The Violent Race Riots of the Red Summer of 1919

Triggered by the Great Migration, demographic changes, and new social conditions, the Red Summer of 1919 consisted of numerous race riots that broke out across the US.

Nov 9, 2023By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor

red summer 1919 violent race riots


The Red Summer of 1919 is named for the riots that consumed major cities throughout the US. Racial tensions heightened by returning soldiers from World War I, and the mass migration of African Americans to major cities in the North and Midwest triggered violent riots to break out, causing hundreds of injuries and deaths. The Red Summer signifies the fragility of America’s social conditions at the time. African Americans were seeking new opportunities and personal freedom that they couldn’t find in the South. Although many were welcomed in their new communities, there was a continuous looming presence of hostility in which the race riots transpired.


Causes of the Red Summer of 1919

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African American family arriving in Chicago from the South during the First Great Migration courtesy of University of Virginia Library, circa 1922, via Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities


There is no single cause of the Red Summer of 1919, but rather a compound of things that led to heightened racial tensions, which were easily triggered by various acts of violence that spread like wildfire. Race riots occurred across southern, northern, and midwestern cities before World War I. African Americans living in the South faced lynchings, beatings, and other forms of extreme violence as they became accustomed to a new social system in which slavery no longer existed.


The Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War was designed to incorporate formerly enslaved peoples into society as active participants in political, social, and labor systems that they were previously not allowed access to. However, the implementation of Jim Crow laws, which were heavily enforced in the Deep South, made this process especially difficult and, at times, almost impossible.


In an effort to seek new opportunities and personal freedom, a mass migration of African Americans to major cities in the North and Midwest ensued. Known as the First Great Migration, which took place between 1910 and 1940, more than one million African Americans left the South. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans were enlisted to serve in the First World War, which made up a fraction of the more than four million men who served in the US Army and other military branches.

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World War I African American soldiers in a lineup, via The United States World War One Centennial Commission


The increased need for wartime production and the substantial amount of industrial jobs left behind by those who left to serve in the war meant there were more opportunities in major industrial cities like Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia. Businesses put out ads for jobs in newspapers, and recruiters were sent to the South to encourage African Americans to make the move north to gain better-paying jobs. Many African Americans seized the opportunity to do so.


As millions of service members returned to the US at the end of World War I, they found that many of their vacated jobs had been filled by African Americans. This increased hostilities between whites and African Americans because production needs decreased after the war, and concerns over joblessness grew. African American service members were also agitated by the mistreatment they received when returning home, as they often received better treatment from others overseas.


Aside from the Great Migration and returning service members struggling to come to terms with the new demographic changes, racial discrimination deeply rooted in the nation’s past had a strong influence on how African Americans were treated among white communities. Although the bustling cities of the North and Midwest offered some anonymity, de facto segregation still divided communities across the US. The thought that whites were the superior race was still very present and common. The complex social conditions in which both African Americans and whites found themselves led to the outbreak of numerous race riots throughout the summer of 1919.


The Start of the Red Summer of 1919

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Carswell Grove Church, where the first Red Summer race riot in Millen, Georgia occurred, via Historic Rural Churches


A riot that occurred in Millen, Georgia on April 14, 1919 is regarded as the start of the Red Summer of 1919. A series of riots across the US, including in northern, southern, and midwestern cities, followed. The Millen, Georgia race riot started as a result of the arrest of Night Marshall Edmond Scott for possession of a pistol. At the time, Scott was escorting an African American preacher from Waynesboro to a church meeting. The officers were in the area to investigate blind tiger liquor trafficking.


The riot took place in Carswell Grove at an African American church, which resulted in the deaths of two white officers and four African American men. A news article that reported on the event incriminated Joe Ruffin, who was alleged to have opened fire on the officers making the arrest. A shootout ensued as a result of the initial gunfire. The exact details of who started the gunfight are unknown, but it’s also alleged that corrupt officers and local bootleggers may have escalated the situation into a riot.


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Brothers Roger and Samuel Courtney covered in tar and feathers during a race riot led by a mob of fellow students by Seth Pinkham, via Visualizing the Red Summer


Another incident reported in late April involved white students from the University of Maine and two African American students. On or around April 26, hundreds of white students chased two fellow African American students, Roger and Samuel Courtney, and led them back to campus. It’s unclear why the mob was chasing the Courtney brothers. The mob forced Roger and Samuel back to the university campus with nooses around their necks. The brothers were then forced to undress and spread tar and feathers on each other. The local press didn’t report on the riot, and it’s unknown whether the university took any action to address the event. The perpetrators involved were not arrested.


