On the third Saturday of July in 1919, a number of military men—some recently discharged, some just off-duty, but many in uniform—began indiscriminately beating black men who happened to be walking in the area of the National Mall in Washington D.C. The attackers sought to avenge a white woman who had been allegedly “jostled” by two black men; she claimed that they tried to steal her umbrella. The Washington Post reported the incident under the headline “Negroes Attack Girl.”
Washington, D.C., faced a particular set of racial tensions that summer. Local newspapers carried reports decrying the racial conflict tearing apart the nation in other cities, all the while publishing sensational stories about a new wave of crime caused by blacks in D.C. The Washington Post published a letter to the editor on July 13th that was concerned about the “crimes and outrages that have recently been committed.” It suggested that, because “many of the suspects are negros” perhaps some “negro ex-soldiers” should be appointed to the police force.
The city certainly had no shortage of ex-soldiers, many of whom had stayed after the end of World War I, but the vast majority of them were white. After the story of the jostled woman broke, a false rumor spread that she was the wife of a retired Navy employee. The soldiers, unoccupied by work in a city with too many bodies and too few jobs, saw this as grounds for a counterattack. The next evening, they planned to assault a man named John Colle, who was believed to be one of the two jostlers. On their way, the soldiers attacked black men at random. The violence continued on Sunday as bands of whites pulled black men off of passing streetcars and began beating them. In one statement to the NAACP, recovered by historian Delia Mellis in her dissertation about the D.C. riots of 1919, “The Monsters We Defy,” a man reported riding the Seventh Street streetcar, “when a mob of sailors and soldiers jumped on the car and pulled me off beatting [sic] me unmercifully from head to foot leaving me in such a condition that I could hardly crawl back home.” He was seventeen years old.
Black men and women in D.C. began fighting back. They formed armed patrols of their own neighborhoods and, in some cases, shot at whites that they felt posed a threat. In one incident, at Seventh and T, black rioters who refused to disperse when ordered by police began firing, while women hanging out of windows threw whatever they could at the police from above. As the violence spilled over into Monday, the city brought in over a thousand federal soldiers in an attempt to restore order. But the military didn’t end the rioting: Torrents of rain swept through the city and helped wash away the chaos. “It may be,” the then-field secretary of the NAACP, James Weldon Johnson, later wrote, “that the rain had something to do with the things that did not happen.” By riot’s end, the mostly white police force in D.C. had arrested far more black men than whites. Often, armed black men defending their neighborhoods were arrested and jailed on weapons charges. When Johnson met with the chief of police and the commissioner after the riots had subsided to request that black “special officers” be appointed to protect blacks from unprovoked attacks by whites, both categorically refused.
After the riots, in the NAACP’s monthly periodical, Crisis, Johnson praised black efforts to fight back. “The Negroes saved themselves and saved Washington,” he wrote, “by their determination not to run, but to fight—fight in defense of their lives and their homes.” Had they not fought, claimed Johnson, “Washington would have been another and worse East St. Louis.” (During that riot-turned-massacre in 1917, at least thirty-nine black men, women, and children died after whole blocks were burned to the ground under the eye of police officers whose mandate it was to protect them.) In the end, Johnson felt that the riots marked “a turning point in the psychology of the whole nation regarding the Negro problem.” He was wrong.
Only days after the wet halted the D.C. riot, the drowning of a seventeen-year-old black teenager at a segregated swimming area in Chicago, and the subsequent arrest of a black man for the crime—whites onshore had pelted him with rocks—set off one of even greater magnitude. It lasted for five days, resulting in twenty-eight deaths and over five hundred injuries. Riots followed in Syracuse, in Philadelphia, and in five other states over the next month. The season of riots ended with one in Elaine, Arkansas, at the beginning of October, in which over a hundred blacks were killed.
Johnson later called that summer the Red Summer, because of the blood that spilled in so many cities—the blood to which Jean Toomer, in the story cycle Cane, directs the question: “Who set you flowing? Flowing down the smooth asphalt of Seventh Street, in shanties, brick office buildings, theaters, drug stores, restaurants, and cabarets? Eddying on the corners?” In Washington D.C., it was in large part uniformed men, most of whom had just returned from war, and, still in their combat uniforms, had brought it back with them.
“It Was a Riot” is a new, occasional series about riots in American history.
Emmet von Stackelberg is a writer living in Cambridge.