The riot broke out as so many others have broken out: following a white woman’s claim that black men had wronged her. As the Washington Post recently outlined, attacks in the weeks prior led to sensational headlines, massive showings of police force, scores of unfounded arrests, and an escalation of tensions throughout the city. In the July 18 incident that put the match to the tinder, 19-year-old Elsie Stephnick was walking to her home on 9th St. SW from her job at the Bureau of Engraving just a few blocks away when two African-American men allegedly collided with her and tried to steal her umbrella. The Evening Starreported her description of the “colored assailants” as “a short dark man” and a “taller man with a ‘bumpy’ face.” Stephnick claimed she staved them off until a carload of white men came to her aid. (Other than her word, no evidence or report suggests anything more than an attempted pilfering, if it even occurred in the first place.) Stephnick was married to a Naval Aviation Corps employee, and the story made the rounds among white soldiers and sailors in Washington on weekend holiday.
The D.C. police quickly arrested Charles Ralls, a black man, for the alleged attack, but the tale quickly grew taller with each telling, a game of racist telephone that turned what was at worst a minor skirmish into marauding gangs of African-American rapists who’d been terrorizing the city for months. Four daily newspapers, in a heated fight for readers, fueled the fire with headlines like the Washington Post’s “Negroes Attack Girl. White Men Vainly Pursue” and the Washington Times’ “Negro Thugs.” The stories would get picked up on the newswires and made their way into papers across the nation.
Police questioned Ralls, upon which Stephnick’s husband, John, became convinced he was one of the men who had attacked his wife. A group of servicemen met up on Saturday night to get revenge, and as historian David F. Krugler describes the scene in 1919: The Year of Racial Violence, it didn’t take much time for an angry assemblage to form: “The result was a mob in uniform.”