1919, the Year of Racial Violence: An interview with David KruglerHistorians/History
tags: racism, lynching, interview, David Krugler
History is a record of the incessant struggle
of humanity against ignorance and oppression.
Helen Keller, 1918
In the wake of the Great War, Americans were hopeful for a new year of domestic tranquility and prosperity. Black troops came home from the battlefields of France to claim the same democracy for which they had fought. They were badly disappointed. Atrocities by whites against African Americans intensified. Lynching of black citizens continued with impunity and mob violence targeting black citizens exploded in cities across the country. African Americans suffered tremendous losses but also defended themselves against the onslaught of horrific violence launched to protect and enforce white supremacy.
Professor Krugler goes beyond previous histories of this tumultuous period by putting African Americans at the center of the story. He stresses the character of the violence as antiblack collective violence by whites—rather than “race riots.” He recounts the efforts of African Americans to resist the violence through heroic self-defense in the streets, media campaigns to correct inaccuracies in the mainstream white press, and work by the NAACP and others to achieve justice and equal protection through the legal system.
The book also shows how black resistance to white mob violence laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement 40 years later that would lead to many of the policies for which the African Americans of 1919 struggled. It’s also the first work to document government efforts to disarm African Americans and to obstruct their legal right to obtain weapons and defend themselves at that time.
Critics have praised 1919, The Year of Racial Violence for its new perspective on history, its extensive and original research, and its lively prose. Adriane Lentz-Smith of Duke University wrote: “This powerful book captures the high cost and high stakes of the War for Democracy brought home. By turns devastating and inspiring, it sets the new standard for exploring African Americans' struggle for safety, truth, and justice in the aftermath of World War I." And Chad Williams of Brandeis University commented: "With meticulous research and narrative force, David Krugler has produced a brilliant account of one of the most turbulent and bloody years in American history. As he powerfully demonstrates, African Americans, in the face of horrific nationwide racial violence, used every tool at their disposal to fight back and preserve both their citizenship and humanity. 1919, The Year of Racial Violence is a landmark achievement."
David F. Krugler, a professor of history at University of Wisconsin—Platteville, specializes in modern US history. His other books include The Voice of America and the Domestic Propaganda Battles, 1945-1953, and This Is Only a Test: How Washington, D.C., Prepared for Nuclear War.
Professor Krugler generously talked about his new book on racial violence by telephone from his office in Wisconsin.
Robin Lindley: What inspired your sweeping study on the racial violence in America in 1919?
Professor David Krugler: I originally set out to do a project on all of the post-World War I upheaval in the United States. Because most of my research was in the post-World War II period, I was looking for a new era within modern U.S. history to study.
I began my research with an episodic, sweeping view in mind on 1919. A book came out in 2007 when I was in the early stages of research by Anne Hagedorn, a journalist and historian, called Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America in 1919. That proved to be great timing on her part because it got me thinking about what I could do that was new. So I decided to narrow my focus, and I’m happy I made that decision to focus on racial conflict and black resistance.
Robin Lindley: I think many readers will be surprised by the extent of racial violence in 1919. You detail many of the conflicts and atrocities, but you also offer a fresh perspective on the violence.
Professor David Krugler: In the original draft, I felt I was dwelling too much on white-on-black violence. I got some good feedback when I was writing. The reader suggested that I foreground black resistance rather than the violence visited upon African Americans.
The extent and the frequency of the violence and the seemingly minor causes of violence are shocking to the modern reader. I wanted to lay the groundwork so that readers understand the ideology of the time and how entrenched white supremacy was.
Today we see white supremacy as extremism and hate groups on the fringe, so it was important to me to lay out how structural white supremacy was. For millions of white Americans there was no discrepancy between being enthusiastic supporters of the war to make the world “safe for democracy,” as President Woodrow Wilson called the Great War, and denying African Americans equal opportunity and constitutional rights because of the scientific racism of the time and because the ideology and practice of white supremacy was so entrenched.
I wanted people to understand why violence and mob violence were used so frequently. Then the narrative turned toward what African Americans did in response so that the book didn’t become an almost numbing narrative of one violent episode after another.
