Historynotes Mo' Black History....the Maafa
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Subject: Mo' Black History....the Maafa
Date: Mon, 1 Mar 1999 08:51:27 -0500
From: "Rodney Cash" <Rodney_Cash@...>
In the Race Riot of 1919, a Glimpse of Struggles to Come
By Peter Perl
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 1999; Page A01
Another in a biweekly series of stories about the people and events that
shaped Washington in the 20th century.
Nobody knows precisely how or where it started, but on a steamy Saturday
night, July 19, 1919, the word began to spread among the saloons and
pool halls of downtown Washington, where crowds of soldiers, sailors and
Marines freshly home from the Great War were taking weekend liberty.
A black suspect, questioned in an attempted sexual assault on a white
woman, had been released by the Metropolitan Police. The woman was the
wife of a Navy man. So the booze-fueled mutterings about revenge flowed
quickly among hundreds of men in uniform, white men who were having
trouble finding jobs in a crowded, sweltering capital.
Late that night, they started to move. The mob drew strength from a
neighborhood off Pennsylvania Avenue NW called "Murder Bay," known for
brawlers and brothels. The crowd crossed the tree-covered Mall heading
toward a predominantly poor black section of Southwest. They picked up
clubs, lead pipes and pieces of lumber as they went.
Near Ninth and D streets SW, they fell upon an unsuspecting black man
Charles Linton Ralls, who was out with his wife, Mary. Ralls was chased
down and beaten severely. The mob then attacked a second black man,
George Montgomery, 55, who was returning home with groceries. They
fractured his skull with a brick.
The rampage by about 400 whites initially drew only scattered resistance
in the black community, and the police were nowhere to be seen. When the
Metropolitan Police Department finally arrived in force, its white
officers arrested more blacks than whites, sending a clear signal about
It was only the beginning. The white mob -- whose actions were triggered
large part by weeks of sensational newspaper accounts of alleged sex
crimes by a "negro fiend" -- unleashed a wave of violence that swept
over the city for four days. Nine people were killed in brutal street
fighting, and an estimated 30 more would die eventually from their
wounds. More than 150 men, women and children were clubbed, beaten and
shot by mobs of both races. Several Marine guards and six D.C. policemen
were shot, two fatally.
"A mob of sailors and soldiers jumped on the [street]car and pulled me
beating me unmercifully from head to foot, leaving me in such a
condition that I could hardly crawl back home," Francis Thomas, a frail
black 17-year-old, said in a statement to the NAACP. Thomas said he saw
three other blacks being beaten, including two women. "Before I became
unconscious, I could hear them pleading with the Lord to keep them from
The Washington riot was one of more than 20 that took place that summer.
rioting in Chicago, Omaha, Knoxville, Tenn., Charleston, S.C., and other
cities, the bloody interval came to be known as "the Red Summer." Unlike
virtually all the disturbances that preceded it -- in which
white-on-black violence dominated -- the Washington riot of 1919 was
distinguished by strong, organized and armed black resistance,
foreshadowing the civil rights struggles later in the century.
Postwar Washington, roughly 75 percent white, was a racial tinderbox.
was in short supply and jobs so scarce that ex-doughboys in uniform
panhandled along Pennsylvania Avenue. Unemployed whites bitterly envied
the relatively few blacks who had been fortunate enough to procure such
low-level government jobs as messenger and clerk. Many whites also
resented the black "invasion" of previously segregated neighborhoods
around Capitol Hill, Foggy Bottom and the old downtown.
Washington's black community was then the largest and most prosperous in
country, with a small but impressive upper class of teachers, ministers,
lawyers and businessmen concentrated in the LeDroit Park neighborhood
near Howard University. But black Washingtonians were increasingly
resentful of the growing dominance of the Jim Crow system that had been
imported from the Deep South.
Racial resentment was particularly intense among Washington's several
thousand returning black war veterans. They had proudly served their
country in such units as the District's 1st Separate Battalion, part of
the segregated Army force that fought in France. These men had been
forced to fight for the right to serve in combat because the Army at
first refused to draft blacks for any role other than laborer. They
returned home hopeful that their military service would earn them fair
Instead, they saw race relations worsening in an administration
conservative Southern whites brought here by Woodrow Wilson, a
Wilson's promise of a "New Freedom" had won him more black voters than
Democrat before him, but they were cruelly disappointed: Previously
integrated departments such as the Post Office and the Treasury had now
set up "Jim Crow corners" with separate washrooms and lunchrooms for
"colored only." Meanwhile, the Ku Klux Klan was being revived in
Maryland and Virginia, as racial hatred burst forth with the resurgence
of lynching of black men and women around the country -- 28 public
lynchings in the first six months of 1919 alone, including seven black
veterans killed while still wearing their Army uniforms.
