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Byron Williams: The Red Summer of 1919

Byron Williams: The Red Summer of 1919

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Last week commemorated the centennial of the race massacre in Tulsa, Okla., where a white mob attacked homes and businesses in the predominantly African American area known as Black Wall Street. Though a dark chapter in the American narrative, it was hardly an aberration.

In 1919, America was embroiled in an unprecedented wave of racial terrorism that writer James Weldon Johnson coined as “Red Summer.” White mobs indiscriminately attacked African Americans across the nation, resulting in death and the annihilation of African American property and businesses that left thousands homeless.

African American post-World War I expectations of equality fueled white social fears. Moreover, industrialists routinely used Blacks as strikebreaking pawns to threaten white workers who were fighting for better working conditions, further stoking racial resentment.

The violence of The Red Summer, impervious to the Mason-Dixon line, made unwanted visits to areas as different as Chicago and Bisbee, Ariz.

On the evening of July 19, 1919, Washington, D.C., was overflowing with returning World War I servicemen. News circulated that two Black men harassed a white woman. In 1919, an unsubstantiated accusation against African Americans was more than adequate to render a guilty verdict in the court of public opinion.

Upon hearing the news, white servicemen organized ad hoc gangs looking to administer revenge in the name of justice. On Pennsylvania Avenue, practically in front of the White House, African Americans were randomly beaten, as police officers assumed the role of curious onlookers.

During The Red Summer, numbers of returning Black soldiers across the country were victims of abuse, intimidation and lynching, and in some cases, burned alive.

When there were no African American soldiers available, the indiscriminate use of violence did not prohibit locating innocent Black men, women and children as unwilling substitutes.

In June 1919, a Jackson, Miss., newspaper announced the time of John Hartfield’s public lynching. Nearly 10,000 gathered in the rural town of Ellisville, Miss., to witness the lynching of Hartfield, a Black man who had been accused of assaulting a white woman.

After his escape, Hartfield was pursued for weeks by vigilante mobs until he was apprehended and mortally wounded. But doctors kept him alive so that he could be publicly lynched. But the most gruesome attack occurred in Phillips County, Ark.

Black sharecroppers organized to demand a fair price for their cotton. The local sheriff recruited mobs of low-income white males and convinced them that organized Negroes were a direct threat to their economic self-interests.

A posse of white males confronted armed unionized Negroes who were expecting some form of violent pushback. The initial confrontation left several wounded, and one white male was killed. The posse retreated and with the help of local authorities spread the word of a Negro insurrection.

Signs were quickly posted that read: “Negroes Plan to Kill All Whites!” The local newspaper ran articles stoking white fears. Local sheriffs recruited additional men from outside the area. An estimated 500 to 1,000 armed white males — mostly from the surrounding Arkansas counties but also from across the river in Mississippi — descended on the Negro areas of Phillips County.

Arkansas Gov. Charles Brough requested and received the assistance of federal troops. The federal government that consistently cited its inability to aid Blacks terrorized by white violence based on the 10th Amendment’s state’s rights provision quickly accommodated Brough’s request to assist the posse. Unlike the D.C. police who were onlookers to the violence, many sent by the federal government participated with the white posse.

Oblivious to the melee, decorated war veteran Leroy Johnston and his three brothers were aboard an incoming train. As the train pulled into the station, someone wrongfully accused Johnston of being the one who passed out the leaflets that started the insurrection. The armed mob forcibly removed Johnston and his brothers from the train. Minutes later, all four Johnston brothers were dead. Leroy Johnston had been safer in the trenches on the frontlines in France than he had been at home.

Conservative estimates place the Phillips County death count at 200 Blacks and five whites. Nearly 300 Black people were arrested. No white person was charged with a crime. Twelve Black men were sentenced to death in trials that lasted just minutes each.

By the end of 1919, there were 25 such events nationwide that followed a similar pattern. An unsubstantiated accusation, mob violence, death and destruction largely in Black areas, and not a single white person held accountable.

North and South were in brutal solidarity to ensure that African American social and economic mobility remained stagnant. This tragic saga reminds us that hate is an easier emotion to unite than hope. It does not require circumspection or accurate facts. It need only be pointed in the direction of its ire.

The Rev. Byron Williams (, a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.


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