Category: franklin roosevelt

Racist Violence in Washington

A handful of riders from the 3rd Cavalry arriving in Washington, likely on Tuesday the 22nd.

July 19 1919, Washington–On Friday July 18, a nineteen-year old female employee of the Bureau of Engraving claimed that two black men ran into her on the street and attempted to take her umbrella; she quickly ran away and police quickly arrested a suspect.  When, late on the 19th, that suspect was released due to lack of evidence, white servicemen (who were especially livid as the woman was married to a naval aviator) began to riot, attacking black passersby, and driving through black neighborhoods in “terror cars”, shooting indiscriminately out the windows.

Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels (from North Carolina) took no action against the sailors.  Assistant Secretary Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though he apparently “wish[ed] quicker action had been taken to stop” the violence, was soon joking about it, telling a Harvard classmate “With your experience in handling Africans in Arkansas, I think you had better come up here and take charge of the police force.” As violence continued over the subsequent days, the military (which could have stepped in at any time in the Federal district, which at the time had little self-rule) did nothing.  Daniels urged calm, while Secretary of War Baker claimed to have little authority over the situation as many of the rioting men had been recently discharged from the armed services.  Wilson had left the city for a brief vacation late on the 19th, and the District Commissioner (a Wilson appointee) refused to ask for military assistance.

Rioting continued over the next two days.  On Monday, black residents began to fight back, a departure from previous outbreaks of racial violence.  A terror car strafed the Navy Hospital before it was stopped and its occupants arrested.  A black teenager, Carrie Maine Johnson, shot and killed a police officer who broke down the door to her bedroom when searching for a likely non-existent sniper.  William Laney shot into a would-be lynch mob that was pursuing him, killing one; he would be charged with manslaughter and falsely accused of being a violent revolutionary.  Thurgood Marshall later recounted the travails of his father, Willie, who was particularly light-skinned: “The Negroes would run one place, the white folks were running the other.  So he was running back and forth.  Wherever he went, he was wrong.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Wilson (who had called his vacation short due to a case of dysentery) decided to send in over 2000 troops (and a few tanks from Fort Meade) to restore order in the District.  While there was still some violence (and at least one death) that night, the mobs were stopped, and the city was quiet the next day.  Over the four days of violence, at least seven people were killed and hundreds injured.

The Black reaction to the violence in Washington was, in some quarters at least, surprisingly upbeat.  William Trotter, president of the Equal Rights League, returned to the US in late July after a secret visit to France to investigate how African-American soldiers were being treated there.  On July 27, he told a crowd: “We believe that self-preservation is the first law of nature.  Unless the white American behaves, he will find that in teaching our boys to fight for him he was starting something that he will not be able to stop.”

Sources include: Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer