Late on the Monday night of July 21, 1919, James E. Scott came back to Washington from a weekend out of town. His train pulled into Union Station right around midnight.
The World War I veteran had picked a good time to get away. D.C. was in the midst of an unusually hot summer, even by its own swampy standards. Humidity hung in the air over the train yard and must have lingered under the high ceiling of the opulent railway station.
During that long, sewery summer, another kind of heat had been beating down on the city as well. The war had temporarily ballooned Washington’s population and opened up thousands of new jobs. But now that it was over, all kinds of folks were still around, trying to hang on. Stories about a crime wave filled the newspapers. The news ratcheted up the pressure in the sweltering city, most dangerously along the city’s precarious racial fault line.
The reports, written with lurid and inflammatory flair, suggested that black rapists were menacing D.C.’s white women. In response, white Washingtonians were forming posses. Talk of bringing back the lynchings of yore filled the air. Race relations were in a downward spiral nationwide—riots had already hit Charleston, S.C., and Longview, Texas—and the tense, nasty capital city was no exception. Scott knew about the trouble, of course, but he had no idea what he was in store for upon his return.
Stepping off the train, Scott walked out of the station and waited outside for the first of the streetcars that would carry him homeward.
He took the Rock Creek Bridge line trolley up New Jersey Avenue to Florida Avenue. At 7th Street NW, Scott got off to wait for a transfer. About five minutes later, a streetcar bound for the Brightwood neighborhood arrived, rumbling up through deserted midnight streets. Scott and a uniformed Army captain—one of the endless stream of demobilized soldiers hanging around postwar D.C.—boarded the northbound car and headed off.
It was only after he got on the second streetcar that Scott noticed anything unusual. Seventh and Florida lay near the heart of black D.C. Yet this evening, the weary traveler didn’t see a single other African-American aboard the trolley.
Scott paid his fare and headed toward a vacant seat. But a soldier stuck his arm out and stopped him. “Where are you going, nigger?” he asked. Stammering, Scott replied that he was only going to sit down. But by then, his words were being drowned out by the other passengers.
“Lynch him,” said one.
“Kill him,” said another.
“Throw him out of the window,” said a third.
The crowd pressed in. Hands grabbed at Scott from all sides. In a panic, he forced his way to the back of the trolley, heading straight for the rear door. As he jumped down to the street, something smashed into his head. A passenger had thrown something that gashed his ear open.
Blood squirted from the cut. On the back of his head, a painful lump rose. Scott was reeling. The car began to pull away, but not before the conductor leaned out the door and pulled out a revolver, firing three shots at Scott as he fled.
Scott scrambled for cover. But as the teeming streetcar squeaked away, he noticed something else. There was, in fact, a second African American on the car, a black woman sitting by the rear door. She was still on the trolley, surrounded by the mob, as it trundled uptown. He never found out what happened to her.
Scott was lucky to be alive. He had wandered right into the middle of the Washington race riots of 1919, the most deadly episode of rioting in the city’s history. The violence claimed 30 to 40 lives, according to historians’ estimates. Those estimates make the riots almost three times as deadly as the far more famous upheavals of April 1968.
But Scott’s magnificently understated account of being face to face with the mob—one of the few surviving testimonials from the riots—tells contemporary Washington about something besides just the peril he faced. According to received wisdom, before 1968 and crack, D.C. was a peaceful place that didn’t participate in urban America’s gun-toting foolishness. Before black power and white flight, they say, the district was run by stable elites slowly but surely working their way to fairness and decency.
1968, by this account, was the year Washington was banished from Eden. This account doesn’t quite square with Scott’s nightmarish streetcar ride. It doesn’t square with the 1919 accounts of drunken young white mobs—no Georgetown Halloween frat boys, these—beating people in the streets. It doesn’t square with reports of the four days of Model T-propelled drive-by shootings that erupted out of the summer’s racial meltdown.
