Race Riots (U.S.), 1900–1910

views updated

Race Riots (U.S.), 1900–1910






The racial situation of the early twentieth century was presaged by the last black-dominated local government in the nation being swept away in the Wilmington, North Carolina white riot of 1898, and by the last nineteenth-century black member of the U.S. House of Representatives, George White of South Carolina, leaving Congress in 1901, a victim of vicious black exclusion politics. Three years into the new century, Booker T. Washington—the most powerful black man in America, who had urged blacks to eschew politics in return for social peace—would be attacked by W. E. B. Du Bois for aiding and abetting whites in their oppression of blacks. The turn of the century found blacks increasingly urbanized and competing with lower-income whites for jobs and living space. This process of change occurred as whites defined the Progressive era as one of Anglo-Saxon superiority and hegemony. Blacks attempting to escape the racism of the old order encountered it in the new, the results being nearly three decades of riots between the races.


In 1900, the same year James Weldon Johnson wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” to celebrate thirty-five years of black emancipation, there were two major race riots—one in New York City’s Tenderloin District, and the other in the city of New Orleans and in scattered locations in the Deep South—and at least 106 blacks were lynched. The New York City riot began with a series of misperceptions between one Arthur Harris, a black newcomer to New York, who thought a white undercover policeman, Robert Thorpe, was making improper advances toward his female friend on August 2. For his part, Thorpe thought the friend was soliciting. When Harris approached Thorpe, an argument ensued; Thorpe hit Harris with his billy club, and Harris knifed Thorpe, who died of his wounds several days later. Harris fled to Washington, D.C. Between this initial event and Thorpe’s funeral on August 12, rumors circulated that the black community was heavily armed. On the day of Thorpe’s funeral, rumors turned to rioting between whites and blacks in the low-income Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. For four days, some 10,000 young whites, the city police among them, attacked virtually every black they encountered, leaving scores of both races injured and one black man dead.

In the case of New Orleans, the riot began when one Robert Charles, a black man, shot a white police officer to death while fleeing from an earlier encounter with other officers. While a mob began burning black homes and attacking and killing blacks, other whites tracked down Charles, who had holed up in a house and refused commands to come out and surrender. When they began shooting into the residence, Charles returned the fire, killing seven of them. The house was set ablaze and Charles was shot to death as he fled the flames. In addition to burning a number of black properties, the rampaging white mob killed at least twenty-seven other blacks.


The 1906 riot in Atlanta was caused by reasons very similar to other riots and violence against blacks all over the South. The city had seen a tremendous population growth in the last decades of the nineteenth century, especially of the black citizenry. This had led to an additional pressure on the city’s public services, increased competition among the races for work, heightened social distinctions and stratifications, a widening of the gap between the elite and working-class blacks, and an increase in fears of miscegenation.

The presence of a black intelligentsia created a competition for control over the administration and organization of the city, while the presence of lower-class businesses like saloons, bars, and barbershops created a fear of moral and social pollution due to the myths the media perpetuated about the degeneracy of the black male and his unreliable, brutish character. The fear of black people’s capability to organize businesses and create social capital, and their aspirations to political and social equality, further strengthened the resolve of the political parties to snuff out the idea of black enfranchisement. This is what the gubernatorial campaign set up as its main agenda during 1906. The white elite tried to control the black population in predictable ways: They imposed severe restrictions on public conduct and increased segregation through Jim Crow laws in public transportation and housing.

As a result, Democratic gubernatorial candidate M. Hoke Smith (with the aid of Populist politician Tom Watson), and the opposing candidate Clark Howell vied with each other in provoking white sentiment against black people by promising to control black “uppity-ness” and to disfranchise the black male. To achieve this, the political parties covertly sponsored a campaign against black men by making unsubstantiated charges of black males attacking white women. This was the easiest and surest way of provoking mob violence against blacks. By the last week of September 1906, several such allegations had repeatedly appeared in the local newspapers, and on Saturday, September 22, the newspaper published four such accounts, which immediately provoked a mob to gather in the city’s Decatur Street and the violence to start. The mob raided black businesses, killed several barbers, stopped streetcars and beat and killed black men and women, attacked households and other known black dwellings. The city leaders could not calm the mob down, and eventually, around midnight, the state militia was called in. While the mob was off the main streets, violence continued in sporadic outbursts in the smaller back streets. Walter White, a future secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was an eyewitness to the rioting. His father was a mailman who had finished the mail delivery route early that day upon hearing rumors of the riot. Later that night, White helped his father defend their home and family against the rioters. The intense hatred and brutality of the mob against poor and helpless black children and women made White aware of his racial position and the need to fight against that hatred.

