Portal Spotlight: Civil Unrest and the Red Summer

Today’s post was written by Bob Nowatzki, Archives Technician in Research Services at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

The early 20th century witnessed the migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West. One of the main causes for this mass migration was the continuing racial violence, including lynching and racial massacres that targeted Southern black people, as well as the return of the Ku Klux Klan (a white supremacist terrorist organization that first appeared shortly after the Civil War) around 1920. This period was part of what Rayford W. Logan termed the “nadir” of African American history that began with the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877. During this period, the political and legal gains won by African Americans during Reconstruction were dismantled, particularly by denying African Americans their voting rights and legalizing racial segregation, most notably in the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson (NAID 1685178), which made racial segregation legal until the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (NAID 596300) and the desegregation of the U.S. military after World War II (NAID 300009). In addition to those suffering these political and legal injustices, thousands of African Americans were hanged, burned to death, shot to death, tortured, mutilated, and castrated by white mobs who almost never were prosecuted for their crimes. One of the leaders in the fight against lynching was Ida B. Wells-Barnett, editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and author of two anti-lynching texts, Southern Horrors and The Red Record.

map of US showing number of people lynched by state, and votes against the anti-lynching bill
The Red Record of Lynching Map, 1889-1921 (NAID 149268727) RG 233

In 1909, Wells and other civil rights activists, including W. E. B. DuBois and Mary Church Terrell, formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which fought lynching, segregation, and other forms of racial injustice. The “Red Summer” of 1919 and the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 are two topics that will be featured in an upcoming portal about Migrations for the online Black History Guide.

Portrait of Mary Church Terrell, NAID 559207      Portrait of W. E. B. DuBois, NAID 559200

Red Summer was a pattern of white-on-black violence that occurred in 1919 throughout the United States. The post-World War I period was marked by a spike in racial violence, much of it directed toward African American veterans returning from Europe, where they were often treated much better there than by white Americans, despite their brave service to the country. The bloodiest incident occurred in Elaine, Arkansas, where it is estimated that over 100 African Americans were killed. The racial violence of the Red Summer erupted in many other Southern locations as well as in the North, most notably in Chicago. The presence of racial hostility in the North was partly a reaction of Northern whites to the large influx of African Americans into Northern cities during the Great Migration, though this hostility did not prevent large numbers of African Americans from heading North.

The Tulsa Massacre of 1921 was driven largely by white hostility toward African American economic prosperity. The violence centered on Tulsa’s Greenwood District (also known as Black Wall Street), which contained numerous successful black-owned businesses. The estimated number of African American deaths from the massacre varies from twenty-six to at least 150. The attack on Black Wall Street included the first aerial bombing of a U.S. city. The American National Red Cross provided relief to many victims of this massacre.

image of a road intersection with burned out/destroyed buildings on both sides
from the Photo Album of the Tulsa Massacre and Aftermath (NAID 157688056) Collection ANRC

Most of the records included in the guide were created by Federal agencies, therefore, the topics included had some sort of interaction with the United States Government.  Most of the records featured here can be found in the following record groups: RG 60 (General Records of the Department of Justice), RG 79 (National Parks Service), ANRC (American National Red Cross), and RG 220 (Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards). This forthcoming subject guide includes textual and electronic records, photographs, moving images, audio recordings, and artifacts. Records can be found at the National Archives at College Park, as well as various presidential libraries and regional archives throughout the country.

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