It certainly doesn’t square with the story of Lawrence Johnson, a black man beaten up by rioting Marines just spitting distance from the White House. Using rocks wrapped in handkerchiefs, they beat him about the head, until one finally pulled out a club and knocked him to the pavement. He lay there, bleeding, until an ambulance picked him up 20 minutes later.
George Montgomery didn’t live in any Eden, either. The 55-year-old African-American went out to the store near his Southwest D.C. home to buy some cantaloupes on the first night of the riots. He ran into a gang of white soldiers, apparently out hunting for a suspected rapist.
They asked Montgomery what he was doing out so late. Before he could answer, someone smashed a brick into his head. When the police descended on the area, they wound up arresting eight black men and only two whites in connection with the violence.
The patronizing urban legend about docile black residents who minded their step until home rule turned their heads doesn’t square with the story of Thomas Armstead. After two days of white-on-black violence, Armstead joined the folks fighting back. He and five others cruised north along 7th Street in his open car, guns blazing out of both sides of the open vehicle—a demonstration that gives the lie to the notion that the drive-by shooting originated during the go-go ’80s.
It was close-in, municipal warfare. Under attack, African-Americans began striking back all over the city. Near M Street, Armstead shot at a mounted cavalry soldier. He missed, but he shot the horse from under him. The cavalryman was thrown in the air and then kicked by the screaming horse. The officer crumpled to the ground. Continuing north, Armstead and company shot at a police officer, sending a bullet whizzing right through his hat. A cadre of pursuing policemen finally stopped the car. In the ensuing shootout, the cops shot Armstead and 18-year-old Jane Gore dead. Their companions escaped.
The week’s newspapers hold dozens more stories like this one. It was a time of chaotic, anarchic violence: surprising in its degree, maybe, but not necessarily unexpected. Washington in 1919 was in fact playing out a chapter of the racial history—as well as the economic, social, and political anxieties—that bedevils it today. The only really amazing thing is how completely this chapter has been forgotten.
Trouble and hate found a foothold in D.C. in part because there wasn’t all that much to do during the desultory summer of 1919. In a time of shortages and inflation, one distraction that remained affordable was reading the newspaper—two cents on weekdays and a nickel on Sundays. And the papers were worth every penny: Washington in 1919 was in the midst of a raging newspaper war, with four dailies slugging it out on newsstands. One of these, a local rag considered to be just the third most important paper, was known as the Washington Post.
In those days, the Post was under the control of an owner named Ned McLean. Invariably described by historians as a “playboy,” McLean was during the summer of 1919 on the warpath against District of Columbia Commissioner Louis Brownlow and his police chief, Raymond Pullman. An anti-Prohibitionist, McLean believed, among other things, that the police were spending too much time busting drinkers and too little time fighting criminals—especially black ones.
Looking to discredit the local leadership, McLean played up every possible account of crime, real or imagined. And in the culture of early-20th-century Washington, no crime was as salacious as a black attack on a white woman. No less than seven such attacks were reported in his paper during the leadup to July 19. Subsequent revelations discredited all but one of the reports, but it didn’t matter. The Post’s competitors—even the more serious Washington Star—followed suit.
The reports mesmerized the city. People demanded action. Even some black leaders waxed outraged.
On July 6, Pullman responded by calling out a posse of 1,000 white members of the wartime police auxiliary known, spookily, as the Home Defense League. The posse was to search for the suspect in three Upper Northwest rapes. Authorities took 135 black men into custody. Pullman himself offered a $2,500 bounty for “the head of the Negro fiend.”
The Columbia Heights Citizens Association, meanwhile, offered to hold a “lynching bee” if the need arose. A summary lynching was barely stopped just two days after Pullman’s announcement. The same day, newspapers reported that the Klu Klux Klan had ridden in Montgomery County—the first D.C.-area Klan ride since Reconstruction, nearly 50 years earlier.
