Monday, May 6, 2013

Tabone: Working Class Struggle in the Red Summer of 1919

The working class struggle in the Red Summer of 1919

The history of the working class in the United States is one of much diversity, triumph and defeat. When looking at the labor force in a historical context, individual races are often grouped together and analyzed separately from one another, providing a narrow view of the actual interactions between races. The hostile environments created amongst races when working together sometimes led to large-scale conflicts. One notable time period of unrest was the summer of 1919, deemed the “red summer”, in which there was a race war between white and black laborers after World War I. This article will discuss the causes of this struggle, including the Great Migration, the main events that occurred in Chicago and the skewed media coverage of this event.
The beginning of World War I in 1914 brought about many changes in the United States, especially in the labor force. Thousands of Americans were shipping off to aid in the war effort, creating a massive labor shortage. To compensate for this loss, whites and African Americans were coming from the south to fill the positions left void. This migration was due to the availability of jobs and greater opportunity up north for blacks, as well a way to escape the extremely racist and dangerous south. Increased lynchings and excessive violence created an exceptionally hostile environment for African Americans in the southern states.
This time period of relocation, from 1910 to 1970, is deemed the Great Migration. In what is considered to be “one of the most significant demographic events in U.S. history”, over 2.5 million southern blacks had migrated to the northern United States in search of a better life.1 The blacks however, were not the only ones who benefited from this move up north. The cheap, unskilled labor that African Americans provided was a great relief to the northern industrial workplaces that were in need. Although these industries were known to avoid black labor in the past, they had no other choice but to hire them out of pure desperation.2 Taking on new jobs and helping out in a time a need boosted the confidence amongst African Americans. This migration, with its seemingly ample opportunities, had provided the hope that black and whites were becoming equal in the workplace. Having been harshly treated by both the government and the people in the south, this slight shift in power seemed to provide a way in which they could prove themselves and their worth in this country.2 However, instead of being rewarded and praised, black laborers only found strife.
The end of World War I in November 1918 meant the return of many Americans to the United States and a time of transition. Many whites had come home to see their jobs had been taken by blacks that now seemed to be searching “for a larger share of both the nation’s democracy and its wealth.”3 Determined to hold on to their power as the dominant race, the whites saw this as a threat and took drastic measures to ensure that African Americans would continue to stay below them. This unrest lead to the extraordinarily violent summer and early fall of 1919. Named the ‘red summer’ because of the excessive bloodshed, this extremely violent national race war is a notable time period in the history of the United States working class.
According to William Tuttle, “Lynch mobs murdered seventy-eight black people in 1919, an increase of fifteen over 1918 and thirty over 1917. Ten of the victims were war veterans, several of them still in uniform.” This increase in violence all around the United Sates became commonplace during the summer of 1919. The first of these acts of violence occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, which led to a few men dead and injured, all of whom were black. The country continued to stir with these racist attacks as desperation for the white man to gain back control grew. The worst of the attacks was seen in Chicago, a city known for its gangs as well as it’s largely Irish population.
The Irish immigrants in the United States have long been known to compete with African Americans in the labor force. Both provided cheap labor across America, however the Irish had mainly taken over the industrial cities. After the Great Migration however, more and more blacks were taking over the jobs the Irish once held and were even being implemented as strike breakers when the white laborers refused to work. While using blacks as strikebreakers was not a new idea, William Tuttle explains the historical hostility between the races in the following quotation:
Although friction and sometimes bloodshed had marked the job competition between Chicago’s whites and blacks for decades, a new seed of racial discord in the city’s labor market was planted at the stockyards in 1894. In that year, masses of packing and slaughterhouse workers conducted a sympathetic strike with Eugene V. Debs’ American Railway Union, and, in the midst of it, black strikebreakers were hired for the first time in the history of the meat packing industry. Although the packers initially disclaimed any intention of adopting this practice, less than a week later black strikebreakers were working, eating and sleeping in the stockyards. Their presence fired racial animosities.3

This “new seed of racial discord” had been given the opportunity to grow and thrive in the post World War I era. With so many different battles between whites and blacks, in the labor force alone, it was inevitable that these massive riots would occur, and they did. Between July 27 and August 3 of 1919, Chicago, Illinois saw one of the largest racial conflicts to occur during the red summer.
The beginning of the riots in Chicago occurred on July 27 at Chicago Beach, a segregated area. Eugene Williams and his friends had planned for a day of fun, but had instead experienced the opposite. A white man who was determined to run them off of the beach was throwing stones at the boys in the water. The result was the death of Eugene Williams and no arrest of the man who had committed the crime. Officer Callahan was the man who let the criminal walk free and arrested a black man instead. While the black community had expected there to be no intervention by the law, they were still displeased with the events that had taken place. Mainly due to fear, there was very little protest from the blacks. Meanwhile, the whites were becoming increasingly aggravated with the intrusion of the black community and were planning attacks against them.
In the days that followed, there was a marked increase in violence in Chicago between blacks and whites. White gang members would wait outside of the workplaces of blacks with weapons and attack as soon as they were leaving their jobs. They would also terrorize and target the homes and communities where mainly blacks lived. The Black Belt of Chicago was one such area that was targeted. Located in the South Side, this group of neighborhoods housed essentially all African Americans laborers in the area. This community became the single most violent section during the red summer, especially the intersection of Wabash and 35th street. Mobs of whites had surrounded the area and set out to attack any black person that had crossed their path. The riot had gotten so bad over the course of one night that 3500 militiamen were sent in to stop the violence. By this time 17 people were dead, 172 blacks had been injured and 71 injured whites were recorded. 3
It would be unfair to only state that whites had initialized all the violence. There were indeed African Americans who had fought back and terrorized whites as well, but the majority of historical evidence shows the white community caused the most trouble. However, this was not so evident in the media at the time. The information being presented to the public was completely skewed and made the white community look like the ones who were being targeted. A striking example of this is seen in an article entitled ‘Truth About Riot! Latest Observations on the Chicago Riot’ in the Cleveland Advocate.4 In the article the description of events in the Black Belt of Chicago had been distorted and the role of the attackers had become the African American laborers, the victims were the whites. Presenting the public with wrong information fueled the anger of the whites even more and prolonged this racial violence.

Figure 1. Excerpt from the Cleveland Advocate (1919) describing the Chicago race riots

Racial violence has always been a prominent factor in the history of the United States and continues even into today. Conflicts between blacks and whites in the workplace had always been present, but came to a head in the period following World War I. The race riot and red summer of 1919 brought to light the conflicts and struggles of the laborers during this time. Skewed media coverage, unsympathetic law forces and the constant attacks from the white community were all aimed at running African Americans out of the labor force, especially in the north. With extreme resilience, the black community prevailed and continued to work, providing us with one of the greatest triumphs in working class history.

1 Tolnay, Stewart E. . "The African American "Great Migration" and Beyond." Annual Review of Sociology 29, no. 1 (2003): 209-232.

Arnesen, Eric. "'Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America' by Cameron McWhirter." Chicago Tribune, November 18, 2011.

Tuttle, William M.. Race riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919. 1 ed. New York: Atheneum, 1970.

Cleveland Advocate, "Truth About Riot! Latest Observations on the Chicago Riot," August 9, 1919.

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