The Red Summer: Hopes Dashed and Determination Reborn

The year 1919 was supposed to be a year of triumphant peace and universal fellowship. In the United States, many people — including tens of thousands of black families with returning soldiers — fervently hoped for a new epoch of peace, prosperity and equality. Black soldiers and workers believed their participation in the effort to make the world safe for democracy had earned them the equal rights they had been promised in the Constitution ever since the close of the Civil War.

Instead, an unprecedented wave of anti-black riots and lynchings swept the country for seven months. From April to November 1919, racial unrest rolled across the South into the North and the Midwest and even to the nation’s capital. James Weldon Johnson, then the NAACP’s field secretary, called it the “Red Summer” because it was so bloody.

Major cities – Chicago, Washington, Omaha, Charleston, Knoxville and others – erupted. The violence enveloped communities from Texas to Nebraska, from Connecticut to California. In total, millions of Americans had their lives disrupted. Hundreds of people — most of them black — were killed. Thousands were injured and thousands more were forced to flee their homes. Businesses lost millions of dollars to destruction and looting.

Everywhere, white mobs initiated the violence. But something extraordinary happened during the bloody season as well: blacks fought back with an intensity and determination never seen before.  American race relations would never be the same.

The Red Summer is the first narrative history ever written about the entire bloody episode. 

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