Ep. 4 The Red Summer of 1919 (Part 2)
Updated: Jun 11
Photo Courtesy: The Schomburg Center
The Red Summer of 1919 refers to the period between the spring and fall of that year (specifically, between April and November), during which time about 25 or so race riots, massacres and instances of mob-inspired violence exploded throughout the country. The most brutal and vicious occurred in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Elaine Arkansas. Additionally,nearly 100 lynchings of African Americans were recorded in that year. With heightened racial tension across the nation, it was against this backdrop that the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred two years later.
Part 2 of this two-part episode will feature parts of the documentary, "Knoxville's Red Summer," to do a deep dive into the Knoxville Race Riots of 1919 as an example of some of factors that precipitated riots and mob violence around the country. The documentary was produced by Black in Appalachia, which works to highlight the history of African Americans in the Appalachian Mountains as well as the visibility and contributions of black communities in the Mountain South.
Listeners will hear from Cameron McWhirter, Wall Street Journal Reporter and author of Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America.
“...James Weldon Johnson, who was head of the NAACP, termed it the “Red Summer” because in some of the cases the streets literally…ran with blood.” ~Robert J. Booker, Author and Researcher.
A special thanks to Black in Appalachia for allowing the use of their documentary, "Knoxville's Red Summer," in this episode.
(Cameron McWhirter, Wall Street Journal Reporter and Author)
1. Cameron McWhirter, Wall Street Journal Reporter and Author of Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America. 2. Black in Appalachia.
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Rough Episode Transcription
There were a number of race riots throughout the country. My memory tells me that there were at least 25 of them across the United States and James Weldon Johnson, who was head of the NAACP termed it the red summer, because in many cases, some of the streets RIT literally ran with red, with blood. In addition to the racial and labor tensions that are going on nationwide, there was a great deal of political tension.
The mayor Johnny Macmillan is up, was up for election. One of the reasons that the mayor was controversial at that time was his progressive attitude towards race relations. He had been elected largely with black votes. He had made an address to. The lack of business leaders denouncing the riots elsewhere, denouncing it.
He had denounced lynching, and it said that he personally intended to make sure that nothing like that could ever happen in Knoxville. There had been threats against black voters. Warning that black voters should stay home. On election day, threatening posters had been posted around town. The mayor had a lot of black campaign workers.
One of them being Maurice Mays.
you just heard a clip of Knoxville's red summer, a documentary about the Knoxville Tennessee race riot of 1919. It was produced by black and Appalachia. The organization works to highlight the history of African Americans in the Appalachian mountains, as well as the visibility and contributions of black communities in the mountains.
South Knoxville is red summer is narrated by researcher and author, Robert J. Booker and journalist, Matt Laken
in partnership. With the Tulsa race massacre, Centennial commission. I'm Nia Clark. And this is black wall street, 1921.
This is part two of our two part episode for the red summer of 1919 Knoxville, Tennessee was one of about 25 communities that experienced race riots, massacres, and incidents of mob violence targeting African-Americans between this spring and fall of 1919 a time period. Also known as the red summer. It started on August.
30th 1919 with the arrest of Maurice maze, a black man for the murder of an innocent white woman maze, a nightstand operator had been a Knox County, deputy sheriff, and was well known around town. It was also known that he had an affinity for white women and had been warned by city policeman, Tony white, to stop socializing with white women or be sent to prison.
And so it was white who arrested me for the murder of mrs. Birdie, Lindsey. Despite a lack of evidence.
A white woman by the name of burden Lindsey wound up murdered. The 27 year old Bertie. Lindsey was born Bertie Smith in Lee County, Virginia. In 1916, she married a Daniel P Linsey, a carpenter from Dandridge, Tennessee, and worked at the standard knitting mill, her bedroom, assault and murder at 16, 12 eighth Avenue in North Knoxville was witnessed by her younger cousin.
Aura Smith. Well, the police who hated Mays was investigating case and he said, I know exactly who that murderer was. So they went to amazes house and rousted him out of bed and took him to the scene of the crime. Put him under a dimly, lit a street lamp. And the woman identified him as the murderer. This, this woman had been sleeping in the bed with her cousin who was murdered, who said that it was a black man who committed the crime and the identified bays as the birder.
And he said that couldn't be, I've never been in this neighborhood before. I don't know anybody here maze was taken to the Knox County jail. Mayor McMillan had gotten him out of trouble early on when he was about 17 years old. So people thought that. Mike Millen would get him out of this. He's already expressing fears to the sheriff.
