#015: Summers of Our Discontent

Before Greenwood burned, large-scale racial terror attacks had already become an American pastime

The man was a bridge between past and future horrors. He came to Tulsa to speak at First Baptist Church on May 30, 1920, welcomed by an above-the-fold front page story in the Tulsa Star praising his honor and bravery. A large and enthusiastic audience crowded into the sanctuary just east of Greenwood Avenue, curious to learn about this black man’s troubles. No one could have known those same troubles would soon be their own. LeRoy Bundy was the survivor of a race riot. 

On July 2, 1917, a white mob paraded through the streets of downtown East St. Louis, Illinois, looking for black people to kill. They dragged black residents from street cars, beat some with clubs, and shot others at point blank range. Eventually they fanned farther north, torching buildings in a black neighborhood. Murder became bloodsport--a local journalist recalled hearing cries of “Get a nigger!” followed by “Get another!” By the next morning, at least 48 people had been killed and more than 240 buildings destroyed. It was mostly black people who died. It was only black people who were forced to flee the city forever in fear they might be targeted next. 

The violence was sparked by the killing of two plainclothes police detectives by a group of armed blacks on the night of July 1. That incident may have been the result of a series of provocations by drunk white people who had attacked a black woman in the street and fired upon a black home in a drive-by shooting earlier in the evening, according to witnesses. LeRoy Bundy was convicted of orchestrating the attack on the officers by an all-white jury, but the case was later overturned on an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. After being released from jail, he toured the nation speaking about what he’d witnessed. 

Between the day Bundy was arrested and the day he came to Tulsa, though, spectacles of racial violence became a dark summer ritual in America. In 1919, riots in more than 30 U.S. cities, from Washington D.C. to Brisbee, Arizona, seized the country. Hundreds of people were killed, and thousands of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Most of the slain were black, but some were white. It was the disruption of white tranquility that turned these cascading clashes, now collectively known as the “Red Summer,” into a national crisis. 

A black victim is stoned and bludgeoned under a corner of a house during the race riots in Chicago during the summer of 1919. Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Black people had been navigating white violence for centuries by 1919. Race riots* had happened before--in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, Atlanta, Georgia in 1906 and Springfield, Illinois in 1908. But World War I marked a sea change in how black men viewed their own citizenship, as thousands of them were shipped overseas to fight for their country and experience life outside the bondage of Jim Crow. At the same time, as tales of black heroism were trumpeted back home, calls for armed resistance against white incursions became common among black writers and activists. By 1919 the typical black laborer, now a military veteran, felt compelled to defend himself and his brethren; the elite black intellectual felt compelled to encourage such actions. “We are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, long, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land,” W.E.B. Du Bois said in May of that year.

White people took any display of force by blacks as provocation, and as rationalization for unchecked retaliatory violence, no matter how extreme. There were broader contextual reasons that racial conflicts escalated in this period--the Great Migration was causing northern cities to swell with black workers competing with white laborers for jobs--but the riots were primarily driven by the unyielding belief that blacks must be subjugated to white rule. "This is a white man's country, with a white man's civilization,” Mississippi governor Theodore Bilbo said. “Any dream on the part of the Negro race to share social and political equality will be shattered in the end.”

Of course the overt, rampaging racists could not execute a reign of terror alone. White moderates accepted the violence even if they didn’t explicitly participate in it, often literally watching from the sidelines as blacks were attacked (or in Tulsa’s case, marched through downtown streets to internment camps). The white press blamed blacks and outside agitators for the violence, offering the white establishment soothing assurances that their society was functioning just fine. "All quiet again," an Atlanta Constitution journalist wrote after an April 1919 riot in rural Georgia. "The innocent have nothing to fear." The government blamed far-left socialists or Russian Bolshevists for planting radical ideas in black people’s minds. Efforts to address the actual issue at hand--black people being murdered with no intervention or pursuit of justice by the state--gained little traction at the federal level, with the president of the United States uninterested in addressing the matter directly. He only made vague calls for law and order.

Am I still writing about 1919? 

The causes and racial dynamics of the Red Summer are not concepts historians had to piece together after the fact. They were clear in the moment, just as the roots of America’s current summer of civil unrest are self-evident. Black writers such as Du Bois and NAACP executive secretary Walter White were able to diagnose America’s sickness in 1919 almost immediately. So were less-heralded local journalists like Tulsa Star editor A.J. Smitherman. In his article announcing LeRoy Bundy’s trip to town, Smitherman wrote: 

“The singularly blood-thirsty, relentless and merciless persecution of the Colored citizens of East St. Louis by a frenzied and implacable white mob illustrates a phase of the mob-ruling tendencies of Americans, who countenance and participate in such horrors, and yet are smug enough to find fault with the Germans and Turks for their respective mistreatment of the Belgians and Armenians.”

The Red Summer would have seemed like a defining event in U.S. history as it unfolded, dominating newspaper headlines and prompting a Congressional hearing in 1920. But it ultimately faded from public memory, with its only immediate legacy being a brief spasm of conscience that compelled U.S. courts to grant justice to a few wrongly accused men such as Bundy. Discussion of the Red Summer has come roaring back in recent years, and particularly in the months since the killing of George Floyd. Many people are recognizing not only the widely broadcast atrocities against black people happening before their eyes, but how those events connect to the ones buried deep in the past. 

I have a 14-year-old cousin named Stanley Stoutamire, Jr., who is working as a researcher on my book (and doing an excellent job). In his readings about the Red Summer, Stanley highlighted a passage by Richard R. Wright, a black sociologist and college president at Wilberforce University. Wright called 1919 “the dark hours before morning which have always come just before the burst of a new civil light.”

Stanley saw a parallel to the America that has changed before his eyes since George Floyd’s death, and he saw more reason to remain focused on positive change in the current moment. “This passage demonstrates the hope during the Red Summer, as well as the hope we are seeing now,” Stanley wrote.  “We are seeing true progress because of the horrors of this summer. Because there was nothing else to do but watch a lynching, the nation was galvanized into action.”

Stanley Stoutamire, Jr. contributed to this report.

*I use the term “race riots” collectively here to retain the language that would have been used to describe these events in Tulsa circa 1920. Today many of these incidents, like the attack on Greenwood in 1921, are more commonly labeled “massacres.”

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“Dr. Bundy to Speak Here!” Tulsa Star. May 29 1920.

“Dr. Bundy Pleased With Oklahoma.” Tulsa Star. June 5 1920.

“For Action on Race Riot Peril.” New York Times. Oct. 5, 1919.

Hurd, Carlos. “Post-Dispatch reporter Carlos Hurd’s eye-witness account.” St. Louis Post-Disptach. Jan. 1, 2016.

McWhirter, Cameron. Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America. 2012.

Rehagen, Tony. “Forgotten lessons from the 1917 East St. Louis riots.” St. Louis Magazine. June 15 1917.

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