“It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen . . . We locked the plant, went downstairs, and drove home in silence. My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope.” ~ Actor Henry Fonda, witness to Omaha lynching at age 14
Like the events in the 1919 Chicago riots, what happened in Omaha on September 28, 1919 also grew from labor unrest at the local stockyards and conflicts with European immigrants. With over 10,000 African Americans, Omaha had one of the largest black populations west of the Mississippi. Earlier that week Will Brown had been arrested for allegedly raping a white woman. A mob of 4000 set fire to the courthouse and demanded that Brown be turned over to them. He was hanged nearby, then his body was dragged though the streets and burned. National guard troops arrived early the next morning to stop further violence.
Another attempted lynching led to a death toll some estimates place at over 100 in Knoxville on August 30. Although the suspect had been moved to Chattanooga for his safety, the rioters dynamited the jail, taking confiscated whiskey and firearms. Violence spread throughout the city. Two platoons of National Guardsmen arrived quickly but could not restore order until the next day. Dozens of arrests were made of white men who took part but all were acquitted.
Even more deadly was the Elaine Massacre in eastern Arkansas beginning September 30 with unconfirmed deaths as high as 200. It began with a confrontation between sherriff’s deputies and African American sharecroppers who were gathered to demand equal treatment from landowners. Rumors quickly spread about their intent, and white men from surrounding areas in Arkansas and Mississippi poured in to put down the revolt. Federal troops where called in and were responsible for a number of the African American deaths. The violence ended with the arrest of between 250 and 300 African Americans. Of that number, twelve were sentenced to death but their sentences were overturned due to the efforts of the NAACP Field Secretary James Weldon Johnson and attorney Scipio Jones.
The return of over 350,000 African American troops from World War I was a major factor in the events of the summer.
After fighting for their country these men found it difficult to readjust to life in Jim Crow America and their presence increased white repression. Outbreaks in Washington DC, Charleston, and Bisbee, Arizona stemmed from conflicts involving African American sevicemen. Cameron McWhirter’s recent book Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America traces this and other causes.
|If We Must Die, by Claude McKay
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!