Wednesday, February 14, 2007

White riot (pt. 1)

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.



Anonymous said...

I know, we can't have slavery reparations because there are no slaves or slave owners alive in order to effectively transfer the wealth.

But with almost all of these riots there are survivors who have literally lost everything to these armed mobs who acted with the tacit (or untacit) support of the governments and have went unpunished. You think at least these individuals would be worthy of reparations?

Yeah right.

Anonymous said...

The black sexual menace, however, was its own special deal.

The fear of miscegenation drove a lot of that violence, even if the mobs weren't consciously aware of what they feared. It shows up in a lot of Southern literature (e.g., Faulkner's "Light in August"). It wasn't just that a black male assaulted a white female; it was the fear that they could procreate and "dilute" the race. Pretty sickening what happens when fear and hatred hit a fever pitch.

Anonymous said...

Based on my assumption that you are younger than me (1968), let me express my appreciation for your appreciation of your ancestors.


* White riots were a way to destroy Black property. So it used to annoy me when young Euro-Americans assume that my American ancestors did not work hard like their grandpa who got off a ship in New York with a nickel in his pocket. Now it breaks my heart to see young Black people saying the same shit as the young white people.

* We must remember Ida B. Wells. She was the innovator of investigative journalism that documented why many of these lynchings, picnics and race riots took place. Edward R. Murrow was not even born yet.

* The dominator culture has "evolved" to export its Dark Ages to all the colored folk all over the world. Back in the day, they used to riot---now "we" riot in their place so that they can keep their children "safe" from our "natural tendency" to violence.

The Prison Guard Union here in California finds good money in savages---so this is why young brothers and sisters must "keep it real" in the "New World Order" instead of living in the "fantasy world" of an Old Kingdom African consciousness that profoundly resembles Buddha consciousness...

S.O.L. said...

Hey UBM, I'm curious what you think of "Black History Month." A friend of mine (who is black) has a very cynical view about it, saying it's disingenuous -- let's give them one month and make them happy. I think your take today is a productive way of "celebrating" black history in that it gives everybody the right sort of insight into the struggle.

I mean let's face it -- every freaking thing in America is over commercialized (Christmas anybody?). But do you like the idea of Black History Month? What's your take? Good? Bad? Indifferent?

Undercover Black Man said...

ItAintEazy: Great link to the Nation piece... though I can't quite get with the hard-left spin they put on the Tulsa riot. For one thing, I'll need to read the Oklahoma Commission report again, but I don't remember anything about the white mob being "deputized." Or the Oklahoma National Guard taking part in the riot.

In fact, what's interesting to me, and what challenges a simplistic black-racialist analysis of flare-ups like this one, is: 1) Hey, whites lynched other whites too! 2) A courageous white sheriff stood up against a white mob and protected his black prisoner, and 3) The Oklahoma National Guard turned away the white mob when they tried to bum-rush the arsenal to get weapons.

As for reparations... well, let me stretch out on that topic at a later date. In general, though, my impulse is to resist the notion that money fixes shit like this.

Dez: Keep in mind the flip side of the white fear of miscegenation; at the selfsame time, white men felt entitled to sex with black women. The huge amount of white blood in the American Negro gene pool is testimony to this. Hell, I'm a walking exhibit.

It's that contradiction -- the push-pull of their own sexual attraction to black women, and crazed resentment of black men's attraction to their women (or, worse, white women's attraction to black men) -- that's what made it all so explosive.

Not to say that black-on-white rapes didn't happen... Shit, there's a lot of it today, there was bound to be some then. But the psychology of mob violence in the case of 20th Century America was a lot deeper than an impulse to vigilante justice.

Bryan: I'm glad you found me, youngblood. (Yeah, I got a few years on you... born in '61.) I like how you kick it. I got a George Clinton Q&A coming up that I'm sure you'll groove to.

S.O.L.: My appreciation for Black History Month springs from a respect for historian Carter G. Woodson, who got the whole thing started with "Negro History Week."

In Woodson's era, the prevailing U.S. intellectual and educational and media establishments were pretty much in agreement that black people had contributed nothing worthwhile to America, and black people's stories weren't worth telling.

My only beef, I'll say again, is that Black History Month tends to be all about George Washington Carver's peanut fetish, and not a sophisticated understanding of the dynamic swirl of social, cultural and economic interactions which constitute U.S. racial history.

quirkychick said...

It's interesting that you're writing about this as I recently a piece on this very subject on public radio.

The point that they were making, and I believe that they were speaking of Greenwood, is that the death toll was far higher than what was reported because black families were frightened of retribution and so did not report that they'd had family members murdered.

