The first years of the Great Migration would see an unprecedented wave of mob violence sweep the nation. Twenty-six race riots - in cities large and small, North and South - would claim the lives of scores of African Americans. But the migrants did not instigate this bloody wave of lawlessness; it was, in most cases, directed at them.
The so-called Red Summer of 1919 actually began two years earlier in East St. Louis, Illinois, in July 1917. It was the only one of the battles to be directly linked to racial conflict in the workplace, but white workers' fear of job competition was likely behind all of them. The East St. Louis riot began after African-American workers were hired to break a strike at an aluminum plant. A delegation of trade unionists met with the mayor and demanded that black migration to the town be stopped. As they left the meeting, they were told that a black man had accidentally shot a white man during a holdup. In a few minutes, the rumor spread that the shooting was intentional and involved an insulted white woman, then white girls.
Mobs quickly took to the streets, threatening and attacking any blacks they could find. The local police made no attempt to control the situation. Some of the whites later drove through the main black neighborhood firing indiscriminately into homes. Before the rampage ended, forty-eight African Americans were dead, hundreds injured, and more than three hundred buildings destroyed.
Chicago's turn came on July 27, 1919, as the temperature soared into the nineties. Several black children drifted into waters off a public beach, by custom reserved for whites. Stones were thrown at them and one child drowned. A crowd of blacks and whites gathered at the scene. When a black man was arrested on a white's complaint while a white man, identified by black witnesses as a suspect, was not, blacks attacked the arresting white officer and the riot was under way. The violence was confined mainly to the south side of the city, where 90 percent of the African-American population lived.
In the course of several days of rioting, both blacks and whites were beaten. Thirty-eight people were killed, twenty-three of them black, and 537 were wounded; most of the one thousand families left homeless were African Americans. Although the other riots during that terrible summer varied in ferocity, it was made abundantly clear that race mattered very much in urban America.
Two years after the Red Summer, a riot erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a young black man was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in an elevator, was arrested. On May 31, the Tulsa Tribune published a fictitious news story stating Rowland scratched the woman's hands and face and tore at her clothes. By 10:30 p.m., a mob of nearly two thousand white people surrounded the jail, ready to lynch the man. In hopes of defending him, a group of blacks, who were previously turned away, returned to the jail to assist the sheriff. But before they could return to Greenwood - a predominately black community that achieved such levels of wealth that it earned the reputation as the "Negro Wall Street of America," - the Tulsa Riot began. In its aftermath, more than three hundred African Americans were murdered, nearly six thousand were imprisoned. Half of Tulsa's black population, and as many as twenty-five hundred people, left town, some temporarily but many definitively.