I grew up in a city where rage, lies, and fears led to the savage killing of a disabled African American man who was accused of accosting a “Karen.” It was 1919. I never knew the story growing up in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.
A century before the death of George Floyd in 2020, all hell broke out across the United States. Poet Claude McKay put it this way in 1919:
If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
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!
Highly esteemed poet McKay’s poem called for African Americans to fight back against the tides against them by whites. It was the first time slavery-free African Americans fought back against oppressors, according to historians. James Weldon Johnson, a civil rights activist, author, and field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, coined it “Red Summer.” W.E.B. Dubois said in 1919, African Americans returned from fighting for the freedoms of their country to return fighting.
“During the Red Summer of 1919, white mobs repeatedly targeted Black World War I veterans and servicemen.
On July 3, 1919, active members of the Army’s segregated 10th Cavalry Regiment (“Buffalo Soldiers”) were in Bisbee, Arizona, to participate in the town’s Independence Day parade. In the early 20th century, Bisbee was a mining town with a history of racial stratification and unrest. The white residents actively discriminated against Arizona’s Mexican, Chinese, and African American laboring communities. It was a “sundown town” for Chinese Americans, and Black laborers had limited employment options.
With tensions high and discrimination rampant, it is not surprising that a fight broke out between a white policeman and a handful of Black soldiers in Brewery Gulch. According to a New York Times report about the violence in Bisbee, local white law enforcement “planned deliberately to aggravate the Negro troops so that they would furnish an excuse for police and deputy sheriffs to shoot them down.”
Add to the anxious times in the United States due to a slumping economy and fears of many white residents in the South who saw the emptying of their workforce during the Great Migration. Meanwhile, scarier and violent white residents met the new African American immigrants in the North with fears of taking jobs and integrating neighborhoods.”
Yet, I never knew about such heinous crimes in 1919 in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Neither did my parents while they were growing up in the city nearby the Missouri River. My Dad, a college history major, learned of the horrors many years later. Perhaps my grandparents were aware since the paternal and maternal ancestors were making their way from the racially charged South to the Great Plains of Nebraska when the “Red Summer” was in full effect.
I never knew that the streets that I walked on in downtown Omaha, Nebraska – my hometown – in front of the Douglas County Courthouse were the scene of unspeakable deadly anger in 1919. I learned of the Red Summer during my college years. Somehow, the Red Summer facts unfolding to me as a college coed did not include Chicago or Omaha. It was 20 years later when I learned the horrific truth about the unlawful burning of a man’s body in front of an enraged white male mob. The crime committed by the 41-year-old rheumatism man who could not harm a fly: Allegedly assaulting a white woman.
Background on this Omaha story is that two years earlier, the meatpacking plant in Omaha brought African Americans as strikebreakers. The white men who worked at the plant remained angered by the strike-busting tactic by the owners of the meatpacking plant.
This series of racially disgusting tirades began in the spring in Georgia and continued through the summer and into October, ending with the most violent acts in Elaine and Helena, Arkansas. That area in the Arkansas Delta was where my ancestors lived. My grandfather, Samuel Luster Weed (later Wead), was 15 years old during the Red Summer, and he witnessed the infliction of horrors upon his family and neighbors. Somehow, his mother, Corrie Lee Weed, could get her children – especially her five sons – out of southeast Arkansas. Her husband, my great-grandfather, apparently was not as fortunate. Lost in the rubble of the riots, he remains one of the “brick wall” ancestors.
In all, more than 30 U.S. cities housed the race riots born from small, questionable activities to human rights freedoms. Cities included Charleston, South Carolina; Longview, Texas; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bisbee, Arizona; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Knoxville, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska; and Elaine, Arkansas. More than 100 African Americans were lynched and killed in other ways. Two years later, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was one of the worst attempts to eradicate African Americans simply because they were considered prosperous.
Stringing together the stories and tragedies of the summer of 1919 has prompted thousands of media stories, numerous books, and articles in search of documenting and analyzing the war zones across the country.
The Good Guys
Hate is often colored by skin tone. Blacks can hate whites as much as whites hate their counterpart. Yet, there are always glimpses of a heartfelt and hearty word and works by people who fought against lynching, hate, and widespread discrimination against African Americans before 1919 and during Red Summer. Yet, some civility existed, as the photo below illustrates:
A century before, on June 3, 1813, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on the Judiciary entered into its official record, “Petition from the citizens of New Jersey praying for Congress to make the act of lynching a crime against the United States.”
This document was signed by several men of New Jersey. Source: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/306656
Your assignment: Sort through history books, statues, and historic sites in your hometown or nearby locations. Find out how and why racial riots occurred, and write about your findings.