Robin Lindley: You’re very careful about language and it was instructive that you distinguish the casual term of “race riot” that was used to describe the violent outbursts and substituted the more precise term of “antiblack collective violence” in the recognition that the violence—devastating acts of assault, murder and arson—was initiated by whites against black citizens.
Professor David Krugler: The main problem with the term “race riot” is that it suggests that all the participants have an equal responsibility for causing violence and breaking the law. That just wasn’t the case in 1919 with almost every violent incident involving whites organizing extralegal outbursts to punish blacks for perceived affronts to white supremacy or to punish those who allegedly committed crimes, particularly against whites. To call this violence a race riot would be totally misleading.
I want people to understand that, although African Americans found themselves in the middle of riots at great peril to their own lives, their response was shaped by instinct as well as a thinking decision to resist, not to riot.
Robin Lindley: And the mass violence was so widespread, from Arizona to Chicago to Washington, D.C., and in the South.
Professor David Krugler: It’s important to know that this wasn’t just a southern phenomenon. Indeed, some of the worst riots occurred in the upper Midwest—Chicago, for example.
And Washington, D.C. Even though some classify it as a southern city, in many ways it’s not. It’s the nation’s capital and that made the racial conflict and black resistance all the more public. It was viewed at the time by observers and participants as a particularly revealing episode of racial violence in terms of the causes of why whites attacked blacks and what blacks did in response.
Robin Lindley: When we read about this distant violence, I think there’s a perception that blacks were victims or passive, but you stress that African Americans defended themselves against white attacks. They also were much more likely to be prosecuted for violence than whites, even though blacks were not the perpetrators. In fact, whites were seldom charged.
Professor David Krugler: In my research, I was struck by the press reports of racial violence in mainstream newspapers. Time and again, editors and journalists in mainstream newspapers blamed African Americans for the violence. Because that reflected the beliefs of law enforcement officers and even federal troops, that became a justification for arresting African Americans and charging them with serious felonies when whites who caused the violence were not charged. That came out time and time again in Chicago and Washington D.C. with so many black men charged with carrying deadly weapons or concealed weapons when the facts of these cases showed that these weapons were procured for self-defense. African Americans couldn’t rely on law enforcement to protect them or stop the violence.
Robin Lindley: You explore the historical context of the 1919 riots. Black troops were returning from World War I combat and expecting democracy at home after fighting for it in Europe. Were there more black combat troops in that war than in World War II?
Professor David Krugler: In terms of numbers, there were more black troops in combat in World War II than World War I.
The major black divisions were segregated and assigned to French command in World War I, and it’s revealing that they were the only American troops assigned to French command. All white units remained under the command of General John Pershing and the American Expeditionary Force. The majority of African Americans in uniform were channeled to service positions in labor or supply battalions. Many of the black soldiers then in France were stevedores or doing backbreaking labor. That was true stateside as well.
But the four divisions of black soldiers that were in combat distinguished themselves many times. That’s what got a lot of attention. The demobilization of U.S. forces was so swift and white and black soldiers were returning in large numbers in ship after ship in places like New York and Charleston. That enabled the black units that were acclaimed in combat--divisions such as the Harlem Hellfighters—the 369th, and the 370th, the Eighth Illinois National Guard--to come home to welcoming parades that attracted so much attention and celebration. The arrival inspired African Americans in those cities--those in uniform, those that had loved ones in uniform, and those that lived and worked in the United States— to say, “All right, the time is here for us to have the democracy for which we fought in France. We will do whatever it takes to get it.”
Robin Lindley: And at that time you also had the Great Migration, the New Negro Movement, and the Red Scare, so there was almost a perfect storm in terms of the cry for justice for black Americans and then the white fear of a black uprising.
Professor David Krugler: Yes, these things came together in a short time. The New Negro Movement was well under way before the war, and the war provided a way to gel the movement around at last obtaining constitutional rights and equal opportunity.
At the same time, five hundred thousand African Americans moved from the South to the Midwest and Northern industrial cities, creating strains in those cities. And they experienced racism and segregation in those cities as well but they were finding more opportunity.
