One Hundred Years Ago, a Four-Day Race Riot Engulfed Washington, D.C.
Rumors ran wild as white mobs assaulted black residents who in turn fought back, refusing to be intimidated
By all accounts, the 1919 Fourth of July celebration in Washington, D.C., was one for the ages. Coming right on the heels of the end of the Great War, and with President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations peace plan still very much alive, Independence Day was a symbolic coming out party for the United States of America on the global stage.
The local hacks sure played it up that way. Under the headline “Gorgeous Display As Jubilee Finale,” the Washington Evening Star described the Independence Day festivities as if the newspaper was owned by a sparklers and cherry bombs conglomerate:
A ‘blaze of glory’ that easily surpassed any pyrotechnic display ever seen in Washington marked the close of the city’s most elaborate Fourth of July celebration last night, both the quantity and magnificence of the fireworks overshadowing anything of the kind seen in former years.
It was one of a number of stories in the newspaper extolling American virtues, including an article detailing a stirring speech given by President Wilson on the deck of a presidential steamer, the George Washington, in between tug-of-war bouts between Army and Navy teams. President Wilson’s remarks declared it “the most tremendous Fourth of July ever imagined, for we have opened its franchise to the whole world.”
Two weeks later, a brutal race riot would sweep across the city.
The riot broke out as so many others have broken out: following a white woman’s claim that black men had wronged her. As the Washington Post recently outlined, attacks in the weeks prior led to sensational headlines, massive showings of police force, scores of unfounded arrests, and an escalation of tensions throughout the city. In the July 18 incident that put the match to the tinder, 19-year-old Elsie Stephnick was walking to her home on 9th St. SW from her job at the Bureau of Engraving just a few blocks away when two African-American men allegedly collided with her and tried to steal her umbrella. The Evening Star reported her description of the “colored assailants” as “a short dark man” and a “taller man with a ‘bumpy’ face.” Stephnick claimed she staved them off until a carload of white men came to her aid. (Other than her word, no evidence or report suggests anything more than an attempted pilfering, if it even occurred in the first place.) Stephnick was married to a Naval Aviation Corps employee, and the story made the rounds among white soldiers and sailors in Washington on weekend holiday.
The D.C. police quickly arrested Charles Ralls, a black man, for the alleged attack, but the tale quickly grew taller with each telling, a game of racist telephone that turned what was at worst a minor skirmish into marauding gangs of African-American rapists who’d been terrorizing the city for months. Four daily newspapers, in a heated fight for readers, fueled the fire with headlines like the Washington Post’s “Negroes Attack Girl. White Men Vainly Pursue” and the Washington Times’ “Negro Thugs.” The stories would get picked up on the newswires and made their way into papers across the nation.
Police questioned Ralls, upon which Stephnick’s husband, John, became convinced he was one of the men who had attacked his wife. A group of servicemen met up on Saturday night to get revenge, and as historian David F. Krugler describes the scene in 1919: The Year of Racial Violence, it didn’t take much time for an angry assemblage to form: “The result was a mob in uniform.”
More than 100 servicemen, after hours of heavy drinking, gathered outside the illicit taverns, brothels and pool halls of the seedy neighborhood known as “Murder Bay,” today home to the federal buildings hugging Pennsylvania Ave NW. (Though not instituted nationwide yet, the District had already fallen under the lightly enforced spell of Prohibition.) “Brandishing pipes, clubs, sticks, and pistols,” the mob of veterans marched south across the Mall to a poor, black neighborhood then known as Bloodfield. George Montgomery, a 55-year-old man out buying produce, was the first to take a beating. The men soon spotted Ralls and his wife and began assaulting them until they broke free and ran home.
For four days, Washington, D.C. became a battlefield with no real defense against the rampaging around the White House, the War Department, and the Capitol, and in predominantly black neighborhoods like LeDroit Park around Howard University, the U Street district, the Seventh St. commercial corridor, and even on random streets where unfortunate souls found themselves. That night, a black man named Lawrence Johnson was thrashed about the head by Marines wielding handkerchiefs filled with rocks, until that got tiring and a pipe was used to bash him bloody on the sidewalk, just outside the White House.
“There have been race riots throughout the breadth of American history, in every decade since the founding of the country, and the worst of it was in 1919,” says Cameron McWhirter, a Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America. “Every single one was instigated by white mobs and Washington was the pinnacle if for no other reason than the symbolism. When the sailors and soldiers gathered to raise hell over race, it was at the Peace Monument in front of the Capitol, which was erected to say we’re one nation following the Civil War.”