Race riots throughout the Red Summer of 1919 came in waves and varied in size. Some riots are largely unknown because they were purposefully kept out of the press. Larger riots were often too overwhelming for local police to control and usually lasted for several days. Various forms of violence and social unrest were exhibited, such as beatings, shootings, and the burning of buildings and businesses.


Red Summer Race Riots Throughout the US

White mob pulling an African American off a bus during a Red Summer race riot, 1919, via The City University of New York Academic Commons


The height of the Red Summer race riots occurred between April and August of 1919. Major riots were heavily reported on, while others are lesser known. Throughout the month of May, several riots occurred in Georgia, Pennsylvania, California, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Connecticut. Many of the race riots that occurred across the nation were a result of an initial fight or quarrel between smaller groups of white and African American men.


Women were rarely involved in provoking or instigating the riots. Some riots were triggered as a result of drunken disputes between soldiers. Others were largely white-on-Black violence as a result of rumors, usually proved or thought to be false, that circulated about African American men assaulting white women. Housing and job crises and the terrorization of new African American communities also triggered riots.


One of the first large-scale riots in May occurred in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania due to housing issues. According to an article published by the Negro Associated Press, African American residents new to the community were targeted by a local gang. Approximately 75 whites and 40 African Americans were involved in the riot, which consisted of fighting and breaking down the door of a new African American resident. Several arrests were made.


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The Crisis magazine reprint of Jackson Daily News article reporting on the lynching of John Hartfield courtesy of The New York Public Library, 1919, via Digital Public Library of America


Vicksburg, Mississippi experienced a race riot on May 15, when a white mob of about 1,000 men broke an African American man out of the Vicksburg Jail to hang him. The victim, 24-year-old Lloyd Clay, was arrested for being accused of assaulting a white woman and placed in jail. The white mob overwhelmed the jail and overpowered the sheriff and 12 officers on duty. Once the mob retrieved Clay, he was taken to the city center and hung on an elm tree branch. A crowd gathered and watched as the mob started a bonfire underneath Clay and shot him several times.


Another Mississippi race riot broke out in Ellisville on June 27. A mob chased John Hartfield for ten days due to accusations that he had assaulted a white woman. Hartfield allegedly had intimate relations with a white woman whom he was dating at the time, which may have sparked the violent manhunt. Once Hartfield was captured by the mob, an article published by the New Orleans States advertised the time Hartfield was scheduled to be lynched. The ad caused thousands of Mississippi residents to appear at the lynching site, where Hartfield was hanged, shot, and burned in front of the crowd.


Washington DC Race Riot

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The Washington Herald newspaper reporting on the Washington race riot, 1919, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


A large, four-day race riot broke out in Washington DC on July 19 following circulating rumors about an African American man, Charles Ralls, sexually assaulting a white woman. An African American suspect was released from custody, which caused a mob to form and wreak havoc on African Americans and communities throughout Washington. The mobs made their way to African American neighborhoods armed with various weapons, such as baseball bats, guns, and knives. Innocent African American passersby who the mob encountered were severely beaten. Local police were unable to suppress the mob, causing African Americans to form their own mobs and inflict violence on any white persons they encountered.


The Washington police reported that about 500 firearms were sold the following day on July 20. As a result, gun sales were halted, and mobs resorted to acquiring guns illegally on the black market. After local police failed to intervene and suppress the riot, President Woodrow Wilson ordered about 2,000 soldiers to step in and secure the streets. It’s estimated that the Washington riot resulted in more than 100 injuries. The exact number of deaths is unknown.


The Elaine Massacre

Tents of US soldiers camping along the street during the Elaine Massacre courtesy of Pat Rowe, via Encyclopedia of Arkansas


The Elaine Massacre is characterized as one of the deadliest riots that took place during the Red Summer of 1919. On September 30 near Elaine in Phillips County, Arkansas, the Progressive Farmers and Household Union held a meeting at a local African American church. Rumors spread across the white community that this meeting was organized to start an insurrection.


About 100 sharecroppers, mainly employed by white plantation owners, attended the meeting to discuss how they could receive better payment for their crops. To maintain peace during the meeting and prevent interruption, armed guards were placed outside the church. A mob formed after hearing the insurrection rumors and surrounded the church. Conflict between the mob and armed guards broke out, which led to gunfire. It’s unclear who fired the first shots. The shootout resulted in the death of a white security officer, W.A. Adkins, and the injury of Phillip’s County Deputy Sheriff Charles Pratt.