At least some people feared the repercussions of yellow journalism. On July 9, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sent letters to all four dailies saying that the papers were “sowing seeds of a race riot by their inflammatory headlines, featuring ‘Negro’ in all sorts of unnecessary ways.”
It was to no avail. Though the Star lightened up, the Post kept pouring on the gas. And on the Friday evening, July 18, when 19-year-old Elsie Stephnick was accosted by two black men while walking home along D Street SW from her job at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the paper had yet another great opportunity.
Although the reported attack consisted of nothing more than an unsuccessful attempt to swipe her umbrella, the newspaper treated it as the latest ghastly transgression of Washington’s greatest taboo: an attack on white womanhood. The next morning’s Post rang the alarms. “NEGROES ATTACK GIRL,” it read. “WHITE MEN VAINLY PURSUE.”
The story was the equivalent of the cow kicking the bucket that started the Great Chicago Fire. Saturday night, 400 or so white vigilantes began attacking strangers in Southwest. They were drunk, they were angry, and they were filled with hate. The riots had begun.
An attack on a white woman may have provided the spark, but there was already lots of gunpowder lying around. The rumored attack and its aftermath were in fact one of many such incidents in the evolving racial history
Unlike many racially riven cities, where unfamiliarity bred tension, Washington had always had a substantial black population. A slaveholding territory before the Civil War, the District had also had a large number of free black people. The presence of this relatively well-educated population had always given D.C.’s African-Americans a leadership that helped ameliorate the worst indignities of antebellum life.
But local African-Americans’ steady push for self-determination had also sparked resentment: As early as the the 1830s, mob violence had targeted D.C.’s free blacks. “Folks decided black folk were getting too uppity,” says historian Carol Gibbs. True to form, it was rumors of an attack on a white woman that sparked the so-called “Snow Storm,” which targeted Snow’s Epicurean Eating House, a local African-American restaurant, in 1835.
After the Civil War, the District boasted the largest urban black population in the country. Life in the leafy capital city was, for many African-Americans, a far more comfortable existence than they could expect elsewhere in the country. That very fact, however, was itself almost guaranteed to stir up white resentment when things got tight.
Around Howard University, an educated elite with access to government and professional jobs formed its own stable business base. Along 7th and U streets NW, scores of black-run restaurants, taverns, and theaters thrived. Students at Dunbar High School took classes from African-American Ph.D.s unable to land university jobs. Under the umbrella of complete social segregation, the District also emerged as the creative center of black America.
“Integration wasn’t working,” explains Kathryn Smith, a historian whose work has focused on the Shaw neighborhood. “Jim Crow was in place. So a lot of the black leaders said, ‘Let’s build our own.’…The community had a tremendous sense of pride in their achievement. So it’s not at all surprising that there was leadership to stand up to threats.”
The threats popped up again and again. Despite the best efforts of federal migrants to ignore the local accent, the District remained a Southern city. And when push came to shove, white D.C. went to great lengths to maintain its supremacy. The specter of African-American suffrage was one of the reasons home rule died in 1872 after a short post-Civil War experiment with local democracy. Faced with the prospect of black citizens in their midst actually voting, white Washingtonians ultimately didn’t much care about losing their own right to vote.
The end of home rule occurred right around the time the post-Civil War push to defend black rights bit the dust nationwide. The city’s political fate was always tied to federal whims—and as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, those whims were increasingly anti-black. Nationally and locally, race relations retreated from postwar hopefulness to something resembling benign neglect. And that was when things were going well.
And the end of Reconstruction carried with it the implicit threat that if African-Americans got out of line, things could turn ugly real fast. “The level of violence that people were aware could be turned on them was a major factor” in local black life, says Howard University historian Elizabeth Clark-Lewis.
The Woodrow Wilson administration was a particularly difficult one for black D.C. Elected in 1912, the Virginia-born Wilson brought with him the most pro-Dixie administration in half a century. During the pre-World War I height of its power, the administration proposed increasing segregation in federal jobs. There were also proposals to segregate the city’s public transit system, which, thanks to Reconstruction-era Yankee Congressmen, had always stayed integrated.