The draft brought hundreds of thousands of young black men in uniform to different parts of the country. Many of these draftees and enlistees then encountered the New Negro Movement so that, in some ways, the Army became an incubator for the Movement. There was a lot of awareness of that among white officers even before troops were sent to France. They were raising cries of alarm that there were so many black men in uniform that it would be harder to enforce the status quo. They didn’t quite use that language, but they said, “the Negro question would remain unsettled.” Those were code words for saying that black servicemen were not going to submit docilely to inequality if these forces were unleashed.
Robin Lindley: You also discuss the 1919 violence in terms of the American history of mob violence and “rough justice,” including lynching. What was “rough justice”?
Professor David Krugler: The still prevailing understanding of historic lynching today is that it took place in areas where legal systems were not fully in place so people took the law into their own hands to fill a need.
As historian Michael Pfeifer has shown convincingly and beyond doubt, that wasn’t true. Time after time, lynch mobs carried out their murderous acts in communities that had fully established law enforcement agencies and court systems. The mobs wanted immediate gratification. They did not want to go through the court process, even when a sentence of death was likely for the alleged criminal. They wanted to take that person’s life right away, as Pfeifer and other historians point out.
Much of this violence was directed against African Americans for even minor offenses against white supremacy. This really comes out in 1919, when African Americans were being lynched by white mobs because they refused to yield their vehicle on a road or they didn’t use proper forms of address. So rough justice was used to maintain and protect white supremacy and to terrorize other African Americans to quash the New Negro Movement and to provide the larger white community with the sense that they were in control and had the means to deliver immediate “justice” to those who presented any affront to it.
Robin Lindley: You recount graphically the many instances of horrific violence and atrocities. I think many readers may not know of the violence in Elaine, Arkansas, that resulted in perhaps the largest lynching of blacks in American history with the murder by some counts of more than 200 African Americans.
Professor David Krugler: Elaine was one of the later episodes in 1919 and was the most murderous episode of antiblack collective violence that year. It occurred in late September and early October.
In Phillips County, Arkansas, where Elaine is located, there had been some union organizing by African American sharecroppers who had hired U.S. Bratton, a white lawyer from Little Rock, to represent them. He had sent his son to Phillips County to take testimony from the sharecroppers.
When the planters learned of the unionization effort and the hiring of a lawyer, they cracked down hard. They sent a special agent of the Missouri Pacific Railroad as well as a sheriff’s deputy to break up a union meeting late one night in September. That led to a shootout. The sharecroppers were prepared for violence against them to block their movement. In that exchange of gunfire, the white special agent for the railroad was killed.
This shooting led to the mobilization of a mob of thousands [of whites] who broke into smaller mobs. Many were deputized so they had the authority of law behind them. The sheriff of Phillips County, Frank Kitchens, used parts of the mob as his posse. White people too joined from Mississippi.
What followed was a massacre—and it is not an exaggeration to use that word. Or a pogrom.
The estimates of the number of dead range from 20 to more than 230. The Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama issued a report this year putting the number of murdered African Americans at 237. Previous accounts I note in the book put the number around 25. The Equal Justice Initiative study hadn’t come out before my book was published, so I used the figure of 25, which is still a large sum and almost as many who died in Chicago that year. If the figures from the Equal Justice Initiative are correct, it was by and large the bloodiest incident of antiblack collective violence in our history.
And it really began because a group of African Americans were organizing to protect their economic interests. For years, they had been ruthlessly cheated out of their earnings and mired in debt peonage by the planters. They were seeking to break out of those chains, this form of slavery by another name that kept them tied to the land, enriching the landlords while leaving them in poverty. When they made a move to break out of that, the mobs formed to break up the union. They defended themselves and that led to even greater retaliatory violence, which also led to African Americans doing what they could to defend themselves, but they were hopelessly outnumbered.
The sharecroppers were rounded up, and that led to another episode of resistance—trying to save the lives of the men accused of conspiracy to murder whites and sentenced to death.
Robin Lindley: And you detail this story of the struggle for justice for these accused black sharecroppers, the Elaine 12.
