Reference Entry

Washington, D.C., Riot

Michael A. Vieira

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Washington, D.C., Riot

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World War I caused many social and economic changes within the United States—especially concerning the African American community. Black Americans emerged from the war as members of a community with rising expectations. They were no longer willing to accept passively the indignations and abuses of Jim Crowism.Approximately 380,000 blacks served in the wartime military. More than 140,000 black servicemen went to France, and of this number 42,000 served in all-black combat units. Black military service brought great pride to the black community. They expected this service to produce changes in their political, social, and economic conditions. However, the coming of peace did not produce these changes. Amid postwar labor upheavals and the Red Scare, the United States was forced to confront racial disorders of a magnitude not seen since the end of Reconstruction. During the summer and fall of 1919, often called the “Red Summer,” race riots exploded in a number of cities in both the North and the South. One of the most violent riots occurred in Washington, D.C.Racial resentment was high among Washington's returning black war veterans. Upon returning from France they witnessed worsening race relations in an administration dominated by conservative southern whites brought in by President Woodrow Wilson.Washington, D.C., during the Wilson presidency was a mecca of Jim Crow laws and customs. Some federal agencies and departments had established Jim Crow policies and procedures. Simultaneously, the Ku Klux Klan reemerged in Maryland and Virginia. Around the country there was a resurgence of lynchings of blacks: 28 public lynchings took place in the first six months of 1919, including 7 of black veterans killed while still wearing their army uniforms.In late June and early July 1919 several attempted rapes of white women were reported in Washington, D.C., papers. Police officials became convinced that one black man was responsible for several of the crimes. Many whites believed that a premeditated epidemic of sexual assaults by blacks against white women was underway. Although suspects were arrested, most were released, despite strong press criticism of lax law enforcement.The Washington Post sensationalized a manufactured “crime wave” and concentrated its attention on alleged assaults on white women by black men. Washington's chapter of the NAACP was so concerned that it sent a letter to the Post arguing that the reporting was sowing the seeds of race rioting.On 19 July the Post headlined an incident in which, supposedly, two black men had jostled a secretary, the wife of a white sailor, on her way home from work, had attempted to seize her umbrella, and then had fled. The newspapers headlined the incident as an attack. Spurred on by the Post's reporting, that day two hundred white sailors and marines began a march into black neighborhoods, stopping along the way to pull blacks off streetcars and beat them.The NAACP urged the secretary of the navy, Josephus Daniels, to restrain the sailors and marines. Daniels took no action and blamed the blacks for the violence. Blacks immediately moved to a posture of self-defense and retaliatory violence. On 19 July, police stopping a group of blacks were fired upon, and one policeman was wounded. On the second night, that of 20 July, white mobs, sensing that the police department was unwilling or unable to stop them, escalated the violence. Blacks were beaten in front of the White House and throughout the city.The Parents League, a black citizens’ group formed to improve the segregated black schools, printed and distributed fifty thousand copies of a handbill advising blacks, in the interest of law and order, to go home before dark, remain quiet, and protect themselves. The city's chief executive Louis Brownlow issued an urgent appeal to the citizens of Washington to show their support for law and order. Both these appeals were undermined on 21 July by a front-page story in the Washington Post. Under the words “Mobilization for Tonight,” the Post erroneously reported that all available servicemen had been ordered to report at 9:00 in the evening for an operation to “clean up” the blacks who were on the streets after dark.It was never clear how this “mobilization” call was issued, but it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. White mobs were met by black mobs. Black men drove around the city firing randomly at whites. Blacks turned the tables and pulled whites off streetcars. In all, ten whites and five blacks were killed or mortally wounded the night of 21 July.On Tuesday, 22 July, President Wilson mobilized two thousand troops to stop the rioting. Despite the presence of federal troops, a mob gathered again. A strong summer downpour doused their spirits, however. The heavy rain continued through the night and effectively ended the unrest. In four days of rioting an estimated nine people were killed and an estimated thirty more eventually died from their wounds. More than 150 men, women, and children were clubbed, beaten, and shot by mobs of both races. Several marines and six policemen were shot, two fatally.The black community had a wide range of responses to the riot. Among the accommodationist wing of black leadership there was an appeal to the goodwill of the white power structure. Robert Morton, Booker T. Washington's successor at Tuskegee, appealed to President Wilson to issue a statement regarding mob law. Morton believed that a statement from Wilson would have a stabilizing effect on blacks.The NAACP continued to rely on public education and exposure of the truth concerning racial violence. It concentrated much of its efforts on rallying public support for an anti-lynching bill to be presented to Congress. The NAACP's W. E. B. Du Bois concentrated his efforts on refuting press distortions of racial violence and on pointing out the actual causes of black militancy. In letters and editorials, Du Bois demonstrated a sharpened vehemence against racism. With World War I over, Du Bois, a supporter of the war, advocated a full-scale offensive against racial oppression. He claimed that blacks had fought in the war for contradictory reasons—to end racism abroad and yet to defend it at home. He stated that with the war over, it was time to wage war against racism. In a May 1919 editorial in The Crisis, he proclaimed that it was time to save democracy in America.

Reference Entry.  1165 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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