The term “Red Summer,” coined by the NAACP’s first black executive field secretary James Weldon Johnson (who also wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” now commonly known as “The Black National Anthem), referred to the bloodshed being spilled in race riots across the country. From April to November, hundreds of Americans, mostly black, would die, and thousands more were injured. Lynchings and indiscriminate killings sparked 25 conflicts in small towns like Millen, Georgia, and in major cities such as Charleston, Chicago and Cleveland. Elaine, Arkansas, saw the most horrifying of all when 237 black sharecroppers were murdered over two days for trying to form a union. It was a year that would see 78 lynchings and 11 black men burned alive at the stake.
Cultural, economic and military factors combined in 1919 to create conditions ripe for strife. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation—screened at the White House and enthusiastically received by President Wilson—glorified the Ku Klux Klan’s white-hooded terrorists as heroes, portraying the organization as saviors of southern white women during Reconstruction. The movie was a blockbuster and helped bring about a rebirth of the Klan, which grew from a few thousand members pre-release to estimates of 4-8 million by the mid 1920s. On July 6, 1919, local newspapers reported the Klan rode into Montgomery County—just outside Washington, D.C.—for the first time in 50 years.
Meanwhile, the Great Migration saw tens of thousands of blacks move from the cotton fields of the South to the factories of the North. Soldiers returning from World War I sought jobs, too. Organized labor grew, as did labor unrest, and the Communist Party of the United States arose as an offshoot of the Socialist Party. As McWhirter writes, "The Red Summer arrived in tandem with the Red Scare.” A fear of radicalism spread, especially toward blacks who no longer acquiesced to the pre-World War I social order.
The Red Summer was a moment when black citizens showed they had had enough, and fought back. Roughly 375,000 African-Americans served in World War I, and upon returning home, felt newly emboldened to fight for their rights. The righteous indignation was captured in a July poem, first published in The Liberator by seminal Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay. “If We Must Die" was the Red Summer anthem, a rousing 14-line verse ending with a literal call to arms:
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
The emerging resistance also saw itself reflected in the NAACP’s adoption of a more activist platform, flexing its strength in support of H.R. 11279, the anti-lynching bill first introduced in Congress by Congressman Leonidas Dyer of Missouri in 1918. The growth of the NAACP in 1919 was astounding, more than doubling its membership from 44,000 to 91,000.
In 1919, some 110,000 African-Americans (roughly a quarter of the city's population) called Washington, D.C. home, more than any other American city. McWhirter describes it as “black America’s leading cultural and financial center,” with more well-off African-Americans than anywhere else and numerous steady decent-paying middle-class jobs working for politicians, bureaucrats, and the federal government, especially during the war effort. Black prosperity, though, was an affront to many white veterans who felt they had come back to a different country than the one they’d left, even though a number of black soldiers in the 372nd Infantry, comprised of National Guard units from Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Tennessee and the District of Columbia, had been awarded the Croix de Guerre, France's highest military honor.
“There were two major problems for soldiers returning after World War I,” says John M. Cooper Jr., professor emeritus in the history department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. “You have all these Doughboys coming back flooding the labor market, so there’s unemployment. You also have the lifting of the wartime price controls, so there’s rampant inflation, which was called ‘High Cost of Living.’ In early August, Wilson gave his last speech before his stroke about the HCL and basically said everyone should be restrained in their spending because sorry, the government can do very little about it.’”
The same could have been said, at least initially, for the spread of violence in D.C. that summer as the white mob’s collective anger came down on whatever unfortunate black person came across their path. White servicemen yanked blacks off of streetcars, pummeling them on the sidewalks until police showed up, when they would disperse and re-form, an amorphous mob that expanded on the night of Sunday, July 20, when a hundred more men stomped from the Navy Yard to terrorize local black residents. Gangs of rioters piled into “terror cars,” the street name for Model-Ts used in indiscriminate drive-by shootings. Carter Goodwin Woodson, a noted black historian who was dean of Howard University at the time, later recalled the horrors he witnessed after hiding in the shadows for his safety: The mob “caught a Negro and deliberately helped him up as one would a beef for slaughter,” he wrote, “and when they had conveniently adjusted him for lynching they shot him.”
Over the course of the weekend, newspapers continued to stoke the fires, reporting that 500 revolvers had been sold at pawn shops as battle lines were being drawn. A notorious Washington Post front page story on Monday was headlined “Mobilization for Tonight” and urged every able-bodied serviceman to join a “‘clean-up’ that will cause the events of the last two evenings to pale into insignificance,” a barely coded call to inflict more pain upon the black community.
The white throngs continued to unleash violence through mid-morning on Monday, when a group of black men drove a terror car of their own past the Navy Hospital and fired on patients milling about outside. To combat the “reign of hysteria and terror,” the city's black newspaper, the Washington Bee, urged blacks to arm themselves, and a blistering market of firearms and ammunition purchased in Baltimore were smuggled into Washington. Rumors hit the streets that Howard University ROTC officers were handing out guns and ammo. Barricades were set up around Howard and the U Street area with rooftops patrolled by black men with rifles, including veterans of World War I.
