Then, on July 18, a young white newlywed was walking home from her job at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing when she encountered two black men. The four newspapers wrote wildly different versions of what happened — from verbal insults to a violent robbery — but she told police some kind of confrontation occurred.
Her husband, a civilian working for the Navy, overheard police say they had questioned a black man named Charles Ralls and became convinced of his guilt, the Evening Star reported. The next day, a Saturday, the husband enlisted more than a hundred friends, soldiers and veterans to hunt for Ralls. When night fell, they marched across the Mall toward Bloodfield armed with clubs and lead pipes, vowing to “clean it up.”
They found Ralls walking with his wife and beat them both. The couple fled into their home, and the mob surrounded it, firing shots, pushing at the door and assaulting anyone else unlucky enough to pass by. One man was hospitalized with a fractured skull.
Officers from three police stations, a provost guard and a Marine detachment finally dispersed the crowd, but according to retired Post journalist Peter Perl, who researched the riots in the 1980s, police “arrested more blacks than whites, sending a clear signal about their sympathies.”
The next night was worse. The mob grew — emboldened by the halfhearted response from the authorities — and spread throughout the city, yanking black men, women and children off streetcars for beatings. One man was assaulted in front of The Post, another in front of the White House.
Down Pennsylvania Avenue, a brand-new dean at Howard University, historian Carter G. Woodson, narrowly escaped harm by hiding in the shadows as a white mob approached.
Others weren’t so lucky. Woodson later recalled what he witnessed: “They had caught a negro and deliberately held him as one would a beef for slaughter, and when they had conveniently adjusted him for lynching, they shot him. I heard him groaning in his struggle as I hurried away as fast as I could without running, expecting every moment to be lynched myself.”
The next morning, the city executive — Washington did not elect a mayor at the time — condemned the rioters and sensationalist coverage, saying “it is the duty of every citizen to express his support of law and order by refraining from any inciting conversation or the repetition of inciting rumor and tales.”
Then came an item on the front page of The Post, under the headline “Mobilization for Tonight.” “Every available service man” had been requested to meet on Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 8th streets, it read. “The hour of assembly is 9 o’clock and the purpose is a ‘clean-up’ that will cause the events of the last two evenings to pale into insignificance.”
Later, the NAACP blamed this article more than any other for the mayhem that followed. In his 1977 book about the history of The Post, legendary reporter Chalmers Roberts called it “highly provocative and shamefully irresponsible.”