Racial violence and a pandemic: How the Red Summer of 1919 relates to 2020

The wave of violence a century ago against Black Americans echoes how today, "people feel they have little to lose, and so much at stake," one historian said.
Ogden Cafe during the 1919 Chicago Race Riots
Crowd of men and armed National Guard in front of the Ogden Cafe during the 1919 race riots in ChicagoChicago History Museum / The Jun Fujita negatives collection

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By Erik Ortiz

Racial strife flaring across the United States. Black Americans standing up to societal structures in unpredictable ways. People enduring months of a deadly pandemic infecting millions worldwide, shuttering businesses and heightening fears of a lengthy economic downturn.

That was 1919, during what would later be coined the "Red Summer," when communities across America were reeling from white mobs inciting brutality against Black people and cities were still wrestling with a third wave of the so-called Spanish flu pandemic that emerged the previous year.

The story line parallels with today: violence against Black people, leading to mass demonstrations and calls to end systemic racism, converging with a months-long coronavirus pandemic. Such commonality is not lost on historians and scholars of African American history.

"These are moments of extreme precariousness, where people are suddenly uncertain about their fate, economic prospects and the social order," said Geoff Ward, a professor of African and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis who has mapped out historic incidents of racial violence.

"Mass mobilization may be more likely in such circumstances where people feel they have little to lose," he said, "and so much at stake."

But if history is any indication, the developments of barely a century ago, when civil rights groups were reinvigorated and Black journalists and activists asserted their voices, might also offer a glimpse into how 2020 — and beyond — could play out.

What happened during the Red Summer of 1919?

The general mob-led violence against Black people actually began before the summer in localized incidents.

In the book "Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America," author Cameron McWhirter described what led up to a deadly riot in Jenkins County, Georgia, in April, when Black churches were burned and Black men killed.

It was just the start: "In coming months, similar horrors would afflict cities and towns across America. The violence that April Sunday was only the beginning of what would become known as the Red Summer of 1919, when riots and lynchings spread throughout the country, causing havoc and harming thousands — yet also awakening millions of blacks to fight for rights guaranteed them, but so long denied."

A mob runs with bricks during the race riots in Chicago in 1919.Chicago History Museum / The Jun Fujita negatives collection

James Weldon Johnson, an NAACP leader who organized peaceful protests that year, began using the term Red Summer to describe the bloodshed.

It was during the summer months when the violent assaults began spiraling in major cities like Philadelphia, Washington, New York and Chicago, places where African Americans were migrating in large numbers for opportunities that didn't exist in the South. At the time, however, race relations only deteriorated under President Woodrow Wilson, who supported racist and segregationist policies in the federal government.

Ward said that white people were responding to the "ever-present white fear of a loss of social status and dominance" and were "resentful of this disruption of social, economic and political order."

In addition, the influx of African Americans into northern cities continued as the Spanish flu spread in 1918 before the pandemic subsided in the summer of 1919, and whites were blaming Black migrants for the spread of illness.

Historical accounts also described how white military members, who had returned to Washington after the end of World War I, seized on sensationalist rumors of Black men assaulting white women, which was amplified in D.C.'s newspapers. An estimated 40 people were killed that July in the nation's capital, with hundreds of federal troops deployed to stamp out the unrest.

Johnson documented what was happening: "I knew it to be true, but it was almost an impossibility for me to realize as a truth that men and women of my race were being mobbed, chased, dragged from street cars, beaten and killed within the shadow of the dome of the Capitol, at the very front door of the White House," he wrote in the NAACP's Crisis magazine.

In recounting those events, The Washington Post wrote that jobs were scarce at the time, and many whites felt slighted that a small number of Blacks could secure low-level government jobs.

A victim is stoned and bludgeoned under a corner of a house during the race riots in Chicago in 1919.Chicago History Museum / The Jun Fujita negatives collection

"Unlike virtually all the disturbances that preceded it — in which white-on-black violence dominated — the Washington riot of 1919 was distinguished by strong, organized and armed black resistance, foreshadowing the civil rights struggles later in the century," according to the Post.

Some of the worst multi-day violence occurred in Chicago, where about two dozen Black people and 15 white people were killed. The uprisings sparked after a Black teenager on a raft, Eugene Williams, drifted into a whites-only section of Lake Michigan and drowned after a white man began throwing rocks at him, the Chicago Tribune reported.

From April to November, some 30 riots broke out across the eastern U.S., with hundreds of accounts of beatings, lynchings and the burning of churches and buildings. As a result of the violence, the Ku Klux Klan also saw a resurgence.

What does the Red Summer signify about the events of 2020?

As bloody as that summer was, it failed to result in any protections for African Americans, and if anything, Ward said, "that reign of racial terror, where again the exculpatory work of the white press, police, grand juries and others ensured that perpetrators were protected rather than punished, undoubtedly prolonged the period of American apartheid."

Saje Mathieu, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, added that some of the violence of 1919 was in many ways milder in comparison to the "absolute devastation and destruction" of the massacres in Tulsa, Oklahoma, two years later and in Rosewood, Florida, in 1923.

The fight for racial justice in 2020 follows a series of high-profile incidents of Black Americans being killed at the hands of police or former law enforcement and of Black Americans having to affirm their place and existence while doing ordinary things and often facing the threat of police being called on them.

Mathieu said the blatant racism of 1919 reverberates in other ways today, including by white women who are caught on viral videos questioning a Black person's agency and yet don't see themselves as exhibiting racism. Social media users label them as a "Karen."

A crowd around a house which was vandalized and looted during the race riots in Chicago in 1919.Chicago History Museum / The Jun Fujita negatives collection

"These current Karens believe that they are defending their families and their communities, that they're these moral vigilantes," Mathieu said. "And they get away with it much more quickly than white men with guns because we still ascribe a fragility to these white women that I'm not always sure they have earned. When you look at history, white women were foot soldiers in some of these riots and women 100 years ago were just starting to flex their muscle within the Klan."

So far, the dramatic events of this year have spurred tens of thousands of Americans to take to the streets, at times clashing violently with police and being met by National Guard troops. It's unclear what this summer might hold and if the large-scale chaos that echoes the bloodshed of 1919 will materialize amid an ongoing racial reckoning.

But Ward said the anti-racist movement of today coupled with the effects of COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected Black communities, only means the struggle continues for substantive civil rights and policing reform and the assurance of equality for all in their daily lives.

"I have no doubt that we will achieve meaningful, even transformative change. We are already seeing this in the broader understanding of and opposition to white supremacy," Ward said, adding that as the fight against racism builds as it has in the past, the threat of a "white supremacist redemption" is always a possibility.

"Just like 1919 did not 'end matters' once and for all, cementing white racial dominance as its protagonists intended," he said, "we should not expect this moment of upheaval to eradicate the white supremacist world system."