Professor David Krugler: A lot of scholars are familiar with the U. S. Supreme Court decision that grew out of this case, Moore v. Dempsey, 1923, that established the federal government’s obligation to insure that state judicial proceedings protect the constitutional rights of the accused, particularly due process. To the modern person, it would seem self-evident that such protections were required in state proceedings, but that wasn’t the case until that decision. And that decision would not have reached the Court had it not been for the NAACP and a black lawyer in Arkansas, Scipio Jones, who undertook extensive efforts to defend the 12 sharecroppers who were sentenced to death after being tortured and convicted in hurried and grossly biased court proceedings.
Robin Lindley: Weren’t many innocent bystanders killed in the Elaine violence? I recall an incident of a woman and baby who were burned to death in their home.
Professor David Krugler: The mother and baby incident occurred in Florida in 1920.
In Elaine in 1919, there were many instances of people who were not part of the union effort who died. That’s not to say that the sharecroppers deserved what happened to them, but the efforts of the mobs and posses did not just punish the sharecroppers but also terrorized the majority black population so they would never again undertake anything that would question the status quo. With that blood thirst, you have instances like that of an elderly woman murdered and her body dragged out to the road and her dress pulled over her head. There was an elderly man killed in his bed. These were conscious, very disturbing decisions by the mob to set examples.
There are so many of these atrocities in 1919, to dwell on them could be very disturbing and numbing, but we cannot ignore them because they happened and we have to understand why that happened. As I said, my purpose in the book was to show what African Americans did in response when these atrocities were under way.
A photograph of the posse in Phillips County, Arkansas, that attacked black sharecroppers and their families. Source: AHC 1595.2, from the Collections of the Arkansas History Commission.
Robin Lindley: It seems that these acts of violence against blacks occurred for very trivial reasons, and the acts of self-defense by blacks usually were only after black citizens had asked for protection from law enforcement and local government.
Professor David Krugler: That’s an important point. In so many of the cities where the violence took place, the initial response of black organizations—particularly NAACP branches—was to go to the authorities and ask them to restore order.
A great example of this occurred in Washington, D.C., which had a very active and effective NAACP branch. Its officers met with the commissioner of the District of Columbia, the equivalent of a mayor, and the police chief, and they asked for protection. When they got a very qualified response from these two top officials, they were understandably indignant. In fact, the commissioner of the district, Louis Brownlow, was more interested in knowing what the NAACP leaders were going to do. They left the meeting saying it was [Brownlow’s] job to make sure that everyone is protected and order is restored. If you’re not going to do it, they said, the black men in Washington were not going to stand by and let themselves and their families be shot down like dogs.
This is a great example of that initial response seeking the protection of law and order and being rebuffed and not getting the obligatory response from authorities and then undertaking to do it themselves.
Robin Lindley: That failure of officials to protect African Americans was striking. And then, in terms of justice, whites who initiated violence were seldom charged with crimes yet blacks were frequently charged and prosecuted. The NAACP sought equal justice and compensation for damage to African Americans.
Professor David Krugler: That occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, which had the first major outbreak of antiblack collective violence in 1919. White sailors attacked black civilians and black-owned businesses and destroyed some of them. The NAACP branch in Charleston then sought compensation from the Navy, which did nothing. They also tried to get the Secretary of the Navy to do something and that didn’t work.
Seeking unbiased proceedings in courts was consistent in the cities where there was antiblack collective violence and unfair targeting of black self-defenders by authorities. There were all sorts of legal efforts to see that these people received adequate defense and that they were able to present the facts of the case and their efforts to defend themselves were presented as such, and even that they had a weapon was seen in this context.
This fight for justice as a whole saw success through legal victories, even though there were many setbacks and failures.
Robin Lindley: You note some bright spots in this grim history with some legal victories and the black press acting as a corrective to the biased mainstream white media that presented the perspective of the white majority.
Professor David Krugler: Yes. James Weldon Johnson, an official with the national office of the NAACP, was especially effective in his writing for the New York Age, a black weekly. He took on the misleading and often outright false accounts that were published in the major dailies in U.S. cities about the causes of the violence. Because he went to some of the places where the violence occurred, he was able to provide well-sourced rebuttals to the narratives and establish the real causes of the violence.
Walter White of the NAACP was another writer and he was even more intrepid. He went to Phillips County, Arkansas, and his life was at risk down there when it was discovered he was from the NAACP and was African American. He was very fair skinned so he used that to his advantage to pass as white to carry out investigative work.