According to the interviews, the National press came to town to cover the story in the aftermath and there was an understood threat against the black community if they spoke up.

People interviewed stated that they could not properly bury and mourn their dead and the estimate was more than 300 killed.

It's a frightening thought when you consider the number reported in other riots like this. I can't help but wonder how many people were lost and are unaccounted for except as memories kept by the their families.

Anonymous said...

hey dave -- great column, as always. check out the Battle Of Liberty Place in New Orleans, 1874 -- not exactly a race riot, more like an armed uprising of white supremacists trying to throw off the yoke of Reconstruction,battling black officials, Federal troops and the Metropolitan Police -- or Robert Charles, and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900 -- Robert Charles, a black man who killed several white policemen in a one-man uprising of his own and sparked a race riot of the kind you're talking about right around Mardi Gras (see Carnival of Fury -- Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900)-- course New Orleans is always unique -- the largest mass lynching in American history took place in the Crescent City in 1891, but the victims were eleven Sicilian immigrants, seized from the parish prison by a white mob who blamed them for the assasination of the chief of police, whose dying words were supossedly "Dagoes did it". All of which proves your larger point about history being more nuanced and complicated than usually presented. And by the way, thanks for referencing the Elaine Race Riot -- my wife is from Helena Arkansas, which is the seat of Phillips County -- the cemetery there boasts the graves of thirteen Confederate Generals, or some such -- and Phillips County is racist and racially tense and overwhemingly black and poor.
I've been to Elaine. And that's where Levon Helm of the Band is from. Great blog, read it every day.

Anonymous said...

From my reading of the Commission report, the sheriff's department did deputized whites, giving them badges and ribbons, who did take part in the riots. Yes, the National Guard did help eventually quell the violence, guarded the armory, and helped to prevent more killings of blacks, but their actions during the riots left properties undefended during the riots since they pretty much disarmed and detained only the blacks in Greenwood while allowing the whites to continue with their destruction.

But the greatest abortion of justice by the state was the local grand jury decision that laid the blame for the riots upon blacks, and later zoning ordinances that prevented Greenwood from being rebuilt. The denial of justice should be front and center in any reparations case.

Undercover Black Man said...

Eric O: Thanks so much for commenting, and for reading me… I know your time must be tight.

You wrote: “… the largest mass lynching in American history took place in the Crescent City in 1891, but the victims were eleven Sicilian immigrants, seized from the parish prison by a white mob…”

Deeper still, from what I know about that lynching, black folks were actually part of the lynch mob! Talk about the nuances and complications of history.

So New Orleans has had more than one race riot, huh? Thanks for the cite of “Carnival of Fury”… I’ll get hold of that.

Take it easy.

Anonymous said...

hey dave -- that's fascinating that blacks were part that particular new orleans lynch mob. tangentially, if you're ever in helena arkansas, and check out the delta museum -- there's a whole section in there about how Italians weren't considered "white" in the South in the old days -- they occupied this middle ground between black and white along with the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Jews (all of whom were the shopkeepers of the Delta)

also, really tangentially, Elaine Arkansas is not prounced like the name Elaine, a la Seinfeld, but E-lane, emphasis on the first syllable -- thought you'd wanna know

Undercover Black Man said...

Figured I should cite my source for blacks being involved in the Sicilian lynchings in New Orleans, in case some one wants to investigate further.

Carl Sifakis writes this in "The Mafia Encyclopedia":

"Prominent in the lynch mob were a goodly number of blacks, giving the lynching a unique dimension in the American South."

Anonymous said...

that anti-immigrant sentiment is an American evergreen that cuts across racial/ethnic divides -- it ain't just the minutemen and the border patrol -- just listen to LA talk radio about the changing demographics of south central

Anonymous said...

I think it's worth noting that the Springfield race riot was followed by a local commission that reported on slum conditions prevailing in the black side of town, made recommendations for how to improve the situation, and notably it was not followed by disenfranchisement, which, as you point out, was a key goal of many of the early southern riots (Wilmington, Atlanta, New Orleans, etc.)

Springfield was a Republican island in a Democratic ocean, and while it's difficult to document today, I'd bet that this was a fault-line in the Springfield riot. I wrote a long paper on that riot 20 years ago, and found evidence that many of the rioters were coal miners who had come into town.

Because no amount of rioting in one town was going to eliminate Republican power in the state, and because Republicans depended on black votes, blacks continued to have some political power in Springfield and in Illinois.

By no means am I trying to minimize what happened. I merely point out the rough justice of a democracy, which is somewhat less rough than justice in places where democracy is utterly overthrown. The southern riots were mostly successful coups against democracy, while the northern riots generally were not.