Meanwhile, some 400 white men heeded the Washington Post’s call at 9 p.m. and united at the Knights of Columbus recreation center on Pennsylvania Avenue at 7th St. NW. Victims of the violence filled the segregated hospitals and morgues, as dozens were injured and at least four were killed. According to the Washington Post, the first person killed was Randall Neale, a 22-year-old black man fatally shot in the chest by Marines said to be passing in a car. The Washington Bee reported Neale was just back from the war, describing his death as "one of the more cowardly murders that was ever perpetrated upon a young man who had been to France to fight for world democracy.” Sgt. Randall Neale would be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Neval Thomas, a history teacher at Washington's Dunbar High School and an activist who would be appointed to the NAACP board of directors in 1919 wrote that no longer would white people wreak havoc with impunity, that blacks would "die for their race, and defy the white mob.”
One incident in particular stands out amidst the news reports. Near Union Station, a 17-year-old black girl named Carrie Johnson was hiding under her bed on the second floor as 1,000 rioters stormed the area. Responding to reports of someone firing from the building’s roof, police broke down her bedroom door. Johnson shot and killed 29-year-old Metropolitan Police Detective Harry Wilson and claimed self-defense. She became a folk hero in the black press. A poem published in the Afro-American in August 1919 baldly stated: “You read about Carrie Johnson, who was only seventeen, She killed a detective wasn’t she brave and keen.” Johnson was charged with first-degree murder. In 1921, she was convicted of manslaughter, but a separate judge overturned the verdict after accepting that she feared for her life and acted in self-defense. Within two years, Johnson was a free woman.
The worst hours of the racial war petered out early Tuesday morning as the rioters exhausted themselves.
The claims of a violent attack on Elsie Stephnick were sketchy at best, but given the hostility felt by many white residents of the city and the fact that the “white woman ravaged by black men” story spread so quickly, there is probably little chance the early rioting could have been prevented. However, nobody attempted to prevent escalation.
Long before Congress granted D.C. home rule in 1973, the city was run by three presidentially appointed district commissioners. Former Tennessee newspaperman Louis “Brownie” Brownlow, given the job in 1915 based on his friendship with Woodrow Wilson, dithered while Washington exploded, sticking to his misguided plan to have the city’s 700-person police force, home auxiliary guards, and loaned troops keep things calm. It was a suspect decision given that D.C. falls under federal jurisdiction and Brownlow could have easily called up disciplined World War I troops from any of the nearby military installations. Later, Brownlow laid the blame at the foot of outside communist agitators. He was still fuming about it when his autobiography, A Passion for Politics, was published in 1955.
Only on Tuesday, July 22, did President Wilson give authorization to mobilize 2,000 soldiers. Crowds were dispersed from street corners, theaters and bars were closed, auto traffic was restricted, and tanks equipped with machine guns were brought in from Fort Meade, 25 miles away in Maryland. Limited violence arose that night, but what really brought calm to the capital was a relentless hot summer night rainstorm.
Still, the damage was done, and not just to the nation’s capitol. The black press in America called out Wilson’s unwillingness to intercede and bring peace, while newspapers in Germany and Japan criticized him for promoting the League of Nations while black citizens were enduring a summer of hell across the country—and in his own backyard. The Atlanta Independent declared, “Our president seems to be in utter ignorance of the conditions obtaining at his door.”
A full accounting of the Washington D.C. riot wasn’t on anyone’s mind, at least not anyone in power. No official death toll was ever given; at the time the “official" number was seven, while it’s now believed around 40 were slain. Similar accountings, of injury and property damage, were also never made by the government.
By the time the rain let up and the last soldier left Washington D.C. on Sunday, July 27, the violence and tragedy of Red Summer had moved west. On the very same day, Chicago erupted in its own, even bloodier, 1919 race war that began when an African-American teenager was hit in the head by a rock thrown by a white man and drown in Lake Michigan for the crime of swimming where he wasn’t supposed to be.
The violence in D.C., though, marked a flashpoint in American racial dynamics. The 20th-century fight against the white power structure was at hand even if the riot itself was swept under the rug. Following the Washington race war, a ”Southern black woman," as she identified herself, wrote a letter to the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, praising blacks for fighting back:
The Washington riot gave me a thrill that comes once in a l lifetime ...at last our men had stood up like men...I stood up alone in my room...and exclaimed aloud, 'Oh I thank God, thank God.' The pent up horror, grief and humiliation of a life time -- half a century -- was being stripped from me.