it.

Much to my relief, McWhirter’s book does not delve much into Florida. Our worst riots came in 1920 and 1923, after all. But he does rightly cast a great Floridian, James Weldon Johnson, as one of the few heroes of that time. And if any of you are at all interested in my book–whenever it comes out–you will only benefit from having read his.

McWhirter was generous enough to sit down with me recently for a phone interview about “Red Summer.” What follows is a rough transcript of our discussion. It’s been edited for length and clarity. My questions/comments are in bold.

What is the Red Summer? How did it come to be named, and how did you get interested in it?

It’s a phrase coined by James Weldon Johnson to describe the months of 1919 that were violent with riots and lynchings. They called it red because it was so bloody. I had been interested in racial violence and how those things can erupt; how does society break down to that level?

As a younger man, I spent a lot of time in Africa, and there was great ethnic strife in areas I was in, such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Sudan. I was always fascinated by it. As a reporter, every city I ever worked in has a history of a race riot. I live in Atlanta right now, and there was a terrible race riot in 1906. I worked in Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Cincinnati. All of these places had at least one race riot, if not multiple riots.

I had Neimann fellowship to Harvard a couple of years ago, and my project was to look at racial violence and how it had erupted in American history. Once you start looking at that, 1919 leaps out at you because it was this unprecedented spate of violence from April to November of that year. It rolled across the country panicking everyone and causing all kind of turmoil and also leading, I would argue, to a birth of the civil rights movement

I would argue that the black response to WWI is actually the beginning of the civil rights movement.

It’s totally intertwined, The events of WWI and social transformation that resulted from WWI led directly to 1919. There were three major things going on for black people, at the time, that were good on their face.

Black soldiers had fought very bravely in WWI; they’d been decorated and treated well by the French people and told repeatedly that they were fighting for Democracy. Then they come back to the United States, and they’re immediately back to Jim Crow. They’re being told this is a different kind of democracy. We’re back to the way things were.

Second, black people had moved north by the tens of thousands throughout the war. The Great Migration had already begun before [the US entered the war in 1917], but it increased manifold times during the war. Because there was no immigration from Europe during the war, northern war industry turned to the South. They really wanted black labor because it was cheap, hard-working, and non-union because unions were prejudiced at the time and did not allow blacks to join. So it was good that lot of black people were getting better pay than they had before and forming communities in major cities; but at the same time they were encountering huge prejudice and tension up there.

Thirdly, black sharecroppers, the quintessential downtrodden class in American society, were suddenly making money in 1919. Because of the war, commodity prices had gone through the roof, particularly cotton.

So all these sharecroppers who would each year get notoriously ripped off when they got their cotton weighed, even despite getting ripped off, made money in 1919. They were able to buy cars, buy clothes, buy land, and this caused all kinds of friction. And in some places, they were talking about organizing cooperatives, which really freaked out a lot of white overseers.

Which is what led to the Elaine, Arkansas riot in October 1919, correct?

Exactly. That kind of friction was taking place everywhere, all over the South. Because again, black people were suddenly making money, which upset the way things had been. And black soldiers coming back in their uniforms, sometimes wearing medals, that completely upset the social order. White people were already discombobulated by all the chaos taking place. Bolsheviks had taken over Russia, and all this stuff had happened.

Talk a bit more about returning WW I vets. There’s this constant myth in our culture of hippies spitting on soldiers coming back from Vietnam. It still affects our politics deeply. Compare that myth with the actual reality of what happened in the aftermath WWI to black soldiers.

I was thinking about that the other day. I’m in Atlanta, and the Atlanta airport is a transfer point for soldiers coming from Afghan and Iraq. So when you go to Atlanta airport, there are soldiers with dirt from Kabul still on their boots. Imagine if you had just fought in Afghanistan, and you land in the Atlanta airport, and you’re segregated into a separate section or you’re sneered at because you’re wearing a uniform. And that’s what was happening. Black soldiers who fought bravely in France suddenly were being sneered at and spat upon. A number of veterans were lynched.

[Black soldiers in France not fighting on the front were arguably in just as great peril from disease in the atrocious labor camps where 80 percent of them worked at the height of the 1918 global flu pandemic. In Putnam County, for instance, the 30 or so known WWI fatalities were evenly split exactly even between black and white. Only two of them, both white, died in combat.]

I have a letter in the book from a veteran who was so mistreated at his home in Arkansas after returning from the war that he ended up moving to St. Louis. He said, “I felt safer in the trenches than I did in Arkansas.” Instances like this were repeated over and over again.

African-American veterans didn’t take this lying down. In the the Washington DC riot in July, veterans take to the roofs and erect barricades to protect their own neighborhoods. And the next week, it was the same thing in Chicago riots. Across the country [Afrcian-Americans] were ecstatic because they were fighting back.

No one really knows the [casualty figures] in most of the riots. There were good numbers in Chicago, but no one really knows Washington how many people were killed and injured in Washington because no one really investigated. And it’s like that or most of them.

That brings us to the quality of reporting and documentation of what was happening. I’ve found that the mainstream press at this time is pretty appalling.

One exception I would note. Carl Sandburg, the poet in Chicago, was writing about social issues in the city, and he nails it. He’s writing about housing problem, the labor issues, the cramped conditions in the black belt [the rigorously segregated city’s network of black neighborhoods]. He’s got all of the issues nailed. He was preparing to write possible solutions when the riot erupted. His reporting was excellent.

