Remembering the Red Summer of 1919

During the summer of 1919 racial violence against Black Americans erupted throughout the nation. White mobs ran through the cities of America terrorizing Black families and veterans returning home from defending the U.S. in WWI. Historians believed that the violence started in Chicago, on July 27th, 1919. When 17 year old Eugene Wilson was floating on a raft in Lake Michigan when he unknowingly floated into a “whites only” swimming area. A man named George Stauber, aged 24, started to throw rocks at Eugene, eventually knocking him off his raft where he drowned. By the time Eugene Wilson’s body had been recovered from the lake a crowd of a thousand Black folks had gathered to demand action. When the police arrived a Black man fired his gun. In response, a mob of white men ran through the streets of Chicago destroying Black businesses and setting fire to Black homes. Chicago would become one of the 26 cities where white mobs attacked Black people and Black communities during the Red Summer of 1919.

The return of Black veterans from WWI and the Great Migration of 1916 are two reasons that historians believe amplified the racial tensions that eventually led to the Red Summer and the Tulsa Massacre. During the Great Migration, Black folks were coming to Chicago by the thousands each day. Black families were escaping the tyranny and violence of the KKK. They wanted to vote without fear and to find a better education for their children. In Chicago, the day that Eugene was murdered at the lake, the white mob was made up of predominantly first and second generation Irish immigrants. These Irish rioters were furious that the jobs that they had fought for and the growing political power their community had gained, would be threatened by the growing number of Black Chicagoans.


As the situation escalated throughout the nation, President Wilson refused to act. He worried that the riots would damage the U.S.’s image of being a beacon for peace and democracy after the end of WWI (It doesn’t help that Wilson was a known sympathiser and supporter of the Klu Klux Klan).


With no response from the President or the police, the young Black veterans that had fought for democracy overseas broke into an armory and defended their communities on their own soil. Black veterans formed militias to defend their friends, families, and homes. Many white people saw Black people in uniform as an affront to America’s racial caste system. Because of their military service, Black veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination. Black journalists began to affirm that if Black people were fit to wear the uniform, they were fit for everything else. As bloodshed spread nationally veterans continued to be targeted.

The young Black men of the Fighting 8th were a National Guard reserve unit.

Many received decorations for their bravery.

The Germans called them the Black Devils, and the nickname stuck.


The Red Summer eventually ended but the violence against Black people did not. Two years after the end of the Red Summer white folks would terrorize and murder Black Wallstreet in Tulsa Oklahoma.



Sources:

Grisby, Karen. “Chicago's Red Summer.” NPR, NPR, 24 July 2019, www.npr.org/transcripts/744450509.

“Chicago Race Riot of 1919.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/event/Chicago-Race-Riot-of-1919.

“Red Summer: When Racist Mobs Ruled.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/t-town-red-summer-racist-mobs/.

Higgins, Abigail. “Red Summer of 1919: How Black WWI Vets Fought Back Against Racist Mobs.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 26 July 2019, www.history.com/news/red-summer-1919-riots-chicago-dc-great-migration.