It's not safe that they're going to try to Lynch me.
Who is believed to be biracial was rumored to be the illegitimate son of the mayor, John McMillan, a controversial figure, particularly because of his progressive views on race relations. That connection may have triggered a white mom that forms upon hearing that maze. A black man was accused of killing mrs.
Lindsey, a white woman that mob later stormed and destroyed Knox County jail in search of maze. By that time, the sheriff had already snuck me out of the jail in an attempt to avoid a riot and lynching. When the mob couldn't find nays, they decided they were going to kill every black person they saw in revenge.
The crowd could not be quelled by the national guard. Hearing of the trouble. The black community began to arm themselves knowing the mob was coming. Many of them were veterans of world war one. Who had fought overseas and were treated much better as soldiers before they returned home to segregation.
And they just were not going to stand for this anymore. When the white mob reached the black community chaos ensued,
the Wyatt's are basically a last up here. Fine. And gay down at Von and central in the black community, they have made siege preparations. They've shut out the streetlights. There are reports that there was furniture, Bach traits, that sort of thing, stacked in the streets to create barricades. And it becomes a standoff at that point.
National guard has their machine guns. They bring them in on the back of a truck and they set one up near vine and gay. They set them up on each side of the street and it crossfire the guys, Manning them are not experienced machine owners. A lot of them are mostly kids. Some of them are as young as 15, 16 years old.
Most of them have not been in battle. There was one Lieutenant who tried to make his way down to the corner of vine and central to scout out what was going on. He gets wounded by fire from the black side, staggers out into the street, someone in the mob screams. Let them have it. And at that point, one of the machine gunners panics, and basically just start spraying the street with bullets he's caught in the crossfire and almost literally saw on in half.
And it's, uh, it takes several minutes for the officers to get the machine gun crew back under control. The main fighting, uh, Nirvana and central lasts for several hours, at least up into the morning of the following day. It was fighting all along central Avenue, which was essentially at the border of the black community.
People were fighting on the bridges or accounts of the black men, trying to literally charge the machine gun nests, world war one over the top style and being moaned down. Uh, at some point during the battle, it starts to rain. The general description from both sides was that vine Avenue was a river of blood.
That the real toll was probably never, ever, never going to be. Now the official. Count was first five, then two, one casualty being Lieutenant pane. The other being Joe ETR, a black Spanish American veterans storekeeper, who was acknowledged as one of the leaders on the black side. How many more, there are all kinds of accounts.
he's tried once he's convicted, the judge gives the verdict, his Hardy approval and sentences, Maurice maze to death by the second trial in 1921, the number of women who are willing to testify that they've been attacked in the same manner. After mazes arrest has increased to 15. And that includes one woman who says that the man stuck a gun in her face and said, lay still, or I'll kill you.
And like I did that Lindsay woman again, the judge refuses to allow that testimony again, he's convicted again, but offense appeals this time they're turned down. The case goes before the governor. Now governor Taylor. Won't you please come out to the prison to see me. I am eager and very anxious to explain to you personally, some valuable information that you should have certainly know.
Please allow me to urgently beg for your presence. Humbly yours, Maurice May's death chamber. He appealed to the governor and everybody else. The newly formed Knoxville, NAACP got involved in the case and they attempted to raise money for his defense, but none of that did any good. So amaze was eventually sent to the electric chair in March of 1922.
And I always see that he really wasn't electrocuted for murdering the white woman because. I never saw any evidence of that in any of the court transcripts that I read, but he went to the electric chair for dealing with white women, which was a real taboo in, in 19, 19. So he paid with his life. For that indiscretion rather than being convicted of the murder for which he was accused
in part one of the red summer of 1919, we were joined by Cameron McWhorter wall street, journal, reporter and author. Of red summer, the summer of 1919, and the awakening of black America. He explained some of the contributing factors that led to the red summer, as well as the facts and circumstances surrounding a number of other riots and massacres across the country.
He also explained. Why the red summer, in his opinion was an awakening for black people and black institutions in America. Here is where we left off. In that episode.
To me, the, the interesting story of 1919, which I think carries through ultimately in Tulsa is. One of fighting back, you know, they fought back. African-Americans the NAACP, which I consider the heroes of 19, 19 fought back politically. They fought back in the courts. They began lobbying in Congress and holding hearings in Congress.
They were pressing for federal lynching legislation. They started really actively fighting that way. There were lots of people arguing in the press and fighting back that way. And then there were people literally picking up rocks and bricks in the streets and fighting back and shooting back when they could get guns.
