As World War I drew to a close in late 1918, the noted black author and activist James Weldon Johnson posed the issue that was on the minds of many African-Americans: Would their support for the war effort, on the battlefields of Europe and in the factories of the United States, translate into improvements in the "status of the Negro as an American citizen?" At that historical moment, blacks' status could be described as second-class — or worse. Their bill of complaints was painfully long: They were denied the vote in the South, trapped in a system of sharecropping that precluded economic mobility, excluded from countless workplaces, denigrated as biologically and culturally inferior, subject to harassment and violence, and relegated to segregated facilities that were palpably inferior to those of their white counterparts. Black wartime participation had raised "many high hopes" about the possibilities for change. "Now comes the test," Johnson announced.
Indeed, much had already changed over the course of the war. Half a million southern blacks had migrated to the North and industrial workplaces, long closed to black labor, opened their doors under the pressure of labor shortages. Black servicemen fighting in Europe encountered a white population often less hostile than American whites. The talk of a "New Negro" appeared in print and was heard on the streets. Civil rights protests erupted in the North and South. It was not unreasonable for African-Americans to think — or at least hope — that wartime gains would be maintained and even extended.
Taking Johnson's phrase for his title, McWhirter vividly explores the dynamics of that season's bloodletting and the responses it elicited from black Americans. Postwar racial violence and politics are hardly new subjects for American historians, who have produced numerous studies on individual riots and lynchings, but McWhirter is among the few to look at the violence as a whole. He weaves together the multiple outbreaks into a single, highly readable (if, given its subject, sometimes painful) narrative.
The triggering events were many, some real, others imagined. In Washington, daily newspapers fanned the flames with lurid, exaggerated, or even fabricated accounts of black crime. In Chicago, postwar unemployment, labor conflicts, housing shortages, and heat provided the context for the massive violence that followed the stoning death of a young black swimmer who crossed an invisible line separating whites from blacks in Lake Michigan. Whites in Omaha, Neb., physically attacked their mayor before destroying the local courthouse to seize and then lynch a black man accused of assaulting a white woman. In Phillips County, Ark., black sharecroppers' efforts to organize a union to secure fair end-of-year settlements precipitated what one contemporary called "a crusade of death" that left hundreds dead.
In many instances, the press and public officials only made matters worse. Shortly before the nation's capital erupted into a "race war," the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) denounced four local newspapers for "sowing the seeds of a race riot by their inflammatory headlines." Arkansas journalists falsely claimed that officials had suppressed a "deliberately planned insurrection" aimed at a "general slaughter of white people." Making no secret of their opposition to black rights, white southern politicians blamed black sharecroppers and called the NAACP "an association for the promotion of revolution." For their part, federal officials believed, without evidence, that Bolshevik and other "agitators" instigated the violence. President Woodrow Wilson stood on the sidelines, doing nothing.
Antiblack riots were nothing new, but the postwar African-American response was, McWhirter argues. White rioters now confronted "black men and women transformed by their experiences during the war." In Washington and Chicago, they set up barricades to protect their neighborhoods while marksmen "manned rooftops with rifles." In Knoxville, Tenn., armed blacks established a perimeter at their community's edge and shot out street lights to impede white attackers. The New York Times found that "[p]ractically every one of the 10,000 Negroes in Omaha was armed and . . . ready to fight for his life and home" during that city's riot. Beyond resisters in the streets, McWhirter's true heroes are the members of the NAACP, whose importance in this era is often overlooked by historians. As its ranks quickly skyrocketed to almost 85,000, the organization tirelessly campaigned against lynching, riots, and segregation, giving an eloquent voice to black aspirations and setting the groundwork for future victories.
If "Red Summer" captures the big picture, the narrative is marred by occasional errors and exaggerations. Booker T. Washington's pronouncements, even at the height of his power, hardly "had the impact of papal bulls among blacks." Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association had few "members with socialist tendencies" and Garvey did not found the African Blood Brotherhood. And the IWW was the Industrial – not International – Workers of the World.
McWhirter stakes a lot on the significance of a single year, raising the larger question of precisely what transpired in black politics immediately after the war. "Black America awakened politically, socially, and artistically like never before," he finds. That a shift was taking place is undeniable. But to conclude that "1919's historic importance was that it was the start of a process – a great dismantling of institutional prejudice and inequality that marred American society" overstates the suddenness of the change in black America's mood. The fight "in legislatures, courtrooms, and the streets to become full partners in the American democratic experiment" hardly began in 1919, as "Red Summer" suggests; the "New Negro" first emerged in earlier years.
The "many high hopes" of the war years that James Weldon Johnson identified may have been dashed after World War I, but rising black expectations underscored a growing commitment to challenging the nation's hypocrisy. McWhirter's anatomy of the year's violence and African-American responses to it make for poignant reading and the stories he tells are powerful ones that deserve to be remembered.
Eric Arnesen is Professor of History at The George Washington University.
'Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America'
By Cameron McWhirter
Henry Holt & Co., 368 pgs, $32.50