History Stories

When dozens of brutal race riots erupted across the U.S. in the wake of World War I and the Great Migration, black veterans stepped up to defend their communities against white violence.

The ink had barely dried on the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended World War I, when recently returned black veterans grabbed their guns and stationed themselves on rooftops in black neighborhoods in Washington D.C., prepared to act as snipers in the case of mob violence in July of 1919. Others set up blockades around Howard University, a black intellectual hub, creating a protective ring around residents.

White sailors recently home from the war had been on a days-long drunken rampage, assaulting, and in some cases lynching, black people on the capitol’s streets. The relentless onslaught proved contagious, escalating in dozens of cities across the U.S. in what would become known as the The Red Summer

The racist attacks in 1919 were widespread, and often indiscriminate, but in many places, they were initiated by white servicemen and centered upon the 380,000 black veterans who had just returned from the war. “Because of their military service, black veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination,” notes a report by the Equal Justice Initiative.

Indeed, many African American soldiers returned from the war armed with a renewed determination to fight segregation and a near-constant barrage of brutality. 

World War I Soldiers

Members of the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, who were awarded the coveted Croix de Guerre from the French government before heading home after World War I, 1919.

A postal official wrote at the time that “As far back as the first movement of the American troops to France the negro publicists began to avail themselves of the argument that since the negro was fit to wear the uniform he was, therefore, fit for everything else.” 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.”

At the same time, cities across the north were being reshaped by the Great Migration. By the end of 1919, about 1 million African Americans had fled segregation and a total lack of economic opportunities in the south for northern cities. Between 1910 and 1920, the black population in Chicago grew by 148 percent and in Philadelphia by 500 percent, creating massive anxiety among white people in northern cities that black people were taking jobs, housing, and security from them. 

During the Red Summer, massive anxiety became mass violence. Between April and November of 1919, there would be approximately 25 riots and instances of mob violence, 97 recorded lynchings, and a three day long massacre in Elaine, Arkansas during which over 200 black men, women, and children were killed after black sharecroppers tried to organize for better working conditions. The Ku Klux Klan, which had been largely shut down by the government after the Civil War, experienced a resurgence in popularity and began carrying out dozens of lynchings across the south.

The Red Summer of 1919

White children cheer outside an African-American residence that they set on fire in September, 1919.

Just a few years earlier, many young black men had heeded Wilson’s call to make the world “safe for democracy” and gone off to fight for America in one of history’s bloodiest wars. Now they had come back to a country that recognized neither their service nor their humanity. Having just returned from battle, however, black veterans were not inclined to take the abuse lying down. Across the country, former soldiers used their government-provided weapons training to defend their neighborhoods against vicious white mobs.

“Black people [formed] ad hoc self-defense organizations to try to keep white folks from terrorizing their communities,” says Simon Balto, a Professor of African American History at The University of Iowa and author of Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power. “Black veterans are instrumental in that.”

Black veterans were a large part of what made the summer of 1919, in the words of historian David F. Krugler, the year that African Americans fought back.

“This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return. This is the fatherland for which we fought!” W.E.B DuBois, a civil rights activist and prominent intellectual, wrote in Crisis Magazine in May 1919, a month after the earliest event of the Red Summer, a riot in Georgia where six people—two white officers and four black men—were killed at a church. "But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” 

Riots at the Steps of the Capitol

President Wilson leading the parade of the Capital's returning veterans in February 1919. He did not take any action once violence towards black veterans broke out later that year.

President Wilson leading the parade of the Capital's returning veterans in February 1919. He did not take any action once violence towards black veterans broke out later that year.

Washington D.C had 5,000 black veterans and for many of them, self-defense was a last resort after weeks—and indeed decades—of government inaction.

One of the first people killed in Washington D.C.’s violence was a 22-year-old black veteran named Randall Neal. At a high point of the mayhem, one Washington newspaper reported that the city had “passed through its wildest and bloodiest night since Civil War times.” Many of the city’s white-owned newspapers fanned the flames of terror, reporting on fabricated instances of black men assaulting white women. In one case, The Washington Post ran a front page story advertising the location for white servicemen to meet and carry out further attacks on black people in the city.

Washington D.C. had a vibrant black middle class that in many ways epitomized black people’s slow but expanding economic and social advances. The cities’ black population was growing rapidly thanks to the Great Migration and in 1919, they made up a quarter of the population. They also held many jobs in the federal government and at the country’s first black-owned bank, the Industrial Savings bank. It was a limited but steady march forward—one that many white people felt needed to be stopped.

“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,” wrote James Weldon Johnson, who coined the term “Red Summer,” in Crisis Magazine.

As the situation escalated, Wilson refused to act. He worried that the riots would damage the image he was cultivating of the United States as a global paragon of justice. Wilson also had a demonstrated record of racism (including, among other things, tacit support of the Ku Klux Klan).