So it was a period where. I argue in the book, that was the beginning of, of the modern civil rights movement because the African American community awakened as a political force and they weren't going to take this mistreatment anymore. It wasn't the end. It certainly wasn't the end of segregation or the end of white violence against African Americans by any means.
But it was a beginning of. Mass African-American response to that. And the assertion we're here, or part of the United States, we deserve the same rights. As everyone else in the United States, and we're not going anywhere.
we're going to hear more from McWhorter about how the name red summer came to be as well as how institutions such as journalism and our justice system. Either fueled or did little to stop the incidents of horrific communal violence that terrorized so many black communities in 1919, and in many cases enabled it.
Okay. You know, James Walter Johnson, who I consider a great American hero that not enough people know about. Was the man who coined the phrase red summer, but, and he mentions it in a memoir in passing. Why did he write, was his being so bloody? He said it was, it was so bloody. It was the red summer. And it was, it was so horrific.
It was so scary. To everybody that people just wanted to forget about it. People wanted to just move on and, and or if it didn't happen in your community, Whoa. Oh yeah. Cause I would never happen where we live that would never happen here, you know? And I'm sure I guarantee you. Build a time machine and go back to 1919 in Tulsa, either in the Greenwood neighborhood or somewhere else, you could go into a coffee house or a bar and people would say, Oh God, you read about what happened in Chicago, man.
They've got problems that would never happen here. Right? I'm sure people said that because you always want to think that it's not where you are. That there's no. Oh, we all get along here. You mentioned journalism, the role I too am a journalist and yes, it's hard to come to terms with what was the sort of yellow journalism that existed back then?
When the case of Tulsa, the Tulsa Tribune and the world were. Obviously more like editorial publications, as opposed to just straight news sources and both are seen as having a huge role in the perception of the Tulsa race massacre. But the Tribune is actually. Considered by some experts to be one of the big catalysts that set off the massacre because of the way they described the events, which, you know, we'll get into later in the podcast, but suffice to say the language they used in their headlines, for example, to Lynch a Negro tonight is a article clipping that has emerged to have been one of the catalysts.
Of the riot. Is it as a journalist? Is it hard to come to terms with sort of where it professionals in your industry once we're in the role of journalism today? Well, no, I mean, it's shocking to come across some of the distortions that I did, but I also feel that at that time, it wasn't surprising. These were the prejudices that you read about, or certainly the common prejudices of the day.
And they were simply echoing them. It makes you me more wonder, like, what prejudices are we at going now that we don't right. So, for example, the riot that takes place in Washington, DC, prior to that, the major newspapers in the city had been reporting on various assaults against women who white women, numerous times reports had accounts of a quote, a black fiend was seeing blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Although in many of these cases, no one had been arrested. So we don't, we don't know. To this day, who, who, what happened or what, but these reports were raising racial tensions in the city to the point where the NAACP actually had meetings with various newspapers saying, Hey, look, please be careful with the language that you're using.
Please choose your words carefully because this could cause some violence when the violence does erupt it erupts because. The ground has been laid with these news accounts, but there's a rumor that a white woman was raped by two African American men. The truth of the matter. And we don't know the exact truth, but the truth of the matter is that what actually happened was a white woman was walking down the street.
And we don't know if she jostled these two men or they jostled her, but words were exchanged, but she had an umbrella and they sort of bumped her umbrella. That's what happened. Hmm. And that led to, did you hear that these guys raped a white woman and they start rioting? So that led to four days of writing in the nation's capital, you know, and then to believe that while I was, I mean, it really, in the absence of information, people riot all the time, you know, I've been in some riots in my day and it's chaotic and people want something to motivate them.
They want to believe, and they don't look for facts. People stop looking for facts. And that's certainly what happened in many cases in 1919, it wasn't about the facts. It was about their impulse and acting on their fear when they killed John Heartfield in Ellisville, Mississippi in 1919. He'd been accused of attacking a white woman.
They pursued him for days of posse, pursued him for days. We shot him and wounded him, mortally. They brought in a doctor to keep him alive, just so they could Lynch him the next day, newspapers all around the country. It was announced not that there was a lynching that there's going to be a lynching the event.
Uh, I think the estimates were up to 10,000 people showed up. It was a public event that had been. Heralded in the newspapers. You mentioned you have scenes and riots in your day. You mentioned you've lived abroad and you've mentioned you've lived all over places in the United States and everywhere you've gone, you've seen sort of this theme.
