(The Red Summer of 1919; Destruction of Tulsa’s ‘Black Wall Street in 1921; and Decimation of Rosewood, Florida in 1923)
Author’s note: This essay was written and published almost five years ago. I have edited and re-printed it in commemoration of the 100 year anniversary of the Red Summer of 1919. It is submitted as both a remembrance and an object lesson. This is just a tiny taste of the true and unadulterated “history” that none of us were/are taught about the real United States of America. It is a history that is deliberately kept hidden, and even when it somehow manages to surface, it is virtually always distorted or “revised” to support and serve the reigning status quo — white supremacy.
Perhaps old Karl Marx put it best:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.
The Rosewood Massacre
The Rosewood, Florida massacre was a violent, racially motivated conflict that occurred during the first week of January 1923 in rural Levy County. An unknown number of blacks and two whites were killed. The town of Rosewood was burned to the ground in what contemporary news reports characterized as a white race riot.
White racial — racist — riots, lynchings, and assorted “disturbances” were common during the early 20th century in this nation-state. But, Florida held the dubious distinction as the nation’s leader in the number of lynchings of black people in the year just before the massacre, including the Perry race riot when a black man had been burned at the stake in December 1922.
Rosewood was a quiet, primarily black, self-sufficient, indeed prosperous, whistle stop on the Seaboard Air Line Railway.
Enraged by false accusations that a white woman in nearby Sumner had been raped by a black drifter, white men from neighboring towns lynched a Rosewood resident.
Blacks in Rosewood organized to defend themselves against further attack. But several hundred white men methodically combed the woods, swamps and countryside hunting for black people. During the “hunt,” they torched every single structure in black Rosewood.
For several days — over a week — black escapees cowered in the nearby alligator-, snake- and mosquito-infested swamps, and finally managed to escape by hopping aboard passing trains or being picked up by the occasional horseless carriage.
Both state and local authorities were fully aware of the violence that their white neighbors and friends were committing against the black people of Rosewood; but they made no attempts to stop it or arrest anyone.
Rosewood was abandoned by its black residents. None ever returned.
Survivors, their descendants, and the perpetrators remained silent about Rosewood for decades. Sixty years after the riot, the Rosewood massacre was revisited in major media in the early 1980s.
Eventually, the few remaining aged survivors and their descendants sued the state of Florida for failure to protect them. In 1993, after the Florida Legislature finally took notice of the race riot of 1923, Florida provided nominal compensation (reparations) to those still- living survivors and their descendants.
Anatomy of a White Race Riot
New York City
White-against-black race riots began in earnest in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War…in New York City.
Irish immigrants were upset that they were being drafted into the war to fight against slavery, and that “their” city was being “inundated” by newly escaped slaves who were taking “their” jobs. But they didn’t simply refuse to be drafted. They took their frustrations out on impoverished, helpless black people, whether they were new to the city or had deep roots in the soil and soul of New York. To wit: Roving bands of whitesbegan by hanging blacks from lamp posts for the crime of walking down the street.
Black communities and enclaves in New York City were set alight, including a black orphanage.
Chicago, July, 1919
But it was the Red Summer of 1919 that most closely followed the pattern set by New York. On Chicago’s South Side, the Irish (again) and blacks were competing for jobs at the stockyards (an expansive slaughter house and meat packing factory). Both groups had themselves been packed into teeming, filthy, substandard housing. By 1919, the Irish had been in the city longer, and thus felt “entitled” to their unskilled jobs as laborers throughout the city but particularly in the stock yard. Politically, they were organized around athletic clubs.
(Like most of America at the time, Chicago was thoroughly segregated. I have elderly female relatives who still talk of the years when they were not allowed to try on clothes in Chicago’s big downtown department stores. )
On a hot, sweltering day in July of 1919, a young black Chicagoan, Eugene Williams, inadvertently floated across an invisible racial borderline in Lake Michigan and into “white territory.” Yes, the waters of the Lake were segregated, too.
Williams drowned after being hit by a rock thrown by a young white man. Witnesses pointed out the killer to a nearby white policeman, but he refused to make an arrest. An indignant group of blacks attacked the officer. A brawl ensued. Almost immediately, white violence erupted across the city.
Mobs of white men and white women began pulling black people off trolley cars, carriages, and accosting pedestrians — male, female, old, young, anybody with black skin.
But they especially targeted black businesses. They beat and killed any black people, again including children, unlucky enough to be on the street, with baseball bats and iron bars.
But the black people of Chicago fought back. Still, a total of 23 blacks and 15 whites were killed.
Black Wall Street
Three years later, in 1921, the Tulsa, Oklahoma Race Riot occurred when blacks had the temerity to resist the attempted lynching of 19-year-old shoeshiner Dick Rowland. Roland had been (falsely) accused of sexually assaulting a white woman within the enclosed walls and close quarters s of a new-fangled invention — an elevator.
Thirty-nine people (26 blacks, 13 whites) were confirmed killed. Recent investigations suggest that the actual number of casualties is probably much higher. White mobs set fire to the black Greenwood district (“Black Wall Street”), destroying 1,256 homes and as many as 200 businesses. Arson fires leveled a full 35 blocks of both residential and commercial neighborhoods. And as many as 300 black people were killed outright.
The Oklahoma National Guard rounded up every single black person it could find in Tulsa and forced them into several internment (concentration) camps, including a baseball stadium. Some white rioters actually resorted to the still new technological marvel of aeroplanes to chase and shoot escaping black refugees. These planes dropped homemade kerosene and dynamite bombs on the fleeing black populace of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
So…let’s get real. It was not until the “race riot” in Detroit during the middle of World War II (1943), that the word “riot” began to be associated with black people. Indeed, there is documented evidence that white people have been rioting against one dark people or another going all the way back to the pre-Revolutionary War period. The concentration and focus by white people today, however, whenever the word (or the act) comes up is on black “rioters and looters” in Ferguson, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago, New York.
Indeed, the “Long, Hot Summers’ of the 1960’s were last-resort expressions of frustrations and must needs be understood in this historical context.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained black frustration this way almost exactly one year before his brutal assassination:
Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community.
They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting which is their principal feature serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse. Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking. But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights. There are thus elements of emotional catharsis in the violent act. This may explain why most cities in which riots have occurred have not had a repetition, even though the causative conditions remain. It is also noteworthy that the amount of physical harm done to white people other than police is infinitesimal and in Detroit whites and Negroes looted in unity.
Originally published at https://dissidentvoice.org on December 4, 2014.