In the summer of 1919, race riots, lynching and other violence swept the U.S. from big cities like Chicago and Washington to small towns like Longview, Tex. and Ellisville, Miss. It was so terrifying and bloody that NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson called it the “Red Summer.”
Herbert Seligmann, a white Jewish New Yorker, worked for the NAACP at that time. Part of his job was investigating outbreaks of violence. It was dangerous work and he saw horrible things. When the chaos subsided, he wrote that the summer had been shameful for the country, but the violence had “accomplished anxious heart-searchings that were long overdue.” He wrote that the chaos showed the United States, in stark terms, “that a national problem, long unsolved, demanded serious attention.”
A part of African American history has been lost. The Carswell Grove Baptist Church, in rural Jenkins County, Ga., burned to the ground this weekend. Investigators have ruled arson was the cause of the weekend blaze.
The church was built in 1919 on the ashes of the previous church, which was destroyed during one of the first white mob attacks that swept the United States during the “Red Summer” of 1919.
I just spoke with Palmer Lewis, a deacon who has been spearheading the dilapidated church’s restoration.
“I really do think it was a hate crime,” he said. “I can’t think of any other reason.”
The wood and brick building, on a remote country road, was boarded up and its doors were locked. But it was not guarded and not insured. Black and white civic groups in the area had been holding fundraisers to get the building repaired. A local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans planned a fish fry this December to help the preservation group apply for federal nonprofit status.
News reports of the fire have been posted here and here.
My book Red Summer begins with a chapter about the Carswell Grove riot that left several people dead. I have blogged about the church on this site, including here and here. I also have written about the spiritual importance of Carswell Grove and places like it for the Harvard Divinity Bulletin here.
Anyone with information about the fire should call the state arson hotline at 1.800.282.5804. A $10,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those involved.
The Ferguson violence, north of St. Louis, brings to mind the 1917 East St. Louis, Ill., race riot, which sent thousands of black people fleeing across the Mississippi to St. Louis for safety.
Click here for more info.
The best book on the 1917 race riot is Never Been A Time, by Harper Barnes.
Thanks to TEDx GeorgiaTech 2014 for having me speak at the conference about remembering racial violence and how some communities are beginning to mark past racial violence with events, markers and more.
Great fundraiser to restore Carswell Grove Baptist Church on Oct. 12 in rural East Georgia. The crowd in the old church, built in 1919 on the wreckage of the previous one destroyed by a white mob, was a fascinating mix: black and white, young and old, even some members of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans who have volunteered to help repair the church. Too bad I can’t post audio files here because the musicians, a quartet and accompanist with an electric guitar, were incredible. The church’s historic foundation sold a bunch of copies of Red Summer and received many donations. They have a long way to go, but they are on their way. The last time I saw the church, several years ago, I honestly thought it would soon be demolished or collapse. Now there is hope. The group also is planning to erect historical markers on the property.
I am looking forward to traveling out to Carswell Grove Baptist Church on Saturday morning to speak at a fundraiser by people working to restore and preserve the historic building, built in 1919 on the ashes of the previous church, which was destroyed that year by a white mob. I describe the violence in the opening chapter of Red Summer. In 1996, the Gothic revival church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but the dwindling black congregation has not been able to maintain the wood and brick building. Now black and white citizens of Jenkins County, one of the poorest counties in Georgia, are banding together to save the property and put up historical markers. The congregation at Carswell Grove was founded in 1867, right after the Civil War, when white church goers kicked newly-freed slaves out of their church just up the road. The area is steeped in history, and was the site of a significant skirmish between Union troops and Confederate defenders as General Sherman made his march to the sea in 1864.
I wrote Red Summer in part because I was worried much of this important American history had been forgotten. Almost all of the key sites of bloody 1919 remain unmarked and unknown.
I started the book at Carswell Grove Baptist Church in Jenkins County, Ga., a black rural congregation founded in 1867. On April 13, 1919, black farmer Joe Ruffin was visiting a festival at the church when his prosperous life was ruined in a bloody moment. It was the first major outbreak of white mob violence in a season that historian John Hope Franklin called “the greatest period of interracial strife the nation has ever witnessed.” Riots and lynchings swept from Charleston to San Francisco to Chicago to Washington to small towns across the South.
I visited Carswell Grove several times in the course of my research and was haunted by the forlorn church, built in 1919 on the ashes of first church, which was destroyed by a white mob. Today, no monument or plaque marks the attack, and the church is in such a sorry state that the dwindled congregation has abandoned it, moving to a cinderblock building nearby. The run-down church symbolized for me how much of this history is slipping away.
So I was thrilled when church members contacted me recently and told me they were raising funds to restore the historic property. They’ve asked me to come and talk on Oct. 12 beginning at 10:30 a.m. All Welcome.
News report on the effort here.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research and the author of numerous important works on African American history and literature, has an excellent article in The Root — “Who Killed Black Wall Street?” — summarizing of the white riot in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921, and it’s relevance to modern racial tensions.
In his essay, Prof. Gates is kind enough to reference Red Summer:
“The truth was the United States during and after World War I was suffering an epidemic, not of influenza, but of race riots. Among the most notorious were the East St. Louis Riot of 1917 and the Red Summer Riots of 1919 in Chicago, which, over four days, claimed the lives of two dozen blacks with hundreds more injured. Scholars, including Cameron McWhirter, author of Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America, have offered many theories about the causes of these race riots: conflicts over jobs, whites’ fury at the number of black families moving into their cities, blacks’ willingness to push back against the excesses of Jim Crow and the visible public presence of black World War I veterans in uniform.”
President Obama discussing the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case at a press briefing today: “When you think about why in the African-American community, at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, it’s important to recognize the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and history that doesn’t go away.”
Emphasis mine. The case continues to have societal resonance, in large part because of the history of past violence against African Americans, such as riots and lynchings during the Red Summer.
I recently visited Knoxville for work and visited the old courthouse, to see if one of the worst race riots of the Red Summer of 1919 was noted on any of the many historic plaques and monuments there.
In late August, a white mob ransacked the building in an attempt to find a black man, Maurice Mayes, who was charged with murdering a white woman. The old courthouse, built in 1885, still houses some court operations, but the bulk of county cases are handled in a newer building nearby. I saw no markers noting the riot, which was one of the worst acts of violence ever to take place in the city and wasn’t suppressed until the national guard intervened (after some units joined the rioters). The closest that I could find to any acknowledgement of the violence was a plaque noting an addition built in 1920 and 1921, likely repairs for damage caused by the rioters. Red Summer has a chapter on the mayhem.