On Monday, September 24, some blacks armed themselves and organized a defensive group in Brownsville, a community south of Atlanta. The county police heard of the gathering and attacked the group; one police officer was killed in the shootout that ensued. Over 200 black men were then disarmed and arrested, while the white mobsters had gone unpunished. By Tuesday, the city’s businessmen and clergy had called for a stop to the violence as the incidents were reported nationwide and would sully Atlanta’s reputation as a prosperous city. The rioting stopped but its repercussions were felt deeply by Atlanta’s black community, which had to limit its political activities. The failure of Washington’s “accommodationist” strategies and the setback to black suffrage through the passage of statewide prohibition and restrictions on black franchise gave an added impetus to the growing discontent among the more radical black leadership that had never adhered to Washington’s policies. The riot was one among the many incidents that served to violently negate the reforms promised for blacks by the Reconstruction. This was a setback that would not be overcome until the civil rights era five decades later.


While a higher concentration of blacks in the population could be assigned as one reason for violence against blacks in other regions, in a city like Springfield, Illinois, the population of blacks had been steadily declining (from 7.2 percent in 1890 to 5.7 percent in 1910) (Senechal 1990, p. 60) as compared to the white population, which had risen. Black and white coalminers had coexisted mainly peacefully (Senechal 1990, pp. 58–59). Blacks generally occupied menial positions in Springfield and were not a threat to the economic prosperity of the whites. There were a few middle-class black families in the city who were mentioned in biographical accounts of city residents before 1880.

Before the 1908 riot the white majority had decried the behavior of black people living in the Badlands and Levee neighborhoods as the major reason for animosity toward them. Newspaper editorials lambasted their “drinking, gambling, drug use, criminal acts and general disorderliness” (Senechal 1990, p. 73). Several influential whites in the city felt after the fact that the riot was a sign of the decaying morality of the population as a whole.

The incident that sparked the riot was the jailing of two black men. One of them, Joe James, was allegedly involved in a sexual attack on the daughter of a well-liked white man, Clergy Ballard, on July 4, 1908. The fleeing James killed Ballard. The other was George Richardson, accused of molesting Mabel Hallam, a poor white woman, on August 13, 1908. Hallam later recanted her accusation. The attack on white purity, even among the lowest of the citizenry, was a strong incitement to an angry response. The mob wanted to carry out a more public justice by lynching the as yet untried black men. When the jailers refused to release the men to the angry mob (and transferred them secretly to a jail in Bloomington), the mob, led by an irate woman, Kate Howard, decided to direct its violence against the representatives and supporters of black people in the city. The hesitation of Sheriff Charles Werner to call in the militia (National Guard), even when asked directly by one of the citizens, caused an unnecessary delay in restoring peace and order, and the deaths of many black people, as well as the destruction of property worth thousands of dollars.

It seems that anti-black race riots were not uncommon in northern cities early in the twentieth century. White people were just as hostile toward blacks in the North as in the South at this time. In Springfield and elsewhere blacks were barred from many restaurants, hotels, parks, and other public facilities. Numerous race riots had occurred in the North as early as the first half of the 1800s. From 1900 to 1908, anti-black riots had broken out in cities like New York, and in smaller places like Evansville and Greensburg, Indiana, and Springfield, Ohio. But the riot in the Illinois capital brought attention to the issue as many of the nation’s newspapers reported the riot. It was even more shocking as all this happened in the city where Abraham Lincoln practiced Law as a young man. It has been widely debated why this one black man’s crime led to so much violence against blacks.

In 1908, Springfield did not seem to be such a volatile place. It had a stable, mixed economy based on coal, transportation, and manufacturing, as well as many businesses that catered to the large number of travelers. The reason for the riot was definitely not economic. Jobs were not scarce and blacks were kept out of respectable and more lucrative jobs systematically. Since whites almost had a monopoly on the well-paid, skilled jobs, the fear of losing jobs to a population that was rapidly declining in numbers was highly unlikely. The major threat was to the idea of white superiority.