But you’re right. A lot of the reporting was very chaotic, and they would default to officialdom. So you would get absurd situations. For instance, there was riot in Omaha. A black man was arrested and accused of assaulting a white woman. A white mob attacks the jail drags him out, destroys the courthouse, and burns the man alive basically. Kills him in the street. [That same mob very nearly lynched the white mayor of Omaha. They had a rope around his neck.]

When General Leonard Wood came with troops to restore order in Omaha, he started talking about how the IWW labor union was infiltrating among blacks. It had nothing to do with what happened. First of all, it wasn’t true. Second, it had nothing to do with the violence that occurred. So over and over again, the press saw Bolsheviks in all of this. Anti-black violence and any black reaction to that was seen as being controlled by some communist svengalis behind the scenes.

I start off the book in Jenkins County Ga, where a white mob destroys black church, kills four black people and rampages through the county. And the white press just reports nothing to see here, everything’s calm now. Move along.

When the riots happened in Washington DC, the police commissioner speculated that it wasn’t white soldiers causing the riot but Bolsheviks dressed as soldiers causing it. It was absurd on its face, but the press reported it. So there was a lot of misreporting.

The lack of press skepticism of official sources is really striking. It’s like they totally lost the capacity to question human nature.

There are a number of things going on there. On one level, you see human nature. It was so ugly and frightening just people just don’t want to face it. One of the top officials of the NAACP, a white man named Herbert Seligman, risked his life to investigate lynchings and violence wrote that the violence “was so terrible a commentary on our civilization as to be forgotten almost as it was past.” People just didn’t process it.

On another level, many people did process it. I think black political leaders, particularly in the NAACP, processed it. And it changed who they were and what they wanted to accomplish and set them on the course to accomplishing it.

With that in mind, talk a little about James Weldon Johnson, who is probably the hero of your book and great Floridian.

He’s certainly one of the heroes. He’s from Jacksonville. He’s just an amazing human being. He was incredibly accomplished before joining the NAACP. He had published novels, poetry. He was a U.S. diplomat, who spoke fluent Spanish. He was active in politics and was a very, very effective journalist. W.E.B DuBois convinced him to join the NAACP in 1916 as field secretary. He was wary to join at first because he was afraid it would hurt his writing by cutting down on the time to write, which it did. But he dives into the job, recruiting members, mostly African American, across the country.

And then 1919 hits, and he’s just a dynamo; he’s all over the country, traveling up and down the west coast and east coast and everywhere really, recruiting tens of thousands of new members. In 1919, the NAACP is approaching its decade anniversary. Up until then, it really had not been that effective. It was mostly led by white do-gooders. They would write pamphlets about the evils of lynching. But they weren’t really in the trenches.

But Johnson and Walter White [young, light-skinned NAACP staffer, who often passed as white at the scene of racial disturbances so that he could investigate], those two guys dug into these acts of violence and began objectively projecting accounts to the press to counteract official narratives. They did amazing work. [White was nearly attacked during his investigation of the Elaine, Ark. riot]

But Johnson’s political work is what makes him most extraordinary. In the speeches he’s giving at the time, he sounds like Martin Luther King and Malcom X combined. He’s saying things that both would say much later, and they weren’t even born yet.

And he’s also, very importantly, going to Washington to lobbying congress. There are no black congressmen, But he’s building a small coalition of Republican senators and congressmen. They were mostly legacies of the older Republican party, who saw it as the party of Abe Lincoln and that it was their duty to explore some federal way of stopping lynching and mob violence.

They and Johnson never succeed in getting a federal lynching law, but the pressure starts to build for federal action to wipe out the violence. For instance, it the NAACP that publicly pleaded with the federal government to stop the planned lynching of a man in Mississippi on June 26, 1919. It was advertised in papers ahead of time and every knew what was happening. The federal government said it was powerless to do anything because it was a state matter. Eventually 10,000 people showed up to watch it happen and take part in a sort of festival.

Years later, when Kennedy and Johnson dealing with these same kinds of issues, they did use federal power. And the hard work that the NAACP and James Weldon Johnson did in 1919 laid the groundwork for that.

As a post script to this interview, I want to note that James Weldon Johnson and the NAACP in 1923 honored Putnam County sheriff Peter Hagan for his violent defense of the Putnam County Jail from a serious lynching attempt. I published my dramatized account of that attack here in Lakeland Local not long ago.

But even before that, in the heart of 1919 Red Summer, literally the day after the Omaha riot that McWhirter discussed above, Hagan singlehandedly broke up another mob that was beginning to unleash a race riot on the Putnam County seat of Palatka.

And immediately afterward, as I wrote before, he released this statement to the public.

“I want to say to the people of Palatka that there will be no repetition of this affair, and any effort on the part of outsiders to come here and create disorder and engender ill-feeling between the two races will be met with force sufficient to stop it where it begins. Absolutely and completely we serve notice on all who would come here with such a purpose in view that this is the final word, and that word will be backed up by our own people when the occasion demands. I have made sure of this point, although it was not necessary for me to do so, knowing the men of this city and county as I do.

“We have determined to see that the colored people of this town and county get the protection to which they are entitled, and that no hoodlums can come here and cowardly attack old and innocent colored men without having justice meeted [cq] out to them for their offense.”

Because of the sufficient force, McWhirter likely had one fewer mass casualty race riot for which to account. As you read McWhirter’s book–and I hope you will–pay attention to all the people who claim they are powerless. And then think of James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and Peter Hagan. A few more lawmen and citizens with their backbone and commitment to duty might have helped ease the horror of 1919. That’s a lesson worth considering in any era.