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The Red Summer,
Charleston, South Carolina
May 10, 1919

Last updated: 5 months ago

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This was a nationwide uprising of whites against blacks during the demobilization that followed WWI. More than 36 cities suffered large-scale unrest and destruction, and black populations fought back most strongly in Washington, D. C. and Chicago. The tension was caused by the labor shortage in industrial cities of the North, since so many men had gone to Europe to fight. Poor black people migrated north from Southern states looking for jobs, and the local whites didn’t want to work with them. From January 1 to September 14, 1919, 38 riots were documented across the nation and at least 43 blacks were lynched by white mobs, while 11 black men were literally burned at the stake.

The first major riot occurred in Charleston, South Carolina on May 10, led by Navy sailors who incited a mob to kill three black men. In July there were riots in Longview, Texas, and Bisbess, Arizona, and during the latter the white police force attacked the veterans of a black cavalry regiment without provocation. The riots in Washington began in July after a black man was arrested for rape. White mobs formed and rampaged through the city for four days, beating black people, pulling them off streetcars and mugging them at random. The police stood by and watched, so the black population decided to defend itself. 10 whites and five blacks were killed.

The worst of the violence occurred in Chicago. It remains the worst race riot in Illinois history, with 23 blacks and 15 whites killed. The riot started with a white man heaving rocks at random black people swimming in Lake Michigan. He killed a black man named Eugene Williams, but when a police officer arrived he arrested a black man who had nothing to do with it. The blacks and whites exploded against each other and the rioting spread throughout the city, driven primarily by mobs of angry whites who openly invaded and attacked black people. Steel cables were thrown across streets to prevent fire trucks from entering, and 1,000 people, most of them black, were left homeless due to arson. 17 blacks were indicted by grand juries, while no whites were convicted of anything.