White also went to Chicago for its riots. His evidence was not only useful for identifying what caused Chicago’s rioting and for rejecting the stories that were blaming blacks, it was also essential to the fight for justice because he got affidavits from many black Chicagoans on the actions of individual white rioters.
White even delivered much of the evidence to the grand jury that was convened in Chicago to bring riot charges against those who were arrested. As a result of White’s efforts, the grand jury went on strike because in the initial stages of the grand jury hearing, the state’s attorney was presenting only black defendants. After receiving evidence from the NAACP through Walter White that in fact many whites had been arrested and that they were responsible for so much of the violence, the all-white grand jury said they had to see these cases to have a fair judicial proceeding.
Here we see how these efforts tie together—trying to establish the truth about what happened and also secure a chance for fair court proceedings for those who had been detained and charged.
Portrait of Will Brown published in the book Omaha’s Riot in Story and Picture (1919). Source: RG2467-8, Nebraska State Historical Society
Robin Lindley: You also share some vivid photographic evidence from the time. I’ve been haunted by the photograph of the burnt body of Will Brown, a black man lynched in Omaha, since I first saw it as a child in a history book.
Professor David Krugler: That photograph comes from a book published shortly after Omaha’s racial conflict called Omaha’s Riot in Story and Picture. To the modern reader, it’s a disturbing publication because it has the feel of a children’s book. The text is very simple, but the photographs are unforgettable, particular the one that shows a young Will Brown with a pensive, almost sad expression, and of course, the readers know what happened to him. It’s almost as if, in that expression, he’s showing an awareness of his fate, of the horrible death he suffered at the hands of Omaha’s courthouse lynch mob. There are other pictures that give a sense of how many people poured out in Omaha for the storming of the courthouse and the seizure of Will Brown who had been falsely accused of the sexual assault of a young white woman and the assault of her boyfriend.
As I describe in the book, those assaults never took place. It was concocted by an Omaha political boss, Tom Dennison. He had been planning for months to discredit and oust from office progressive reformers who had displaced his party. A newspaper associated with Dennison and his machine had been publishing throughout 1919 lurid accounts alleging that black men had sexually assaulted white women and girls. It’s my belief that Dennison saw that those stories created a stir but they didn’t accomplish his basic purpose. I believe he had his young assistant and his girlfriend make up the attack. I think they found Will Brown ahead of time and had him arrested. I don’t think Dennison anticipated that the courthouse would be stormed and Will Brown seized, but that’s what happened.
Will Brown was hanged from a light pole in downtown Omaha and shot numerous times and his body was cut down and burned. There’s a horrific photo of people—men, women and even a little boy—gathered around the burned body of Will Brown. This is where we see rough justice because the mob members didn’t see what had happened as a shameful crime. They were proud of what happened and wanted to be photographed.
Robin Lindley: It looked almost like a party atmosphere as Mr. Brown burned.
Professor David Krugler: The historians I benefited from explain that this goes back to the notion of rough justice that people believe what they’re doing is right and that it’s not actually a crime to kill someone even though they have been arrested and will be going through the court system. By that logic, it shouldn’t surprise us that they would pose for pictures. This photographic evidence of lynchings is substantial. It should shock us and bother us, but when we understand the logic behind it, we have a better sense of why it occurred.
Robin Lindley: 1919 must have been the worst year of racial violence in our history, at least since Reconstruction.
Professor David Krugler: Absolutely. Reconstruction saw some violent years, but in terms of the frequency and the compressed amount of time, 1919 stands out as the most violent year for racial conflict in US history. This perfect storm of these forces coming together helps us understand why 1919 was so remarkable: the end of the war; the purposes for which the US fought; the mobilization for the war; the Great Migration; the New Negro identity; black military service; increasing organizational activities of the NAACP. These and other factors came together to create the conflicts.
Of course, the overriding cause was the determination of many white Americans to maintain the prewar system of racial segregation and discrimination. Because so many African Americans were determined not to return to that and to achieve full equality and opportunity, that produced friction and resistance.