After four days of racist mob violence in Washington D.C., an estimated 40 people were killed and dozens more were injured. The chaos was only quelled when 2,000 federal troops were deployed onto the city streets at the end of the month—just in time for the riots to spread to Chicago.

A Murder in Chicago Ignites a City

Chicago Race Riots 1919

Crowds gathered by the 29th Street Beach in Chicago after the drowning death of Eugene Williams, an African American teenager who had crossed an imaginary boundary in the water separating blacks from whites, on July 27, 1919.

Just two days after federal troops withdrew from Washington D.C., a black teenager was killed by a white man in Chicago, lighting the match that would kick off a week of violent riots. By the end, 15 white people and 23 black people would be dead, over 500 people would be injured, and over 1,000 black families would be homeless after their homes were burned down.

The teenager, 17-year-old Eugene Williams, was floating on a homemade raft off the shores of Lake Michigan, trying to escape the city’s oppressive summer heat, when a white man named George Stauber started pelting him with rocks. Williams had unwittingly drifted past the line that divided the white beach from the black beach.

A rock hit Williams in the head, knocking him unconscious. His body went limp and slipped into the lake. No one got to Williams in time to save him.

A white police officer refused to arrest Stauber, despite a growing crowd of angry witnesses to the murder. By the time Williams’ lifeless body had been removed from the lake, a crowd of around a thousand black people had gathered, demanding action. For many, Williams’ death was a microcosm of the longstanding violence perpetrated against black people without consequence.

In response to the protest, armed white men jumped in cars and tore through the city streets, firing into black homes and businesses. A white mob marched down the street, assaulting black pedestrians and torching black homes. Still, police refused to act.

Chicago Race Riots 1919

A mob carrying bricks and stones chase a black man through the streets and alleyways of Chicago, 1919.

“When the riot explodes it’s not so much some kind of a spontaneous event as it is a culmination,” Balto explains. In the two previous years, white supremacists had bombed over 25 black homes in an effort to keep black people out of the city. The police never intervened.

Veterans in Chicago formed militias to defend black homes, neighborhoods, and families when the police and government refused. In the time following Williams’ death, one group of black veterans broke into an armory and stole weapons they then used to beat back a white mob. “Because many of them have actually seen battlefield combat, they are willing and capable of using violence for the purpose of self-defense,” says Balto.

Throughout the summer, black veterans around the country took inspiration from the actions of their brethren in Washington D.C. and Chicago and followed suit. In a riot in South Carolina, one preacher reportedly said of the black self-defense units: “The males carried their guns with as much calmness as if they were going to shoot a rabbit in a hunt, or getting ready to shoot the Kaiser’s soldiers.”

For Veterans, a Broken Promise

Chicago Race Riots 1919

Mounted police round up African Americans and escort them to a safety zone during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.

As bloodshed spread nationally—to South Carolina, Nebraska, Florida, Ohio, among others—veterans continued to be targeted. At least 13 veterans were lynched across the United States after the war. Many of them were in uniform which, when worn in public, many white people saw as an affront to America’s racial caste system.

It was the opposite of the reception many black soldiers believed they would receive when returning home, their choice to serve in the war spurred on by intellectuals like DuBois who believed it would be a path to equality.

“World War I was very much a broken promise for basically all African Americans, but the people who felt the brokenness of that promise most acutely [were the veterans] who had gone and risked their lives for this supposed war to make the world safe for democracy and then came home to find that the country was still going to deny African Americans the privilege of democracy,” says Balto.

This wasn’t unique to the Red Summer—or even World War I. A report by the Equal Justice Initiative found that, from Reconstruction to just after World War II, “thousands of black veterans were assaulted, threatened, abused, or lynched following military service...No one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans who had proven their valor and courage as soldiers during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.”

Chicago Race Riots 1919

A police officer provides protection to black residents of the south side of Chicago, moving shortly after the riots of 1919.

Despite the events of the Red Summer, 1.2 million black men would enlist in World War II.

The conclusion of the summer of 1919 would not be the end of mass violence against black Americans—far from it. Two years later would see one of the worst instances of racial violence in American history, The Tulsa Race Massacre, during which at least 36 people were killed, 10 of them white, and at least 1,256 houses were torched by a white mob.

It did, however, signal a permanent shift in the way black people responded to white violence in the United States and presaged increasing self-defense tactics, including when black veterans once again mobilized during the violence in Tulsa. For many black people, the way veterans responded to the bloodshed added a sliver of inspiration to the terror of that summer.

Before the war, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had 9,000 members yet by the early 1920s it had 100,000, signaling a growing boldness and cohesion to the organizing that would eventually plant the seeds of the Civil Rights Movement.

READ MORE: How the GI Bill's Promise Was Denied to a Million Black WWII Veterans

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