“Wilson himself was an ardent segregationist,” says Clark-Lewis. “He sought to codify what was essentially a social practice.” These efforts were blows not only to the city’s black poor, many of whom lived in garrets along D.C.’s back alleys, but also to the doctors, lawyers, and teachers—many of them born during the days of slavery—who made up its stable, conservative black middle class.
Black Washingtonians took their lumps—they had no choice—but they also organized. The local NAACP chapter, filled with those same doctors, lawyers, and teachers, was among the nation’s biggest. The structure of race relations was a product of constant pushes and shoves. As the country lurched toward World War I, large numbers of D.C.’s African-Americans were eager to push back and carve themselves some more space. It only made sense—unless you were talking to the white people who occupied the territory they sought.
Postwar D.C. was a good place to be pissed off.
Wars inevitably transform Washington, and World War I was no exception. Washingtonians in 1919 found that race relations, class dynamics, and even gender roles had been changed. Nervous citizens looked for scapegoats and found targets ranging from leftists to abolitionists to members of other races.
The city itself had grown by nearly 100,000 people between 1916 and 1919, hitting 455,428 the year of the riots. Nationwide, the war had spurred a migration of black Southerners to industrial jobs in Northern cities. Washington reaped some of this migration, though the District’s main attraction was jobs in government rather than factories. Thousands of locals had gone to the front, but a seemingly endless stream of others had arrived to push papers in their place.
The local private sector had also opened up to African-Americans, hiring them to replace white workers who’d taken war jobs. While wages for predominantly white bureaucrats were static during the war years, black skilled workers got raises as demand shot up. The situation rankled a working-class white population long accustomed to, at the very least, having a group to look down on.
Black Washingtonians had also served with great distinction in the segregated army: Twenty-five of 480 D.C. troops in the 1st Separate batallion had been awarded the croix de guerre, France’s highest military honor. Optimistic locals thought that heroism while fighting for democracy might, at last, earn African-Americans their place at D.C.’s table. But the exclusion of the batallion from a welcoming parade for local heroes was seen as a major slight. It would turn out to be the first of many.
Some of the practical externalities of postwar Washington created additional kindling. Soldiers back from the psychological shock of trench warfare were looking for work: An entire population of would-be Deer Hunters had arrived at once. Large numbers of them, particularly Southern veterans, had decided to make the capital their new home. Looking for normality in a suddenly uncertain economy, they hit the streets of D.C. just as shortages, price hikes, and grime were reaching epic proportion. One veteran complained to the Washington Herald that, unlike Europe’s “picturesque dirt,” the District’s was merely “sordid and squalid.”
Even for those who hadn’t fought, things were precarious. From March onward, unemployment soared: The war-bloated government was retrenching, and no one knew who would get to hold onto their precious jobs—or their even more precious social positions. White Washingtonians projected much of their anxiety onto their black neighbors.
Meantime, the paranoia of the big postwar Red scare had also begun to take hold. The attempted bombing of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s D.C. home was blamed on radicals. The wartime fear of sedition had turned into a full-blown fear of domestic revolution. Anyone who spoke out was a suspect—including black people looking to change the District’s segregated system.
“People who take part in a war, when the war ends, tend to keep looking for enemies,” says Howard’s Clark-Lewis. “If African-Americans respond in any way but the expected way, they must be foreigners or the enemy.”
At times, the suspicion was almost comical. The archives of the Military Intelligence Bureau include a report chronicling the threat posed to national security by a black elevator operator who had the audacity to proposition a white woman.
But the real threat represented by the elevator operator, the city’s NAACP chapter, black professionals, and medal-clad veterans wasn’t Bolshevik revolution, it was the challenge to a social order that provided a lot of nervous people their little remaining sense of place. In some other cities, the tensions of the times played themselves out in local politics. In the District, which had no local politics, they simply roiled under a false patina of stability.
