Some of America’s most notorious racist riots happened 100 years ago this summer. Confronting a national epidemic of white mob violence, 1919 was a time when black people in the United States defended themselves, fought back, and demanded full citizenship through thousands of acts of courage, small and large, individual and collective.
But pull a standard U.S. history textbook off the shelf and you’re unlikely to find more than a paragraph on the 1919 riots. What you do find downplays both racism and black resistance while distorting facts in a dangerous “both sides” framing. These textbooks render students stupid about white supremacy and bereft of examples from those who defied it.
At this moment of revived racist backlash, all of us need to learn the lessons of 1919.
Throughout 1919 the exercise of black agency — black veterans wearing their military uniforms in public, black children swimming in the white section of Lake Michigan, black sharecroppers in Arkansas organizing for better wages and working conditions — was met with white mob terror. A wave of anti-black collective violence usually and problematically termed “race riots” occurred in Charleston, South Carolina; Longview, Texas; Bisbee, Arizona; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Knoxville, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska; and Elaine, Arkansas. In addition, white supremacists lynched nearly 100 black people and initiated dozens of smaller racist clashes throughout the country in 1919. In Pittsburgh, the Klan made clear the goal of this bloody work in the printed notices posted around a black neighborhood: “The war is over, negroes. Stay in your place. If you don’t, we’ll put you there.”