The number of dead was well over one hundred. Depending on how we count the Phillips massacre, from 20 to 237 African Americans were killed there. In Chicago, the death toll was 38 and 23 of those were blacks. Those were the two bloodiest conflicts. When you add up all of the events and then add more than one hundred lynchings of African Americans in 1919, then you have triple digit death tolls. When you consider the loss of property and livelihoods and businesses—especially in Charleston and Longview, Texas—those who survived with their lives lost everything in this antiblack collective violence.
By those measures, there was a terrible cost. But perhaps the greatest cost was to US democracy itself. I wouldn’t want to impose modern sensibilities or expectations on a time one hundred years ago, but it seems that because it was possible for the United States to mobilize for the world’s most devastating war to that time to make the world safe for democracy, it doesn’t seem impossible to also have had democracy at home for all. That’s what African Americans were saying before, during and after the war. And there was agreement from some white Americans. The epigraph that begins the book is from a white officer who helped command the Harlem Hellfighters. He basically said that, having fought to make the world safe for democracy, it’s time for America to have democracy—meaning for African Americans. That awareness was around in one voice after another, but it’s unfortunate that it wasn’t possible at that time.
Robin Lindley: Your book tells a remarkable and largely unknown story. It has so much resonance with the events recently with police killings of black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, and the mass shooting of African American church people in Charleston by a deranged white supremacist.
Professor David Krugler: Thank you. I think there is a lot of contemporary relevance and 1919 has a lot to tell us about where we are as a nation today. I’ll offer one example.
The recently released Department of Justice report on policing practices in Ferguson reads—if you leave out the technology—as if it was from 1919 in terms of the deliberate targeting of African Americans and Ferguson civic leadership viewing black constituents as revenue generators and not even recognizing that they are the people they serve, that these are our citizens and are taxpayers. There was no compunction about deliberately targeting individuals because of the color of their skin. In other words, there was a double justice system in place, and that was true in so many places in 1919 when African Americans were not treated equally by the police and when rioting began and whites attacked African Americans, police went after African Americans. This helps us understand why the history of distrust and friction on the part of so many black communities and the police that are supposed to protect them is at such a low point now.
This isn’t just something that happened recently in Ferguson or was happening in the 1960s to the present. It has a long history. One of the cartoons in the book from a black Washington weekly called The Bee shows a well-dressed black woman approaching a police officer lounging against a street pole while the background shows a white mob attacking African Americans. The black woman asks, “Why don’t you stop them?” And the police officer responds, “Ha, Ha. That’s what I would like to know.” That exchange was actually reported in one of Washington’s daily newspapers. The police were saying they weren’t getting guidance and weren’t told what to do.
From 1919 to the outbreaks in Ferguson, we see this continuum and perhaps the best lesson is to understand that it’s been a long time in the making and that we need to take steps to break that historical continuity of destruction and often biased policing.
Fortunately today, we don’t have mob attacks to maintain white supremacy, but does that mean all is well? I think the Justice Department report on Ferguson shows that’s not the case.
“This Nation’s Gratitude,” published in the Washington Bee, July 26, 1919, p.1.
Robin Lindley: Recently, on the first anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a white patriot group armed with assault weapons arrived on the scene supposedly to assist police. A black commentator doubted that groups of armed black men with assault weapons would have been welcome there.
Professor David Krugler: Yes. The Oath Keepers, I believe they’re called, tried to explain to those organizing protests in Ferguson that, “We’re on your side, to assure the police don’t do anything to you.” But I think it’s a legitimate question about what the response would be if large numbers of African Americans were openly bearing long rifles and assault weapons on the streets.
In 1919, the sight of African Americans bearing weapons or even the fear that they would have access to weapons preoccupied the Military Intelligence Division and the Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner to the FBI. The young J. Edgar Hoover headed one of its units.
In the book, I looked at the efforts to disarm blacks. The federal government, in collusion with local law enforcement and even gun dealers, denied African Americans their Second Amendment rights and denied them access to weapons they needed to defend themselves because the notion, the lie, was that they were organizing uprisings and conspiracies to murder whites en masse.
Robin Lindley: Your book is a vivid reminder of how ignorance and intolerance erode democracy. Thank you for your book and your thoughtful comments Professor Krugler.