I have long been familiar with the role that World War I played in the struggle for India’s independence from Great Britain. Indian regiments sailed overseas and fought alongside their Canadian and Australian counterparts. (If you visit the memorial gateway at Ypres, you will see how many of them died in defense of the empire.) Indian nationalists loyally supported the British government during the war, fully expecting that British victory would end with Indian self rule on the dominion model. Instead of self-rule, India got repressive legislation that resulted in the Amritsar Massacre.
Earlier this year, I was stunned to learn that a similar toxic combination of high hopes and racist backlash resulted in violence across the United States. Here’s the short version:
When the United States enter the war in 1917, African-American civil rights leaders responded to Woodrow Wilson’s call for national unity against the German threat. W.E. B. Dubois summed up their position when he urged African-Americans “while the war lasts forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own while fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.
Almost 400,000 African American men who served in the war suffered from the same —— that they experienced at home. The four regiments of the all-black 93rd division who served in France, each assigned to a different French division, had the new experience of being treated as equals. The regiments served heroically at the front alongside the French, and were highly decorated for their gallantry in action.
When they came home in February 1919, members of the 369th Infantry, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, were greeted with a victory parade down Fifth Avenue in New York. But the heroic welcome was short-lived. Black soldiers came home to an atmosphere of increased racial tension fueled by competition for jobs and housing, white fears of black upward mobility and black discontent with the state of civil rights. “We return from fighting,” Dubois wrote in May 1919, “We return fighting.”
From April through November, anti-black race riots broke out in cities across America, including Washington D.C. (The count varies from 25 to 50, depending on the source.) The number of lynchings nationwide increased: ten of the victims were African-American veterans, some of whom were lynched while in uniform. Given little support from law enforcement officers at any level, African Americans took up arms to defend themselves against lynchings, bombings, and riots.
The most dramatic violence occurred in Chicago. The city’s lakefront beaches were segregated, by custom if not by law. On July 27, an African-American teenager named Eugene Williams floated his homemade wooden raft across the invisible line into a “white” area on the South Side; he was stoned and drowned. The Chicago police refused to take action against Williams’ attacker, even though witnesses identified the man who had thrown the stones. Young black men took matters into their own hands. Young white men retaliated. For a week,* mobs battled in the streets. The Illinois militia were called in to restore order. The violence left 38 people dead—23 of them black. More than 500 were injured, two-thirds of them black. Hundreds of homes and small businesses burned to the ground on the South Side, most of them black-owned.
Like the Amritsar Massacre, the Red Summer of 1919** marks a historical shift. One worth remembering.
Want to learn more?
Check out this website created by Chicago’s Newberry Library as part of a year-long program surrounding the Chicago riots in the Red Summer of 1919* Personally I’m tempted by the Bughouse Square section on July 27.
*Or maybe thirteen days.
**The name was coined by James Weldon Johnson, the field secretary of the NAACP.