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BOOK REVIEW: A bloody season for black Americans


The year 1919 was a terrifying time for many African-Americans.

From April to November, a wave of anti-black riots and lynchings swept across the United States. By the time the violence subsided, hundreds of people, most of them black, were dead, thousands had been injured or forced to flee and damage to homes and businesses was estimated to be in the millions.

The violence occurred in the South, the North, the Midwest and even the nation's capital, almost at the door of the White House. One black leader described it as "that summer when the stoutest-hearted Negroes felt terror and dismay." James Weldon Johnson, a top official in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, dubbed it the "Red Summer" because of the bloodshed.

It has taken nearly a century for a narrative history of this tragic episode in American history to be written, and Wall Street Journal reporter Cameron McWhirter has done a superb job in "Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America." The book is well-researched, and McWhirter's journalistic skills serve him well in writing about such a sensitive subject. His prose is carefully constructed and clear, and he avoids the temptation to embellish.

In 1919, the United States was still in an unsettled state in the aftermath of World War I. Although some black leaders had naively predicted that black servicemen returning home would find "a spirit of justice" abiding in the land, the nation was really being convulsed by "a confluence of forces." These included the continuing rise of Jim Crow, urbanization, an economic downturn and the anti-communist hysteria of the Red Scare. "Clearly, the old social order was breaking down and race played a major role in the unrest," McWhirter writes.

The violence started in Jenkins County, Ga., when white mobs killed several black men and seriously wounded another black after an altercation in which two white police officers were killed.

In early May, Charleston, S.C., erupted when about 1,000 white sailors and a smaller number of civilians entered the black district of the city and began attacking blacks on the streets and invading their homes.

In Washington, a white woman's allegation that she had been assaulted by two black men set off rioting by hundreds of white sailors and soldiers. Seven people were killed and hundreds were hurt.

The largest riot was in late July and early August in Chicago, where the drowning of a black teen caused racial tensions to explode. Thirty-eight were killed, and more than 500 were injured. In Virginia, the worst violence was in Norfolk, where at least two blacks were killed. Fighting had broken out at the naval base after blacks tried to stop white policemen from arresting a black soldier. In all, there were at least 27 major "riots and mob actions" across the nation.

The scenes McWhirter describes are often grisly. Crowds were frequently whipped up to a frenzy solely on the basis of rumors, especially if they involved supposed attacks on white women by black men. In Omaha, Neb., Willie Brown, a black man accused of raping a white woman, was dragged from a jail by a crowd estimated to number in the thousands, strung up on a lamppost and riddled with bullets. His corpse was then "soaked in gasoline, piled with debris and set aflame." After the fire died down, the mob kicked Brown's charred torso down the street.

McWhirter also shows how the riots touched some people who later became famous. Historian Carter G. Woodson, recognized as the father of Black History Month, had a narrow escape from a mob in Washington and had to run for this life. Poet and historian Carl Sandburg was a reporter for The Chicago Daily News in 1919 and wrote a series of penetrating articles on that city's violence. One of the witnesses to the lynching of Willie Brown in Omaha was a young white 14-year old named Henry Fonda. Years later in his autobiography, the celebrated actor recalled, "All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of the lamppost, the shots, and the revulsion I felt."

For all its horror, the turmoil of 1919 was not significant solely because of the violence. McWhirter argues that the Red Summer galvanized blacks and made them more determined to challenge their status as second-class citizens.

"African-Americans fought back in large numbers. They retaliated immediately, picking up guns and firing on approaching mobs. They also organized and transformed political organizations, primarily the NAACP, to challenge the violence in the political arena and the courts. The white attacks, and importantly the black reaction to them, emboldened blacks across the country and made 1919 a turning point in American race relations."

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