Washington, D.C. Race Riots (1919)
Postwar Washington, D.C., roughly 75 percent white, was a racial tinderbox. Housing was in short supply and jobs so scarce that ex-doughboys in uniform panhandled along Pennsylvania Avenue.
However, Washington’s Black community was then the largest and most prosperous in the country, with a small but impressive upper class of teachers, ministers, lawyers and businessmen concentrated in the LeDroit Park neighborhood near Howard University.
By the time the “Red Summer” was underway, unemployed whites bitterly envied the relatively few blacks who were fortunate enough to procure low-level government jobs. Many whites also resented the influx of African-Americans into previously segregated neighborhoods around Capitol Hill, Foggy Bottom and the old downtown.
In July 1919, white men, many in military uniforms, responded to the rumored arrest of a Black man for rape with four days of mob violence. They rioted, randomly beat Black people on the street and pulled others off streetcars in attacks. When police refused to intervene, the Black population fought back.
Troops tried to restore order as the city closed saloons and theaters to discourage assemblies. When the violence ended, 15 people had died: 10 whites, including two police officers; and five African-Americans. Fifty people were seriously wounded and another 100 less severely wounded. It was one of the few times when white fatalities outnumbered those of Blacks.
Knoxville, Tennessee Race Riots (1919)
In August 1919, a race riot in Knoxville, Tenn., broke out after a white mob mobilized in response to a Black man accused of murdering a white woman. The 5,000-strong mob stormed the county jail searching for the prisoner. They freed 16 white prisoners, including suspected murderers.
After looting the jail and sheriff’s house, the mob moved on and attacked the African-American business district. Many of the city’s Black residents, aware of the race riots that had occurred across the country that summer, had armed themselves and barricaded the intersection of Vine and Central to defend their businesses.
Two platoons of the Tennessee National Guard’s 4th Infantry led by Adjutant General Edward Sweeney arrived, but they were unable to halt the chaos. The mob broke into stores and stole firearms and other weapons on their way to the Black business district. Upon their arrival the streets erupted in gunfire as Black snipers exchanged fire with both the rioters and the soldiers. The Tennessee National Guard at one point fired two machine guns indiscriminately into the neighborhood, eventually dispersing the rioters.
Shooting continued sporadically for several hours. Outgunned, the Black defenders gradually fled, allowing the guardsmen to gain control of the area. Newspapers placed the death toll at just two, though eyewitness accounts suggest the dead were so many that the bodies were dumped into the Tennessee River, while others were buried in mass graves outside the city.