Local politicians used the racism prevalent in the political sphere to garner support from the marginalized poor white people, setting the stage for the riot. Division across racial lines was one of the ways that politicians could gain power. The blacks were definitely pro-Republican in the South, while the Democratic Party candidates were anti-liberal.

The newspapers, politicians, and other influential actors in mainstream society raised the specter of miscegenation again by publishing highly falsified and inflammatory accounts of black men assaulting and defiling white women. It seems they had forgotten about the miscegenation already achieved through white slave owners and white men generally coercing black women into sexual relationships and raping them without any fear of reprisal. The large number of light-skinned, at times almost white “black” people did not register in the consciousness of most white people. Defiling white womanhood was sacrilegious, while defiling black women for two centuries had been of economic and sociopolitical advantage to white men. This also showed the clear-cut demarcation of ideas associated with whiteness and blackness: Whites were pure and superior, while blacks were inherently inferior, lewd, uncontrolled, sexually aggressive, and without a moral core.

In the riots in Atlanta, Springfield, and other cities, the immediate cause of the riot was the fear of defilement and the sexual and moral degeneration presumably caused by the presence of black people. The white newspapers kindled public outrage by inflaming already existing prejudice, hatred, and fear of black people. In each case police action proved reluctant and inadequate.

The mobs were mainly composed of the lower classes, the unruly, uncouth elements of white people from the cities. They were the main actors in the rioting, burning, looting of black businesses and homes, and the brutal killing of black people, but they had the moral support and silent acquiescence of the middle- and upper-class white citizens.

In each riot the number of reported black deaths was probably much lower than the actual number. For instance, the records showed only two black men dead (William Donnegan and Scott Burton, both lynched) and twelve injured, while further research revealed serious injuries (which may have resulted in deaths as the black people were afraid of reporting their injuries to the police or taking the injured to the hospital) to 83 victims of the riot in Springfield, Illinois (Senechal 1990, pp. 130–131). The cases of rioting were reported in the American as well as European press, which pushed the political authorities to intercede and prevent further violence from spreading. They had to keep up the pretense of being fair and concerned about the violence against black people.

In each riot, black people did arm themselves and group together to fight any more violence against them. But in each case they were disarmed and disbanded by the authorities that had failed to disarm the white mob. In some instances, they were forced to give up and were even attacked, arrested, and put on trial by the authorities. The incident that occurred in Brownsville, Texas, was inspired by very similar prejudices.


When the black soldiers of the 25th Infantry moved into Fort Brown, Texas, they arrived in a place that had already had problems with the presence of armed troops in its midst. Several sections of the town resented the soldiers’s presence and openly expressed their hostility. The soldiers were subjected to racial slurs and taunts, and received biased or surly hospitality from the white businesses. Customs inspector Fred Tate pistol-whipped Private James W. Newton for “jostling” Tate’s wife and another white woman (Christian 1995, p. 72). Private Oscar W. Reed was pushed into the river for being seemingly drunk and loud (Christian 1995, p. 72). On August 12, 1906, rumors circulated that a black soldier had attacked a white woman, Mrs. Lon Evans, near the red-light district (Christian 1995, pp. 72–73), which provoked the post commander to impose an eight o’clock curfew on the men. However, the peace was disturbed permanently between the townspeople and the troops when shots, allegedly fired by some black soldiers, were heard around midnight and reports of attacks by black soldiers spread through town. Many witnesses surfaced, claiming that they had actually seen black soldiers, while others asserted that the shots were from military Springfield rifles. These reports were dubious and inspired at best. Mayor Frederick Combe brought forth some spent shells that proved the guilt of the black soldiers beyond doubt for many people, for whom this was only a confirmation of their racist beliefs and paranoia about armed black men (Christian 1995, p. 73). Even though Major Charles W. Penrose had checked the presence of all his men on the night of the shooting, and found all enlisted men accounted for and their weapons clean and undischarged, he still believed in the veracity of the mayor’s “evidence.”

Despite the questionable circumstantial evidence, it seems everyone believed in the guilt of the black soldiers. U.S. senators Charles Culberson and Joseph Weldon Bailey wrote to the secretary of war William Howard Taft for immediate removal of the black troops (Christian 1995, p. 74). The editors and writers at several newspapers, mainly the Houston Post, Dallas Morning News, and Austin Statesman, further stoked the public sentiment against the black troops by publishing inflammatory editorials and irresponsibly exaggerated accounts of assaults against white citizens by armed soldiers. They described the soldiers’s provocations to be minimal and unjustified and actively called for the soldiers to be removed from Texas.