What has it taught you between studying the history of riots, especially in 19, 19, and then current events in the context of riots in the present day, what has it taught you about humanity? That's a wow, that's a really broad question. And then I hope I can try to answer. I think it's taught me that leaders who are quickly and impartially to stop communal violence can do so if they act quickly, you can stop it.
And that if people think that we are number one, it can't happen here. It could never happen here. Or that was in the past. That can't happen now. They're wrong. It can happen. And it can happen again and what you're requires to make sure it doesn't happen again, is leaders who are willing to impartially, enforce the law and get, get impartial troops into the area or police into the area and then listen to all sides and listen to people.
And I think that is, if you don't do that, a riot will become, will spin out of control. Very, very, very quickly. But, but these were, you know, it would just take a flashpoint for this stuff to erupt, you know, so Tulsa, as you pointed out, there was a flash point, but it was a fabricated one. Right. But. It didn't matter.
John Heartfield, who was, who was lynched in front of 10,000 people in which they, I mean really horrific people where they were selling his fingers. I mean, it was really terrific. Terrific. But that incident like giddy assault of a woman, we don't know. We'll never know. We'll never know because it was never a trial.
There wasn't even an unfair trial. It was never a trial. Mr. Brown, it was killed in Omaha. Did he do it? We're never going to know because there was never a trial. So it just takes a flashpoint of people hearing something and thinking it's true. You know, I mean, you've talked about journalism. I mean, I'm much more concerned about misinformation these days, but people want to believe something's true.
They embrace it as true, and then they act on it and it may not be true. So that certainly was the case. Throughout 19, 19, all these riots and once a riots going, the only way to stop it is to send in a lot of soldiers. And even then sometimes that doesn't stop it. Sometimes the soldiers join, the soldiers have to be impartial.
Otherwise you're just feeling the chaos. Right? Right. I studied journalism in undergrad. I went to Columbia journalism school, but I also double majored in Africana studies. In undergrad and never learned about the Tulsa race massacre never learned about black wall street. I learned about it, but I didn't know all of the details I know now.
And I was horrified what is considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence and a us history is just virtually unknown among most people, including in curriculum that focuses on black studies, African American studies. I mean, it's not just. American history. It's black history classes as well.
That just don't teach that. And I think recently Oklahoma decided that the Tulsa race massacre would indeed now be a part of the group of them that's after almost a hundred years later. Right. But the other reason was because there was such a concerted effort to suppress the truth, to suppress the story.
And what's fascinating to me is that most of these people. Would not talk about it just would not talk about it. And some of them were threatened with their lives. Some of them are threatened with their jobs, but it was also too traumatizing for a lot of people to relive that experience. Definitely. I mean, I totally think you are.
Correct there. For example, that incident in Georgia, that I wrote about the church, there were people I met there who wouldn't talk about it. You know, it was 90 years later. And talk about it. The center of that story is a man named Joe Ruffin. Who's accused. They basically try to Lynch. He has to flee to Augusta he's put on trial for murder, even though he didn't, he wasn't involved or he was involved, but he wasn't a murderer.
And he eventually is after a lot of work is, is acquitted and goes free, but he fled and no one really knows what happened to him, but his family had a scatter and his great, great grandson ended up. Living nearby with his, with his mom when he was in the 1950s. And his mom told him as a little boy, like, you can never go near that church, but wouldn't explain a thing.
Why and lady beat her. He grew up and went to Morehouse, became an attorney and worked for the NAACP and Rose to become a judge, a very prominent judge in the state of Georgia. And I met him. And when I showed him what I had found about what happened at Carswell Grove, and he said, I've learned. From you than I've ever learned my whole life about what happened.
Cause no one would talk about, I think there's a real, there was a generation or multiple generations of African-Americans. We just didn't talk about this stuff. Let me just make a pitch. I mean, I think the important thing here is that we have to have these discussions and that beyond this, this is an important part of African American history.
Of course it is, but it's an integral part of America. History. So we have to understand it. And if you don't understand race and the role that race has played in American history, you don't understand American history. It's that simple. And that goes back, of course, the 16, 19, and it weaves through the whole story.
And that doesn't mean America's a stained, horrible country. There's horrible. Things have happened in every country in the world, but we have to understand it and we have to incorporate it. Into our understanding of ourselves that we have to, because it can happen again. It can happen again.
now that we've really explored and analyzed so much of what happened before it, in the next episode. We're going to really dive into the central focus of this podcast, the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 specifically, we're going to explore the factors at events that precipitated what is known as one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history.
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