The start of summer 2019 signals a painful centennial. Many people have never heard of the Red Summer of 1919, but these events of 100 years ago represented one of the darkest and bloodiest moments in American history.
Stretching from the late winter through the early fall but centered on a series of riots and massacres in the summer, this epidemic of racial terrorism against African-American individuals and communities exemplified an era that historian Rayford Logan has called the “nadir” of American race relations. Yet 1919 also featured heroic acts of resistance from African-American veterans and leaders, moments of communal activism and critical patriotism that deserve a prominent place in our collective memories.
In many ways, the 1919 massacres extended and deepened half a century of racial terrorism against African Americans. Beginning immediately after the Civil War with 1866 massacres in New Orleans and Memphis, the Reconstruction era featured a number of these horrific white supremacist attacks, including one on July 4th, 1876 in Hamburg, SC that targeted parading African-American militia men. The next decades would see many more such violent events, from singular massacres like those in Wilmington, NC (1898), Atlanta (1906), and East St. Louis, IL (1917) to the ongoing communal violence of the lynching epidemic.
Yet even against this backdrop of continual violence, the Red Summer of 1919 stands out. Partly that’s due to the sheer number of riots and massacres: between the February 8 attack in Blakely, GA and the October 1-2 massacres of African-American communities in Elaine, AR and Baltimore, the year saw a total of 40 discrete such events. Nearly half of them took place in July alone, an orgy of summer violence that extended from Bisbee, AZ to Norfolk, VA, from Port Arthur, TX to Syracuse, and that was punctuated by week-long attacks on African American communities in Washington, DC (July 19-24) and Chicago (July 27-August 3).