Washington's newspapers made a tense situation worse, with an
unrelenting series of sensational stories of alleged sexual assaults by
an unknown black
perpetrator upon white women. The headlines dominated the city's four
papers -- the Evening Star, the Times, the Herald and The Post -- for
more than a month. A sampling of these July headlines illustrates the
growing lynch-mob mentality: 13 SUSPECTS ARRESTED IN NEGRO HUNT; POSSES
KEEP UP HUNT FOR NEGRO; HUNT COLORED ASSAILANT; NEGRO FIEND SOUGHT ANEW.
Washington's newly formed chapter of the NAACP was so concerned that on
July 9 -- 10 days before the bloodshed -- it sent a letter to the four
daily papers saying they were "sowing the seeds of a race riot by their
Violence escalated on the second night, Sunday, July 20, when white mobs
sensed the 700-member police department was unwilling or unable to stop
them. Blacks were beaten in front of the White House, at the giant
Center Market on Seventh Street NW, and throughout the city, where
roving bands of whites pulled them off streetcars.
One of black Washington's leading citizens, author and historian Carter
Woodson, 43, the new dean at Howard University, was caught up in that
horror. Walking home on Pennsylvania Avenue, Woodson was forced to hide
in the shadows of a storefront as a white mob approached. "They had
caught a Negro and deliberately held him as one would a beef for
slaughter," he recalled, "and when they had conveniently adjusted him
for lynching, they shot him. I heard him groaning in his struggle as I
hurried away as fast as I could without running, expecting every moment
to be lynched myself."
The Parents League, a black citizens group that had been formed
improve the "colored schools," printed and distributed about 50,000
copies of a Notice to the Colored Citizens, a handbill that advised "our
people, in the
interest of law and order and to avoid the loss of life and injury, to
go home before dark and to remain quietly and to protect themselves."
The city's chief executive, Louis Brownlow, the chairman of the District
Commissioners, issued an urgent appeal: "The actions of the men who
innocent Negroes cannot be too strongly condemned, and it is the duty of
every citizen to express his support of law and order by refraining from
any inciting conversation or the repetition of inciting rumor and
But a crucial event had already occurred that morning that would
Brownlow's good intention. The Washington Post published a front-page
that would be singled out by the NAACP, and later by historians, as a
contributing cause of the riot's escalation. Under the words
"Mobilization for Tonight," The Post erroneously reported that all
available servicemen had been ordered to report to Pennsylvania Avenue
and Seventh Street at 9 p.m. for a "clean-up" operation.
It was never clear how this fictional mobilization call was issued, but
became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as white rioters gathered and blacks
arming themselves in defense. Longtime Post reporter Chalmers Roberts,
history of The Washington Post, called the paper's riot coverage
As blacks realized that authorities were not protecting them, many took
up arms. More than 500 guns were sold by pawnshops and gun dealers that
Monday, when the worst violence occurred. White mobs were met by black
mobs up and down the Seventh Street commercial corridor. Black Army
veterans took out their old guns; sharpshooters climbed to the roof of
the Howard Theatre; blacks manned barricades at New Jersey Avenue and at
Black men were driving around the city firing randomly at whites. Blacks
turned the tables and pulled whites off streetcars. At Seventh and G
streets NW, a black rioter emptied his revolver into a crowded streetcar
before taking five bullets from police. At 12th and G NW, a 17-year-old
black girl barricaded herself in her house and shot and killed an MPD
detective. In all, 10 whites and five blacks were killed or mortally
wounded that night.
James Scott, a World War I veteran, boarded a streetcar at Seventh
Florida Avenue NW late Monday night and quickly noticed he was the only
man on board. As he headed for a vacant seat, a white soldier barred his
way and shouted, "Where are you going, nigger?"
"Lynch him!" yelled another white. "Kill him! . . . Throw him out the
window," others yelled.
"I was being grabbed from all sides. I forced my way to the rear door
hit by something as I stepped off, which cut my ear and bruised my
head," Scott recalled in a statement to the NAACP. "As the car moved
away, the conductor fired three shots at me."
Finally, on Tuesday, as city leaders and members of Congress realized
situation was out of hand, President Wilson mobilized about 2,000 troops
to stop the rioting -- cavalry from Fort Myer, Marines from Quantico,
Army troops from Camp Meade and sailors from ships in the Potomac. City
officials and businessmen closed the saloons, movie houses and billiard
rooms in neighborhoods where violence erupted.
Despite the federal troops, white mobs gathered again. But a strong
downpour doused their spirits and heavy rains continued through the
effectively ending the riot of 1919.
In the ensuing months, the NAACP and others pushed for hearings into the
riot. But the episode became a mostly forgotten chapter of Washington
history, largely because conservative Southern congressmen blocked
Sociologist Arthur Waskow, who interviewed riot survivors in the 1960s,
said the experience gave them a new self-respect and "a readiness to
face white society as equals. . . . The Washington riot demonstrated
that neither the silent mass of 'alley Negroes' nor the articulate
leaders of the Negro community could be counted on to knuckle under."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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