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During the Red Summer of 1919 violence against Black people broke out across the United States. Black people and neighborhoods were attacked in Washington DC, Chicago, Tulsa, and many other cities and towns across the country. Post-war tension over jobs and civil rights and populations shifts like the Great Migration led white Americans to lash out.

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#crashcourse #history #blackhistory

 (00:00) to (02:00) Hi, I'm Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course: Black American History. It's no secret that America's history regarding the treatment of Black Americans is filled with violence, and when we tell the story of Black history, one has to strike a balance. We have to be honest about the extent to which interpersonal and state-sponsored violence has shaped so much of the Black experience in this country without falling into the trap of suggesting that Black American life is singularly defined by that violence.


And it can be hard. A lot of the episodes that we've done have been talking about the horrific things that Black people have been subjected to, and that can be exhausting - for me, for you, for all of us. But what we have to keep in mind, and what I always try to remind myself, is that, for so long, many of these stories about America just haven't been told at all, and so it is deeply important to tell a full and honest story of the violence this country has inflicted on Black Americans so that we can better understand why this country looks the way that it does today.

Part of what I hope this series does is teach you all many of the things that I never learned in school, the things that I really wish that I had, like our topic today. In this episode, we'll focus on the heightened levels of violence that erupted into a series of riots across the nation in 1919, also known as the Red Summer.

(intro music)

 I want to reiterate that there will be mentions of physical violence in this episode. The U.S. entry into World War I created two avenues of opportunities for Black Americans that hadn't been there before. Many working-age white men were drafted as part of the war effort, which meant that there were many job vacancies (02:00) to (04:00) that Black Americans could now take advantage of. The abundance of employment and housing opportunities became an additional source of motivation for Black folks looking to escape the violence and economic despair of the South.


The war also allowed many Black men to fight on behalf of their country. Fighting in wars to defend America remains a hotly debated subject within Black communities. Some see it as an opportunity for Black people to earn their stripes, so to speak, viewing military service as the ultimate show of patriotism and a means of showing this country that this is a place that belongs to them, too. On the other side, there are those who have always had. this idea of Black people fighting for America as absurd, posing the question, "Why risk your life to protect a country that won't protect you?"

An estimated 367,000 Black Americans enlisted were drafted into service during World War I, but unfortunately, upon their return, that idea of obtaining respect in exchange for their military service didn't quite pan out the way that they'd hoped. In The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, Black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in his article Returning Soldiers, "We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting." He wrote this in May of 1919.

 Foreboding as it was, this column could not have predicted what would ensue in the coming months. From late May to December of 1919, approximately 25 race riots took place on American soil. Black people's participation in World War I and their sudden increased presence in Northern cities were beginning to cause a lot of white people to panic. Many white soldiers returned home and were worried about the prospect of financial insecurity. They came back to find out (04:00) to (06:00) that Black people had filled many of the jobs at their previous workplaces and had no intention of going anywhere anytime soon.


By the end of 1919, approximately 1 million Black Americans had fled the South for Northern cities. Between 1910 and 1920, the Black population in Chicago grew by 148% and, in Philadelphia, by 500%. Things were changing, and not in a way that everyone liked. Many white people were beginning to panic, and a campaign of terror emerged from this panic, becoming an extension of the lynching epidemic in the South. But whether the violence was taking place in the North or in the South, the goal was always the same - to maintain white supremacy and white economic power.

In many of these bouts of chaos that were emerging, many Black veterans were specifically targeted by white mobs and police officers alike. They were seen by many white people as a threat to Jim Crow and the racial order of the day. Black soldiers had returned from the war with the sense that they deserved more from this country that they had just risked their lives for. In Texas, a federal agent reported, "One of the principal elements causing concern is the returned Negro soldier who is not readily fitting back into his prior status of pre-war times." 

In July of 1919, in Washington, D.C., a white woman reported being accosted by a young Black man. A suspect was quickly arrested, but he was soon released from custody. After his release, the press started fanning the flames of the incident. Mobs began to assemble, and a riot ensued. More than 150 residents were either murdered or injured.

