Col. Isaac C. Jenks, commander of two rifle companies of the 57th Infantry of the 3rd Division from Camp Pike in Little Rock, Arkansas, with unidentified soldiers who were dispatched to Elaine, Arkansas. White mobs attacked Black sharecroppers who wanted to form a union in the Summer of 1919. Elaine was one of more than a dozen cities that experienced racial unrest in the Summer of 1919, also known as Red Summer. Credit: Library of Congress

For several days, from July 19-July 24, white mobs, made up of mostly World War I veterans, began assaulting random Black Americans after a white woman was allegedly attacked in Washington, D.C., on July 18. Weeks prior, newspapers had fanned hysteria with reports of a “serial attacker” of white women. 

Police arrested hundreds of Black men, and the Ku Klux Klan began night rides into the Black community, spreading terror. The NAACP warned the newspapers that they were “sowing the seeds of a race riot by their inflammatory headlines.” Their prediction came true when a white mob in Washington began beating anyone with Black skin, including children.

Historian Carter G. Woodson, who went on to found Black History Month, recalled seeing a Black man shot: “I heard him groaning in his struggle as I hurried away as fast as I could without running, expecting every moment to be lynched myself.” 

When police refused to intervene, Black Americans fought back. About 375,000 had served in World War I and were willing to fight for their rights. President Woodrow Wilson ordered 2,000 federal troops to regain control. 

By the time the violence ended, as many as 39 were dead and 150 injured. Before the year ended, similar violence against Black Americans would take place in more than two dozen cities, killing up to 237 Black sharecroppers who wanted to form a union in Elaine, Arkansas. The violence became known as “Red Summer.” 

“There have been race riots throughout the breadth of American history, in every decade since the founding of the country, and the worst of it was in 1919,” Cameron McWhirter, author of “Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America”, told Smithsonian Magazine. “Every single one was instigated by white mobs, and Washington was the pinnacle if for no other reason than the symbolism.”

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption,...