There are a lot of crackpot theories about who struck the first blow.
One military intelligence report claimed that a mysterious, foreign-accented agitator—the cause of all unexplained evil during the Red scare era—had been seen stirring up trouble. Likewise, D.C. Commissioner Louis Brownlow, still fuming when he penned his memoirs nearly 40 years later, claimed that his presumably more local enemies had paid impostors to start a riot.
More plausibly, some versions of the story have the riots erupting out of a fight between white southern GIs and some black bootleggers. The soldiers went down to Southwest to buy moonshine. They came back with nothing but tea with some whiskey splashed on top, a period scam roughly equivalent to white boys buying bits of soap off the street instead of rocks of crack.
Later on, they went back looking for a fight and got their asses kicked, according to reports from FBI files. The next day, with talk of Elsie Stephnick’s assault buzzing throughout the District, the soldiers had an excuse to go back—and an easy way to rustle up some good ol’ boy companions.
But Stephnick’s attack—or at least her attack as it was reported—is at the heart of most accounts. The police knew that hysteria about a white woman imperiled by wild-eyed Negroes meant trouble. That day, even before fights broke out, Police Chief Pullman announced that any young man on the streets late at night, black or white, would be stopped for questioning. The embattled chief had good reason to be agitated: Before he’d even announced the $2,000 reward for the assailants, he’d received a death threat from someone furious that no assailant had been charged.
Given the mood of the day, it’s pretty safe to say that the 400 booze-swilling veterans who met up at the Pennsylvania Avenue Knights of Columbus hut on Saturday, July 19, were in no mood to listen to the cops who told them to stay home. It was revealed that Stephnick was the wife of a naval aviator: Not only were they riled up about a race crime, they also saw it as an attack on one of the military’s own.
As the night wore on, they started across the mall toward heavily black Southwest. By coincidence, they came across one of the men suspected of the alleged assault. Linton Ralls was beaten by a mob of 100 as his wife looked on. As talk turned to lynching him, Ralls escaped, barricading himself at home. Distracted, the mob turned its attention to other unlucky passers-by. The police did little to stop them, according to accounts in the Washington Bee, the leading black paper in town.
The first night’s violence was actually tame compared with the next evening’s. Many people, in fact, thought the crisis was over—that Saturday had been the outburst the city needed to blow off steam. Though NAACP leaders visiting the Secretary of the Navy received no promise of official action to restrain rampaging sailors, life in the city seemed fairly normal the next day.
But as dusk settled, the calm evaporated. Scuffles broke out up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, away from the Southwest locus of the previous night. At 9th Street, police were arresting an African-American named Isaac Payne when a white mob rolled up to beat him. Crowds of white men dragged black people off streetcars and chased people through restaurants. Fights raged in front of both the White House and the District Building.
Black historian Carter Woodson, on his way home to a boarding house near Howard University, watched a mob grab a black pedestrian and shoot him in cold blood near the corner of 8th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Woodson hid out in the deep recess of a storefront until he could sneak home.
Once again, the police did little to stop the rioting. This time, beyond any out-and-out sympathy for the rioters, they were also hamstrung by the sheer volume of the violence: A dozen serious clashes were called in just between 7th and 15th streets on Pennsylvania Avenue—and there were many in other neighborhoods, as well.
The Home Defense League police volunteers, meanwhile, were even less help, with many defenders actively taking part in the violence. Non-uniformed citizens joined in, too. Subsequent articles in the black press identified “the cracker class which invaded the city” as playing a role in the mayhem. The New York Times reported that the night was punctuated by cries of “There he goes!” as vigilantes alerted each other to the presence of black passers-by.