 The poet, activist, and NAACP field secretary James Weldon Johnson, (06:00) to (08:00) who coined the term "Red Summer," in the NAACP Crisis magazine, wrote, "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." After refusing to send in troops before, on the fifth day of unrest, President Woodrow Wilson finally stepped in and sent nearly 2,000 soldiers into the city to end the violence.


But not even a week later, on July 27, the nation's attention turned to Chicago. Unlike the preceding riot, the trigger to this melee was no rumor. There were several eyewitnesses to this truly tragic event. Picture this: On a beach at Lake Michigan, 17-year-old Eugene Williams took a ride on a homemade raft and drifted into the whites-only section of the beach by accident. A white man began throwing stones at him, hit him in the head, sent him into the water, and he drowned.

This caused an uproar. A few hours after Eugene's body was finally brought to the shore, a crowd of nearly 1,000 outraged witnesses assembled on the beach waiting for him. Black bystanders demanded that the man who threw the stones be arrested. For them, Eugene's death was the last straw.

In his book Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power, historian Simon Balto explained that this was right in the middle of a four-year reign of terror where white supremacists bombed 58 homes to keep Black people from pioneering. Pioneering is a term that describes Black American families in the early 20th century who moved into all-white neighborhoods.

 (08:00) to (10:00) That day, at Lake Michigan, the police made no arrests. They took no action, and that's when the fighting began and exploded beyond the beachfront and into the city. White men rode into Chicago and shot up Black homes and Black businesses. White mobs formed and began beating Black people on the street and setting fire to Black homes.


When local authorities failed to come to the aid of Black people, Black veterans stepped in, forming their own militias. One group even broke into a local armory to get weapons so that communities could adequately defend themselves as the violence raged on. Only heavy rain and the intervention of the Illinois National Guard were able to bring the week-long assault to a stop.

By the end, 38 people had been killed, 23 of whom were Black, nearly 1,000 Black homes had been burned down, and 500 people, again mostly Black, suffered severe injuries. NAACP investigator Walter White stated later, "The Chicago riot taught me that there could be as much peril in a Northern city when the mob is loose as in a Southern town."

Black self-defense units emerged out of necessity across the United States as riots surfaced. Multiple other major cities would report race riots in 1919, as well. Among these were Omaha, Nebraska; Elaine, Arkansas; and Charleston, South Carolina. During each of these, a disproportionate number of Black people were killed and injured.

 Some newspapers suggested that the uprisings and Black resistance to white violence was being caused by Soviet and socialist propaganda, but it didn't take propaganda for Black people to see what was happening all around them. A total of 3,436 people were lynched in the United States between 1889 and 1922. (10:00) to (12:00) 3,038 of them were Black. An October editorial in the New York Times proclaimed, "Persistance of unpunished lynchings of negroes fosters lawlessness among white men imbued with the mob spirit, and creates a spirit of bitterness among negroes. In such a state of public mind, a trivial incident can precipitate a riot."


In 1918, Representative L.C. Dyer of Missouri introduced the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, the first of 200 anti-lynching bills to be introduced in the United States throughout the course of its history, but it is important to note that, since 1918, no anti-lynching legislation has ever been passed, and as of this filming, in 2021, still nothing.

In 1939, jazz singer Billie Holiday performed what would become an iconic song, written by Abel Meeropol, that captured the terror of Black lynchings. "Southern trees bear a strange fruit, / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees." 

The Red Summer of 1919 shows us how much white Americans across the country pushed back against the prospect of Black people beginning to intrude on their spaces and demand rights that white people thought only belonged to them. In addition to the implementation of Jim Crow laws that became codified and formalized over time, white mob violence sent the message to Black people that they needed to stay in their place.

 But Black people didn't just stay in their place. Despite the violence they faced from what must have seemed like every direction, Black folks kept working, (12:00) to (13:04) kept advocating, and kept pushing to live in the sort of world they knew that they deserved to live in, and no assault, no violence or mob, was going to stop that.


As James Weldon Johnson once wrote, "I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I shall defend and maintain its integrity against all the powers of hell." Thanks for watching; I'll see you next time.

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