The following day, the county sheriff ordered a posse to investigate the incident and arrest any individuals suspected of involvement in the shootout. A large armed mob of up to 1,000 individuals decided to accompany the posse and entered African American communities to inflict violence. Rioting between African Americans and whites continued for several days until US troops were called in on October 2 to suppress the riot. It’s estimated that the Elaine Massacre resulted in more than 100 deaths of African Americans and the deaths of five white individuals.


Chicago Race Riot

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Crowd of African Americans and national guards standing outside Ogden Café during the Chicago Race Riot by Jun Fujita, 1919, via Chicago History Museum


The Chicago Race Riot was one of the largest race riots to occur in Illinois during the Red Summer of 1919. The riot started on Sunday, July 27, at a beach site on Lake Michigan. The waters were divided by an invisible line, which segregated white swimmers from African American swimmers. A 17-year-old African American boy, Eugene Williams, was swimming with friends when he accidentally crossed the invisible line. Angered by Williams drifting into “white only” waters, white individuals began pelting stones at Williams and his friends. One of the stones hit Williams in the head, causing him to drown.


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The Chicago Daily Tribune newspaper headline about the Chicago Race Riot, 1919, via Visualizing the Red Summer


A riot didn’t immediately break out following the drowning of Williams, but news about his death and the lack of police involvement in the incident quickly spread. Police failed to arrest or charge the individuals throwing the stones or the individual responsible for hitting Williams with the stone that led to his death. Crowds began to gather on nearby streets, and local police were sent to restore order before violence ensued. According to a report published by The Chicago Commission on Race Relations, an African American man named James Crawford shot into a group of officers trying to restore order. The gunshot killed an African American policeman. Numerous altercations, injuries, and deaths would follow over the next week and a half.


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Vandalized home with broken windows during the Red Summer Chicago Race Riot by Chicago Daily News, Inc., 1919, via Chicago History Museum


As rumors circulated throughout the South Side of Chicago, details of what actually happened at the lake and the hours that followed became distorted. Rioting temporarily ceased on Monday, July 28, as everyone went to work as usual. However, violence continued in the evening as African Americans and whites returned home from work. Trolley cars carrying African Americans home were targeted. Passengers were dragged out of the trolleys and severely beaten.


The first week of the riot following Williams’ death saw the most violence. The riot lasted 13 days and officially ended on August 8, when the US troops sent to suppress the riot were withdrawn. Most of the clashes throughout the two weeks of rioting took place in the South Side section, which included Chicago’s “Black Belt,” named for its predominantly African American population.


Several types of violence occurred during the Chicago Race Riot, including stabbings, beatings, drive-by shootings, the burning of buildings, robbing, and the throwing of stones and bricks. According to The Chicago Commission on Race Relations report, 156 whites and 283 African Americans were injured in the first four days of the riot. About 100 more injuries occurred throughout the rest of the riot until it was suppressed. Fifteen whites and 23 African Americans died as a result of the rioting.


Implications of the Red Summer of 1919

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Newspaper headline reporting on the deaths and injuries caused by the Chicago Race Riot, via University of California, Berkeley


The Red Summer of 1919 was a significant event in US history that puts into perspective how fragile and hostile the social environment was in the early 20th century. There were many substantial changes taking place in the first few decades of the 1900s. Not only did these changes affect the political and economic state of the US, but they also greatly impacted social relations. The Great Migration and World War I played a major role in influencing the Red Summer of 1919.


The significant demographic change that came with the Great Migration brought rise to new social issues. Jobs in major industrial cities opened up as a result of white service members going off to war, but they experienced anger and animosity when they returned home to find their jobs had been filled. This underlying resentment further contributed to the already tense race relations. African American service members often received better treatment from those they encountered overseas, which also led to resentment over the mistreatment they faced when they returned home.


The large influx of African Americans leaving the South put more pressure on its economy, which was still in the process of being repaired from the Civil War. Therefore, white southerners were suffering due to a significant amount of their labor force leaving their jobs, especially for farmers that hired African American sharecroppers for cheap, indebted labor. Overall, the Red Summer didn’t appear out of nowhere, and its origin was deeply rooted in various social, political, and economic aspects that took place over the course of centuries. The Red Summer race riots were also a precursor to the bloody Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and the large-scale protests and riots that would later appear in the Civil Rights Movement.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.