A news account in New York’s Globe newspaper captured the twisted exhilaration of the violence. A reporter quoted his Italian barber’s take on his night among the thugs:
“There was a nigger running along with a crowd after him,” the barber reportedly said, “and I didn’t pay any attention at first. But when the guy came by he made a pass at me….So I says to myself, ‘That’ll do for you, Bo.’ And I ran after him. Soon’s I began to run I got the feeling how I could understand the crowd that [was] chasing the bird. It was fun.”
For its first two days, the D.C. riots were really an old-fashioned Southern shoot-’em-up—a cracker pogrom, with the local black population trying as best it could to defend itself, and otherwise trying to stay the hell out of harm’s way. But the postwar urban world was a changed place, where rage would unfold in different ways. The second two nights of rioting looked more like a race war.
It fell to the Post, once again, to up the ante. Monday morning’s paper featured a military-style announcement of a “mobilization” of servicemen. “The purpose,” reported the paper, “is a ‘clean-up’ that will cause the events of the last two evenings to pale into insignificance.”
No such mobilization had in fact been ordered, but the implication was clear: Trumping even his own agitated coverage, McLean was calling out the mob.
Black D.C. understood what this summons meant. By that evening, the city’s black community had—by the estimate of the then-head of Washington’s black teacher’s union—spent $14,000 on guns and ammunition, buying arms in both Washington and Baltimore. The next day’s papers reported police speculation that local pawn shops alone had sold at least 500 revolvers. Stories circulated around town about the Howard University ROTC distributing weapons and planning an armed defense.
That evening, the violence went both ways, to deadly effect. A cordon of cavalry ordered out by the Secretary of War surrounded African-American areas in Shaw, holding back a throng of 1,000 white men. At 7th and T streets NW, the mobs ran into armed black resistance. When they were pushed back, they headed downtown for more fights.
Black sharpshooters, meanwhile, stood atop the historic Howard Theater, ready to defend the neighborhood. And African-American veterans manned barricades against the white rioters on New Jersey Avenue as well as U Street.
Other African-American Washingtonians, not content to lie in wait, began raiding white neighborhoods. Here were the clashes that made D.C.’s riots different from earlier ones, like the dreadful East St. Louis riots of 1917: Under attack by hostile mobs, the black community fought back. They organized, they armed, and, at times, they met vindictive cruelty with vindictive payback.
A white population long accustomed to having its way with its African-American neighbors was utterly floored by the black response. It was, if anything, far more flabbergasting than the smoke-laden Watts redux that played out in 1968. Washington in 1919 was ahead of the curve.
To the restless advocates of African-American self-determination, it was about time. The black press hailed the defense of Washington. “African-Americans, who had decried the level of violence, decided they were no longer going to allow citizens to be beaten, killed, and maimed for no reason,” says Clark-Lewis.
At 14th and U streets NW, epicenter of 1968’s violence, 30 black people were reported to have attacked a streetcar. Sitting in her New York Avenue window, Carrie Johnson took potshots at the white mobs prowling the streets below, hitting one of them. When the police raided her house, she traded shots with an entire team of armed cops, holding them off until a bullet caught her in the hip. She was arrested and charged with the shooting.
After midnight, cars full of armed men began to take to the streets, adding a new automotive dimension to the rioting. That night was the bloodiest yet, filling the city’s segregated hospitals as well as its segregated morgue.
The city’s rioting was by now making headlines nationwide. Observers blamed everything from Prohibition’s frustrations to, ironically enough, excess booze. The New York Times used the riots to mourn the passing of the prewar “good Negro” who knew his place. While Congress ignored local demands for an official inquiry, one Mississippi senator argued that everything would be solved if only D.C. would end integration aboard its streetcars.
D.C. leaders, meanwhile, asked President Wilson to declare martial law in the city. He refused, but he did mobilize active troops from Quantico Marine Corps Base and Fort Meade to help quell the rioting. Troops as far away as New York were placed on alert.
