Red Summer Centennial Marks Dark Period In US History

Jun 18, 2019

This year marks the centennial anniversary of a dark chapter in American History. In the summer of 1919, race riots and massacres spread to dozens of cities throughout the country in a series of events that would come to be known as Red Summer

Although hundreds were killed and entire communities destroyed, few Americans know much about these events that rocked the nation. 

"Most people — even within the African American community — don’t know much about Red Summer, don’t know the details of it, don’t know how extensive it was," says Reggie Jackson, head griot of America's Black Holocaust Museum. 

"Most people — even within the African American community — don't know much about Red Summer, don't know the details of it, don't know how extensive it was."

At the time, many African Americans in the United States were facing a crisis of faith. After serving in WWI, many black GIs returned to southern states where Jim Crow laws denied African Americans equal treatment.

"Many blacks had served in the war effort in Europe, had been treated pretty well over there, and came back and said, 'We fought for freedom and Democracy, and we're going to demand that here.' People in the south did not particularly appreciate the fact that blacks came back very prideful," says Jackson. 

Officers of the United States Army's segregated 366th Infantry Regiment enroute home from WWI. Left to right: Lieutenant C.L. Abbot, South Dakota; Captain Joseph L. Lowe, Pacific Grove, California; Lieutenant Aaron R. Fisher, Lyles, Indiana, recipient of Distinguished Service Cross; Captain E. White, Pine Bluff, Ark.
Credit United States Department of War / Wikimedia

By some accounts, the incidents started in February 1919, but the most infamous of these attacks happened later in the summer and into the fall. In Chicago, 38 people died during the six days of rioting. More than 500 people were injured. As in many of these incidents, white mobs swarmed black neighborhoods, setting homes and businesses on fire, looting, and murdering black people. But what happened in Elaine, Ark., is perhaps the most well-known event. 

At the time, sharecropping was common in the U.S. In Elaine, this system had led to black farmers consistently owing a debt to white landowners, despite their crops turning a profit. 

"[Black sharecroppers] put together a group to challenge the system and the whites who owned the land did not appreciate this ... and it leads to a very bloody couple days in Elaine, Arkansas."

"[Black sharecroppers] put together a group to challenge the system and the whites who owned the land did not appreciate this ... One thing leads to another, and there ends up being this large group of white men who are armed, who attack this group of sharecroppers ... and it leads to a very bloody couple days in Elaine, Arkansas," says Jackson. 

It is believed that 100 to 237 African Americans were killed, making it one of the bloodiest racial massacres in U.S. History. By the end of the summer, there had been 27 major race riots in places from Arizona to Connecticut, marking what some consider the nadir in post-Civil War race relations. 

But Jackson says the legacy of these events isn't just one of heartache and persecution. He says the Red Summer can be credited with invigorating the fight for civil rights in the U.S. 

"This was the turning point to change the course of history for blacks ..."

"This was the turning point to change the course of history for blacks, particularly in the south, because the Red Summer was so violent and it occurred in so many different places ... Blacks paid quite a bit of attention to it and one of the things they paid a lot of attention to was the fight — to not just allow people to come in and do these things, but to fight back," says Jackson.