In 1919, a wave of pogroms racially motivated swept across the United States and Great Britain. Their victims were men, women, and children. Why are they trying to flip through this page in history? Because the media and state authorities do not want you to know about their reaction.

Remember how we thought 2020 would be “the year of the coronavirus”? Then came the assassination of George Floyd, followed by protests, riots followed by violence, and clashes between police, ultra-right and anti-fascists. COVID-19 will have to make room on a pedestal.

Remember also how everyone compared the new virus to the Spanish pandemic in 1918-1919? But few compared protests and violence with other events of those times - “Red Summer”. Because a few bloody and shameful months of 1919 is not the story that countries want to tell the younger generation about.

Then, in a series of pogroms that began on the basis of racial intolerance, hundreds of people were killed in the United States. For the most part, these are blacks killed by whites: they were lynched, stoned to death and burned at the stake. But this was the first time that the black population rebuffed violence both by peaceful and by force means. And although the descriptions and photographs of such medieval savagery make the blood run cold and the level of cruelty shock the susceptible person of the 21st century, here you can still draw parallels with the year 2020.

So, what was the source of such violence and why did they prefer to remain silent about it?

  • White children rejoice at the African-American house that they set on fire
  • © Bettmann

The USA of those times was a country of deep racial schism. The then president, Woodrow Wilson, was a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan and an opponent of blacks' voting rights and returned segregation to elements of American society. Lynch pogroms and white trials were commonplace. In 1889-1918, more than 3 thousand people became victims of vigilantes, of which 2472 were black men and 50 were black women. Although 57 years have passed since the abolition of slavery, blacks had much less rights than whites. But the catalyst for the bloodshed of 1919 and what made it so significant was the return to the homeland of soldiers - participants in the First World War.

Armed, outraged and ready to fight

These soldiers, both white and black, were demobilized when economic difficulties and racial tensions were already building up in the country. They were taught to fight and often suffered from the so-called shell shock (or, as we would say today, post-traumatic stress disorder). Violence broke out without difficulty.

White servicemen seized on fabricated rumors that "black devils" were attacking white women, and began to randomly attack and kill blacks.

The Washington Post, a newsletter known for its “liberal” views, even produced material on the front page urging the white military to gather in a specific place to launch a massive attack on African Americans.

In addition, the demobilized whites, returning home, were faced in cities with an acute shortage of jobs and housing, an economic crisis, undermined by war and a pandemic, and an influx of black workers who arrived from the south of the country due to the labor shortage.

By 1919, about half a million African Americans moved to the industrial cities of the North-East and Midwest with the first wave of the Great Migration. In the years 1910-1920, the black population of Chicago grew by 148%, and Philadelphia - by 500%. The whites spoke not only about the economic consequences, but also accused migrants of spreading the Spanish. Perhaps this is the prototype of those who are just waiting to blame the new outbreak of COVID-19 on the actions of the movement “The lives of black people matter”.

Some black migrants thrived, forming a new, black middle class. In those who are accustomed to the “white privilege” (which, in comparison with today's, was simply transcendental), this inspired both anger and fear.

Upon returning to the United States, black soldiers were faced with a different set of circumstances provoking indignation. On the battlefield, they risked their lives for their country, but at home it turned out that the country and its president did not consider them full-fledged people. After the war, at least thirteen black veterans were lynched. They saw not heroes, but second-class citizens. But they had motivation and willingness to act.

  • Nine African-American soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment (15th Regiment of the New York State Guard), awarded the French Military Cross, return home aboard the Stockholm, February 12, 1919
  • © Corbis

Bloody pogroms

The name Red Summer was coined by James Weldon Johnson, field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ( NAACP ) . So he christened this series of bloody events. The most serious of them began in April and ended in November. Crowds of white people, including women and children, staged pogroms in dozens of American cities, destroying black property and churches and killing African Americans.

Having snoozed for several decades, the Ku Klux Klan resumed its activity, which committed 64 lynching in 1918 and 83 in 1919. During one of the deadliest events, more than 200 African Americans of both sexes and all ages were killed in the city of Elaine, Arkansas, after black-based sharecroppers advocated for better working conditions.

The target of many attacks was black veterans, of whom there were approximately 380 thousand and who saw a threat to the superiority and power of the whites. They fought for their country, so why shouldn’t they be treated the same as everyone else? They returned to their homeland, seasoned in battle and ready to stand up for equal rights and for themselves.