The extra measures worked, and by creating an environment of swift and sure consequence, African-American self-defense had scared off a lot of would-be hooligans. Between the heavy cordon of military and a heavy summer rainstorm, the city was more or less quiet by Tuesday night. The riots of 1919 were over. As the smoke cleared, newspapers put the death toll at just 15. Historians suspect it was two or three times higher.
No pictures remain from the 1919 riots. The whole bloody affair, in fact, is all but invisible on the city’s radar screen, unremembered but for the occasional article and the odd
Seventy-nine years on, the generation that remembers the 1919 riots is also dying off. A lot of people remember staying inside as fights raged, but few people recall any details. “All I remember is looking out the window and seeing people gathering,” says Flava Connelly, who was 11 at the time. “I saw people on the street, but I didn’t know the nature of it. We just stayed inside.”
Connelly wasn’t alone. Betty McAuley, 98, who grew up near the Howard Theater, also didn’t foray out into the melee. “I’ve always tried to stay away from those things.”
Edgar Lee’s father, a barber on 11th Street, was, according to his son, caught up in the riots. “Some people jumped him at North Capitol and P Street,” says Lee. “He was scuffed and got straightened out and got a brick and hit one of ’em. He ran.” Lee says that years later, at a Safeway, his father recognized a grocer as one of his assailants. The family switched grocery stores.
Images of April 1968 remain burned into the memories of most Washingtonians—even those who weren’t around to remember them: smoke rising over U Street, troops on the White House steps, police frantically trying to stop
There are many reasons why those days and nights remain so well remembered. In terms of lost real estate, if not lost lives, the riots of 30 years ago were far more destructive. Some of the scarring from those anarchic times remains, and 1968 remains bound up with the sweeping history of a crucial time—the civil rights movement, white flight, the coming of home rule. The days following Martin Luther King’s murder connect in D.C.’s collective consciousness to how nearly all its citizens live, work, and think about the world.
The 1919 riots, too, seemed for a while to be an earthshaking event. Large numbers of African-Americans had risen up to defend themselves against a hostile mob. Their actions had helped end a rampage. Adherents of the contemporary “New Negro” movement saw it as part of a sea change in black life.
Yet little else changed: the city remained white-ruled, segregated, and fundamentally unfair. Despite the protests of the NAACP, black rioters received harsher sentences than the whites who had started it all. Unlike in 1968, there were no political changes on which to hang memories of the riots.
Paul Phillips Cook, the retired president of D.C. Teachers’ College who was long active in civil rights politics, says that although he moved to D.C. as a child in the 1920s, he didn’t hear about the riots “until the ’60s or ’70s”—when black D.C.’s political reach caught up with the aspirations of 1919’s African-American defenders. Since they hadn’t begun a new chapter—let alone a whole new history book—the memories of 1919 had simply faded away.
But history never has a Page One. Life doesn’t work that way. Things move back and forth, changing every day. Thirty years after 1968, the District is transforming itself once again. Even the most apocalyptic of events is part of history’s broad motion, tied to distant past and unimaginable future. The year 1968 seems so vital to the state of things now, but will it still in a couple more decades? Like 1919’s riots, the events of 30 years ago are gradually fading into history’s quilt. Though each patch is shaped by its predecessor, it’s from the whole tapestry that we learn who we are.
D.C.’s inability to focus on that big historical picture vexes historians. “When I talk about [the 1919 riots] in my history classes, they’re a total blank,” says Philip Ogilvie, a former district public records administrator and historian of the District.
Chicago, on the other hand, exploded two weeks after Washington in 1919. The 39 deaths in those riots remain the subject of books and endless articles. As recently as two weeks ago, they earned passing notice in a Washington Post article about current Windy City race relations.
“Local history here is a neglected subject,” shrugs Keith Melder, the former Smithsonian researcher who penned the D.C. history textbook used in public schools. Everyone has a hypothesis about how the riots—and local history in general—manage to slip though nostalgia’s cracks.
