By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University
The year 1919 was hell for African Americans. That year, 83 Black people died at the hands of lynch mobs. But that wasn’t even the half of it. From late winter to early autumn, racial unrest occurred in two dozen American cities and towns, claiming the lives of more than 250 African Americans. White newspapers described these events as “race riots”, but that’s not what they were. These were race wars, started by white people and permitted by white politicians and police.
Cyril Briggs and the African Blood Brotherhood
The African Blood Brotherhood (or ABB) was the brainchild of Cyril Briggs, a native of the British Caribbean colony of Nevis, who immigrated to New York City in 1905 at age 17. Briggs first shared his belief in Black self-determination through self-governance in the pages of the New York Amsterdam News, Harlem’s leading Black newspaper, in 1912. A few years later, when World War I broke out, Briggs joined the NAACP editor W. E. B. Du Bois in urging Black people to support America’s involvement in the war.
Briggs believed that President Woodrow Wilson was truly committed to decolonization; he was not. During the war, Briggs became disillusioned with US foreign policy and disturbed by America’s treatment of its Black soldiers. After the armistice, he turned toward communism, finding hope for African people in the class consciousness of Marxism and the peasant power of the Russian Revolution.
In Defense of Black People
To advance his ideas, Briggs launched his own periodical, the Crusader, in September 1918. He filled its pages with essays and articles advocating his unique blend of Black nationalism, interracial revolutionary socialism, and anticolonialism. Like Marcus Garvey, Briggs believed that Africa should be for Africans. But unlike Garvey, he did not believe that the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) leader should be the head of whatever government emerged to govern Black people. So Briggs founded the African Blood Brotherhood, which he publicized as an alternative to the UNIA.
The ABB attracted only a couple thousand members, unlike the hundreds of thousands who joined the UNIA. But those who signed up, like Black poet Claude McKay, were deeply committed to the right of Black people to defend themselves against raging white mobs. And they fully embraced the idea of an independent, Black, socialist commonwealth.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Chicago’s Red Summer
The feeling among African Americans in the summer of 1919 was equal parts despondency and determination.
From rural Arkansas to the nation’s capital, whites rampaged through Black communities, killing hundreds of African Americans, injuring thousands more, and destroying an untold number of Black homes and businesses. So much Black blood was spilled that James Weldon Johnson, the leader of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) dubbed it “Red Summer”. Chicago saw the worst of it.
On Sunday, July 27, Eugene Williams, a 17-year-old Black youth, joined thousands of Chicagoans in the cool waters of Lake Michigan in a desperate attempt to escape the midsummer heat. But when Williams floated across an imaginary line separating the white part of the beach from the Black part, a white beachgoer began hurling stones at him. The cascade of rocks hit their intended target, and Williams drowned.
When the police arrived, they refused to arrest anyone, further infuriating African American beachgoers and further emboldening their white counterparts. The Black and white groups exchanged heated words, and then blows. The fighting quickly spread beyond the beach. As African Americans retreated to the Black section of the South Side of Chicago, an area known as the Black Belt, a white mob formed and attacked any Black person it happened to find.
The violence escalated the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. For a full week, white mobs invaded Black neighborhoods, attacking African Americans and vandalizing, looting, and burning Black homes and businesses. The police did little to stop the white marauders, leaving African Americans to defend themselves, resulting in several pitched gun battles.
Eventually, the governor summoned the Illinois Army National Guard. Only then did whites stop terrorizing Chicago’s Black residents. But the damage had been done. Twenty-three African Americans had been killed, along with 15 whites, and several hundred people had been injured.
Although the precipitating events that sparked Red Summer varied from place to place, the underlying conditions were fundamentally the same.
However, 1919 wasn’t the first time that Northern whites rioted. Racial violence devastated Black communities in Cincinnati in 1829; in New York City in 1863; in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908; and in East St. Louis in 1917. Like Southern whites, Northern whites defaulted to violence to defend the color line because they, too, believed deeply in white supremacy.
Common Questions about Black Struggles and the “Red Summer” of 1919
Cyril Briggs was a native of the British Caribbean colony of Nevis, who immigrated to New York City in 1905 at age 17. He founded the African Blood Brotherhood, which he founded. He also launched the periodical, the Crusader, in 1918 in which he shared essays and articles advocating his unique blend of Black nationalism, interracial revolutionary socialism, and anticolonialism.
During 1919, from rural Arkansas to the nation’s capital, whites rampaged through Black communities, killing hundreds of African Americans, injuring thousands more, and destroying an untold number of Black homes and businesses. So much Black blood was spilled that James Weldon Johnson, the leader of NAACP, dubbed it “Red Summer”.
The Chicago governor summoned the Illinois Army National Guard and only then did whites stop terrorizing Chicago’s Black residents. But the damage had been done. Twenty-three African Americans had been killed, along with 15 whites, and several hundred people had been injured.