In honor of Black History Month, let’s talk about race riots.
No no, not the kind you’re thinking of. Not Reginald Denny being snatched out of his truck and almost murdered. Not ghetto folk running amok after the assassination of Dr. King. Not the flaming names of “Watts” and “Newark” and “Detroit.”
You see, before black people cornered the market on riots during the 1960s, the very term “race riot” meant white mobs taking up arms, going to the black part of town, setting buildings on fire, and beating or shooting African Americans indiscriminately. This violence was often spurred on – or validated after the fact – by white newspapers.
The NAACP came into existence in response to one such riot, the Springfield Race Riot of 1908. There was also the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, the Beaumont Riot of 1943, and notable white-on-black riots in Mobile, Ala. (1943), New Orleans (1868), even Philadelphia (1834).
Some are now remembered (if they’re remembered at all) as “massacres.” The Wilmington Massacre. The Rosewood Massacre. The Greenwood Massacre. The Memphis Massacre. The Colfax Massacre. The Elaine Massacre. The East St. Louis Massacre.
I bring these up not to lay a guilt trip on whites, and certainly not to provide an occasion for blacks to feel all righteously indignant. I bring them up because I’m sick of the flash-card approach to history, especially black history.
It’s not about learning the names and faces of a few exceptional Negroes (though Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass were all that and a side of fries). It’s about trying to appreciate the human drama of history and what life was like for ordinary people.
Take Atlanta, 1906.
There was a broad political debate going on over black voting rights. Atlanta newspapers were stirring up their white readers with “stories, editorials, and cartoons warning of rising crime” – particularly “threats of the rape of their mothers, wives, and daughters by black males” – and a push by “uppity” blacks to have social equality with whites. This according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia (NGE).
“On the afternoon of Saturday, September 22, Atlanta newspapers reported four alleged assaults, none of which were ever substantiated, upon local white women,” as the NGE tells it. Soon “thousands of white men and boys gathered in downtown Atlanta,” inflamed by the lurid details in these press reports.
By evening time, this mob surged through the Negro district, smashing windows of black-owned businesses and assaulting black people at random. One barbershop “was raided by the rioters – and the barbers were killed,” according to the NGE. “The crowd also attacked streetcars, entering trolley cars and beating black men and women; at least three men were beaten to death.”
Days later, when it was all over, an estimated 25 to 40 blacks were dead, along with two whites.
The Springfield Race Riot of 1908 also was triggered by a rape accusation (later withdrawn). “Almost the entire Illinois state militia was required to quell the frenzy of the mob, which shot innocent people, burned homes, looted stores, and mutilated and lynched two elderly blacks,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Likewise, the Beaumont Riot of 1943 jumped off after a white woman accused a black man of rape. Several thousand whites went after the black community as a whole. The Texas State Historical Association describes it this way:
“With guns, axes, and hammers, they proceeded to terrorize black neighborhoods in central and north Beaumont. Many blacks were assaulted, several restaurants and stores were pillaged, a number of buildings were burned, and more than 100 homes were ransacked.”
Final tally: 50 people injured; two blacks and one white dead.
Occasionally, this type of mob violence didn’t grow out of a rape panic. The Elaine Massacre of 1919 took place after a white policeman was shot and killed outside a meeting of black sharecroppers in Phillips County, Ark. White vigilantes, many from the neighboring state of Mississippi, answered the local sheriff’s call “to hunt Mr. Nigger in his lair.”
“Hundreds of armed men jumped into trains, trucks, and cars and, crossing into Arkansas, fired out of windows at every black they saw,” writes Richard Wormser in “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.”
The black sexual menace, however, was its own special deal.
The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, also known as the Greenwood Massacre, occurred after a white woman said she’d been assaulted by a young black male in an office elevator. This case offers us a fascinating, almost cinematic narrative:
The black youth, a shoeshine boy named Dick Rowland, was arrested. And the black citizens of Tulsa, including some World War I veterans, feared that he might get lynched.
Why would they presume such a thing? Because nine months earlier, a white teenager named Roy Belton, arrested for shooting a cab driver, was seized from the very same jail – inside the Tulsa County Courthouse – by a group of armed white vigilantes. They drove Belton several miles away and hanged him.
After Dick Rowland’s arrest, several hundred whites gathered outside the courthouse, reacting to the news in an afternoon paper. Some in the mob yelled “Let us have the nigger,” according to the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.
The sheriff refused to hand his prisoner over to the mob. This was a new sheriff, name of Willard M. McCullough, and he didn’t want a replay of the Roy Belton lynching. Sheriff McCullough went out on the courthouse steps to convince the crowd to go home. But the sheriff was “hooted down.”
Later that night, a group of about 25 black men, armed with rifles and shotguns, arrived at the courthouse. They told the sheriff they were there to help defend the jail. Sheriff McCullough declined their help, assuring them that Dick Rowland was safe.
The black men then got back in their cars and returned to the Greenwood section of town. But their appearance had an “electrifying effect” on the white mob, which by now had grown to more than a thousand.
“The visit of the black veterans had not at all been foreseen,” according to the Oklahoma Commission’s report. “Shocked, and then outraged, some members of the mob began to go home to fetch their guns.” Other whites tried to storm the National Guard Armory for rifles and ammo, but were rebuffed.
Later, another group of armed black men – this time 75 or so – arrived at the Tulsa County Courthouse. Again, they offered to help protect the prisoner. Again, Sheriff McCullough turned them away.
Then a white man tried to disarm one of the black vets…
“What are you doing with that pistol?”
“I’m going to use it if I need to.”
“No, you give it to me.”
“Like hell I will.”
The white man tried to take the pistol… and was shot. A gun battle ensued. The riot was on.
By the end of it, a 35-block area of black Tulsa was destroyed.
Next time, I’ll tell you about the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, also known as the Wilmington Massacre. That North Carolina nightmare is intriguing because white men’s blood lust was aroused not by an actual accusation of rape, but by printed words… words printed in a black-owned newspaper by its editor. Words that damn-near cost him his life.
[TO BE CONTINUED]