Just as the lack of a meaningful local democracy helped cause the 1919 riots, Melder says the absence of hometown politics plays a role in our forgetting of local history. “There’s been so little local initiative,” Melder argues, “…so people didn’t identify with a citywide history. They focused on the neighborhoods, things that people felt belonged to them and they to it.”
Likewise, Howard’s Clark-Lewis contends that fierce attention to small-community history—at the occasional expense of the bigger picture—is typical of a political city like Washington. “I was born and reared in Harrisburg, Pa., another capital city,” she says. “And in cities where so much is connected with politics, with who’s in and who’s out, people respond differently.”
Clark-Lewis says knowledge about events like the 1919 riots is far stronger in the black community, where close-to-home memories are tightly held. Neighborhood memories do insinuate themselves into schools, churches, and community newspapers, but seldom get to the citywide level.
According to Shaw historian Smith, citywide institutions like the media tend to focus either on the microhistory of city blocks or the macrohistory of Washington as imperial capital. But she says few institutions ever do things that help provide a sense of place to citizens of D.C. as a whole.
Smith contrasts this situation with her memories of growing up in Wisconsin, where outfits from the historical society to the local newspaper all but hit people over the head with normative accounts of what it meant to be a Wisconsinite. In the District context, the 1919 riots and the racial history they represent, would, if they were similarly commemorated, form a piece of just such a broader local identity.
Perhaps partly because of the cultural issues that make locals less interested in hometown history, researchers investigating the 1919 riots also face a slew of practical problems. Though reams of records exist for Washington (“I wish I could say grace over all the materials I’ve found,” says Ogilvie), many scholars of the city’s past say crucial material gets lost in the shuffle.
Slate magazine writer Franklin Foer, who wrote his undergraduate college thesis on the 1919 riots, says research was an often difficult experience. “You go back and you look for basic police records, and they’re nonexistent,” says Foer.
“The police and court records had been destroyed,” he explains. “A lot of the histories of the Chicago and East St. Louis riots were based on court records, and here those records don’t exist anymore. They say they were destroyed for space, but I think there just wasn’t the interest and energy in keeping them around.”
Old as they are, the age-yellowed newspapers of 1919 still bring that distant summer’s tension to life. Interspersed between stories of civil strife in Yugoslavia, anxiety over the postwar world order, and the home-front war on booze, the headlines crackle with all the fear
and anger and excitement that seized a rapidly changing D.C.
The frantic news stories from the Washington riots are still gripping 79 years on. On corners
we walk past every day, terrible horrors took place: a quitting-time brawl in front of the
Navy Yard, a convalescing sailor shot in front of
a hospital at 23rd and D, a lynching in front of
the Carnegie Library.
How many times have we been on these streets, waiting in traffic, listening to the radio, picking our noses?
It might, in fact, be about time for the 1919 riots to make a comeback. Though today’s D.C. is an utterly different place, the confusing, uncertain first decades of this century are in many ways far more similar to our own times than are the ’60s, with their worldwide movements and grand historical themes. D.C.’s place in fundamentally petty times is far different from its role in eras of sweeping national change like the Great Society and the Cold War. The story of D.C.’s post-home rule government, too, evokes a time when unaccountable rulers were met with despair that could morph into action if other things went wrong.
New directions in the academy may also help put the riots back on the map. Historians like Howard’s Clark-Lewis are doing oral history work that stresses the individual actions of the migrants who came to D.C., thus countering the old-fashioned method of painting poor black folks as doing nothing but reacting to white hostility.
“There is a whole new area of historical revisionism going on right now,” says Smith. “In the literature, African-Americans get portrayed as victims. But now researchers are finding a lot more proactive movements for change. The 1919 riots are one example.”
Smith says the stories of proactive self-defense by beleaguered African-American D.C. are also salient outside the academy: “Defending your neighborhood, fighting for your community. It’s a powerful story—a powerful lesson for all Washingtonians, black and white.”