Thus, in some cities, blacks rebuffed arbitrariness for the first time. Of particular note is Chicago and the capital, Washington, where as a result of the riots the dead were among both blacks and whites (but more blacks). So, in Chicago 23 blacks and 15 whites died, after a black teenager Eugene Williams sailed on a raft in a section of Lake Michigan, reserved only for whites. He drowned - a white man, George Stauber, hit him with a stone, and he lost consciousness.

Despite having several witnesses, the white policeman refused to arrest Stauber. Black protests began, in response to the streets crowds of whites poured. On their way, they shot and set fire to buildings, but the police did nothing, and black veterans stood up to defend their areas. The riot week claimed 38 lives, 537 were injured and, according to various estimates, between 1,000 and 2,000 people were left homeless.

Similar riots took place in the cities of Great Britain, mainly in port cities: London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff and Halle. Five people were killed - all non-white. At that time, British soldiers returned from an even more protracted war than the one that the Americans went through and faced a similar situation: on the one hand, adversities, on the other, minorities that can be easily blamed for everything, for example, South Asian, African, West Indian, Chinese and Arab sailors.

  • Police inspect a body of an African-American stoned and beaten to death during a Chicago pogrom, July 1919
  • © Chicago History Museum

Shame on you?

And still, few people know about those events. This is relatively little remembered in the mainstream, and in any other media. The same goes for the school curriculum. Probably the reason is how shameful the reaction from the press and the authorities was.

The British government, while Britain was still a multi-ethnic empire, intensified the repatriation process. To avoid the "black revolt", people from the colonies were expelled, offering them "lifting allowance". Between 1919 and 1921, approximately 3,000 black and Arab sailors and their relatives were deported as part of this program.

In the US, the topic of black resistance has been politicized. Federal authorities and the media proclaimed it Marxist and pro-Soviet. After the revolution in Russia, only two years passed then, and movements for the rights of blacks were declared "Bolsheviks." Doesn’t resemble anything?

The story of the black "Bolsheviks" was developed by almost all mainstream newspapers, including those that are considered liberal, such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The latter came out with the headline "The Reds Encourage Blacks to Revolution."

Part of the matter was in press briefings by the federal authorities. The state firmly decided to ignore racial inequality and blame the socialists. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer reported to Congress on the anarchist and Bolshevik threats and accused black community leaders of "inconsistent response to racial unrest."

These riots also coincided with the start of J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous career.

He attributed the Washington pogroms to "the numerous attacks of blacks on white women" (and this despite the lack of evidence), and the Elean massacre to "agitation in a black bed." He also initiated an investigation into "Negro activities."

And although there really was a participation of left-wing elements, the resistance of [African-Americans] was, of course, a defensive reaction to years of unpunished violence by whites - both individuals and crowds. There were no "gray" tones, it was impossible to say that both of them are right in their own way. However, only one significant report (authored by George Haines, an official and academic of African American descent) in October 1919 recognized this fact, indicating that the Lynch courts are a national problem and are directly related to the unrest:

“The continued unpunished lynching of blacks nurtures the neglect of the law among white men, intoxicated by the spirit of the crowd, and creates an atmosphere of bitter indignation among blacks. When the public consciousness is in such a state, even a minor incident can provoke unrest ... Unrestrained crowd violence leads to hatred and intolerance and makes it impossible to freely and impartially discuss not only racial issues, but also issues on which the opinions of representatives of different races and segments of society may diverge. ”

American Apartheid

President Wilson condemned the violence, but did not take any serious measures to stop it. It should also be noted that after African Americans were killed for months in the most horrific and sadistic ways imaginable (they were hanged, stoned, burned alive), the authorities did nothing to improve their share. No legal protection, no additional rights. Yes there! In a recent interview with NBC, Jeff Ward, professor of Africanism and African Americanism at the University of Washington in St. Louis, said the situation was only getting worse. 

"That era of racial terror, where again the exculpatory work of white journalists, police, juries and so on led to the fact that his perpetrators were protected and not punished, certainly extended the period of American apartheid."

The violence continued. New unrest erupted - some even more bloody than the events of 1919. For African Americans, nothing has changed, but something has changed within themselves. And they retain something in themselves, having gone through the period of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, to this day, namely the willingness to defend themselves.

The author’s point of view may not coincide with the position of the publisher.