The Red Summer of 1919 in U.S. Cities

A group of African American men who have gathered in front of the Ogden Cafe, Chicago 1919

Chicago History Museum/Archive Photos/Getty Images 

The Red Summer of 1919 refers to a series of race riots that took place between May and October of that year. Although riots occurred in more than thirty cities throughout the U.S., the bloodiest events were in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Elaine, Arkansas.

Causes of the Red Summer Race Riots

Several factors came into play precipitating the riots.

  1. Labor Shortages: Industrial cities in the North and Midwest profited greatly from World War I. Yet, the factories also encountered serious labor shortages because white men were enlisting in World War I and the United States government halted immigration from Europe.
  2. The Great Migration: To fulfill these job shortages, at least 500,000 African-Americans moved from the South to Northern and Midwestern cities. African-Americans were also leaving the South to escape Jim Crow laws, segregated schools, and lack of job opportunities.
  3. Racial Strife: Working class white workers in Northern and Midwestern cities resented the presence of African-Americans, who were now competition for employment.

Riots Erupt in Cities Throughout the South

The first act of violence took place in Charleston, South Carolina, in May. For the next six months, riots occurred in small Southern towns such as Sylvester, Georgia and Hobson City, Alabama as well as larger northern cities such as Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Syracuse, New York. The largest riots, however, took place in Washington D.C., Chicago, and Elaine, Arkansas.

Washington DC Riots Between Whites and Blacks

On July 19, white men initiated a riot after hearing that a Black man had been accused of rape. The men beat random African-Americans, pulling them off of streetcars and beating street pedestrians. African-Americans fought back after local police refused to intervene. For four days, African-American and white residents fought.

By July 23, four whites and two African-Americans were killed in the riots. In addition, an estimated 50 people were seriously injured. The D.C. riots were especially significant because it was one of the only instances when African-Americans aggressively fought back against whites.

Whites Destroy Black Homes and Businesses in Chicago

The most violent of all the race riots began on July 27. A young Black man visiting Lake Michigan beaches accidentally swam on the South Side, which was frequented by whites. As a result, he was stoned and drowned.

After the police refused to arrest the young man's attackers, violence ensued. For 13 days, white rioters destroyed the homes and businesses of African-Americans. By the end of the riot, an estimated 1,000 African-American families were homeless, over 500 were injured and 50 people were killed.

Arkansas Riot by Whites Against Sharecroppers

One of the last but most intense of all the race riots began on October 1 after whites tried to disband the organization efforts of African-American sharecropper organizations. Sharecroppers were meeting to organize a union so that they could express their concerns to local planters. However, the planters opposed the worker's organization and attacked African-American farmers. During the riot in Elaine, Arkansas, an estimated 100 African-Americans and five whites were killed.

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Lewis, Femi. "The Red Summer of 1919 in U.S. Cities." ThoughtCo, Dec. 24, 2020, Lewis, Femi. (2020, December 24). The Red Summer of 1919 in U.S. Cities. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "The Red Summer of 1919 in U.S. Cities." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).

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