Major Augustus P. Blocksom, assistant inspector-general of the Southwestern Division, was in charge of the investigation and found twelve members of the garrison of companies B, C, and D guilty, and arrested them (Christian 1995, pp. 76, 78). Later, President Roosevelt ordered the dismissal of 167 men of the regiment without a trial in December 1907 (Christian 1995, p. 81). He did not offer a reprimand to the white men who had been guilty of assault or decry the racism of the townspeople, but commented that blacks were more proud and unaccepting of rude treatment than before. He gave more credence to the accounts of the raid given by the townspeople than to the protestations of the black soldiers of their innocence. He did not even credit the testimony of the white officers of the division who claimed that assertions of the men’s involvement were not creditable. Major Blocksom recommended that all enlisted men in the battalion be discharged dishonorably unless they gave up the names of the guilty parties.

Twelve men of the garrison were arrested subsequently under the persuasion of Texas Ranger William Jesse McDonald (Christian 1995, p. 78). This openly defied the stance of General William S. McCaskey that there was no evidence of the direct involvement of any of the men. Further removal of the troops to Fort Reno, Oklahoma Territory, and the twelve incarcerated men to Fort Sam Houston did not resolve the situation. President Theodore Roosevelt asked General Ernest A. Garlington to discharge the 167 men of the companies A, B, and C if they did not give forth the guilty men’s names (Christian 1995, p. 79). The investigations of General Garlington did not provide any conclusive results, and subsequently, on November 4, Roosevelt’dismissal order was signed and published. The fact that Roosevelt withheld his decision until after Election Day provoked charges from black newspapers and leaders that his act was politically motivated and unconstitutional. Du Bois urged black men to vote Democratic in the next election in 1908, while Washington remained silent and loyal to the white administration, resulting in increasing criticism of his conciliatory policies. The Military Affairs Committee convened on February 4, 1907, and nine of its members eventually suggested that the decision was justified, while four members found considerable flaws and gaps in the evidence (Christian 1995, p. 82). The campaign by Ohio senator Joseph B. Foraker to provide the 167 men due process through trial and possible acquittal did not succeed. Foraker and Senator Morgan Bulkeley (of Connecticut) submitted a minority report, which suggested that the eyewitnesses were unreliable and the shells produced as evidence had been brought from a firing range at Fort Niobrara (Christian 1995, p. 83). Roosevelt only conceded to allowing fifteen of the men to reenlist in the face of growing criticism of his decision. This event only highlighted the racism present in the social and political system, which denied black men justice. The men were subsequently given an honorable discharge by the Richard Nixon administration in 1972, which did not result in due reparations to more than one survivor from among the 167 men. Another casualty of this incident was Corporal Edward A. Knowles, who was charged with a shooting attempt on Captain Edgar A. Macklin of the 25th; despite lack of direct evidence, Knowles was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor. He never received an honorable discharge posthumously. It was widely felt by black leaders, newspapers and their editors, black ministers, and even W. E. B. Du Bois (Christian 1995, p. 80) that the government was merely catering to racist public sentiment and evincing support for itself by acting highhandedly in disallowing due process to black soldiers.

All of these incidents reinforced the racism that prevailed in the country and clearly defined the different moderate and extremist ideologies of black leaders, politicians, and organizers. The failure of the political strategies of Washington and Du Bois led to the more radical movements of Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph. While neither movement quite succeeded, both helped continue the struggle of black people toward attaining full citizenship and leading lives of dignity and equality.


Christian, Garna L. 1995. Black Soldiers in Jim Crow Texas, 1899–1917. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

Gaines, Kevin Kelly. 1996. “Living in Jim Crow: The Atlanta Riot and Unmasking ‘Social Equality.’” Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Meier, August. 1963. Negro Thought in America, 1880–1915: Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Rudwick, Elliott M. 1964. Race Riot at East St. Louis: July 2, 1917. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Senechal, Roberta. 1990. The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot: Springfield, Illinois, in 1908. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Wintz, Cary D., ed. 1996. African American Political Thought 1890–1930: Washington, Du Bois, Garvey, and Randolph. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Abha Sood Patel