Race Riots (U.S.), 1917–1923

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Race Riots (U.S.), 1917–1923








Race riots have played a pivotal role in the social construction of race and racism throughout U.S. history. Since the early nineteenth century, race riots have shed light on race and class relations as well as the political dynamics in the nation. In general, riots—and the way a society responds to those riots—reveal which groups in the polity wield power at the expense of others. Race riots also fit within the histories of racism and colonialism in Western civilization. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, the philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that the brutality that culminated in the Holocaust was rooted in a long “subterranean stream of Western history.” Arendt noted:

When the European mob discovered what a “lovely virtue” a white skin could be in Africa, when the English conqueror in India became an administrator who no longer believed in the universal validity of law, but was convinced of his own innate capacity to rule and dominate… the stage seemed to be set for all possible horrors. Lying under anybody’s nose were many of the elements which gathered together could create a totalitarian government on the basis of racism. (Arendt 1958, p. 221)

Race riots expose underlying tensions in societies undergoing rapid technological and economic changes. The riots that transpired in the aftermath of World War I happened during a time characterized by segregation, white rule in the South, and the Great Migration of African Americans to the North. This was also an age marked by rapid social changes including industrialization, the transition to a war production economy, and technological advances in many fields. Technology was implicated in racial bloodshed as a new generation of vigilantes used telephones, electronic signboards, and telegraph messages to mobilize their forces. Night riders used motor vehicles instead of horses to inflict widespread carnage.

This era also witnessed the invention of the modern motion picture and the emergence of the mass viewing audience. The most popular and technically sophisticated film of the age was D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). Birth was a complex film. It attacked African-American political aspirations during the Reconstruction era as inherently corrupt even as it celebrated the Ku Klux Klan’s paramilitary decimation of black politics after emancipation. One famous scene depicted hooded Klansmen routing federal soldiers in battle, an acceptable scenario to the general public because the troops were black. The Birth of a Nation celebrated white national unity on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War. According to the civil rights historian Philip Dray, the first modern motion picture in U.S. history “carried Americans back to what now appeared as a simpler, heroic time when a divided America had reunited, and rediscovered its purpose, by suppressing the unruly minority populace in its midst” (Dray 2002, p. 191). The Birth of a Nation was based in part on Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People (1902), published when Wilson was a Princeton University historian. In 1915, while serving as president of the United States, Wilson heartily endorsed Birth and marveled that the film “is like writing history with lightning.” The Birth of a Nation sparked the rebirth of the new Ku Klux Klan, which soon boasted chapters in every state of the union. Some of these chapters were implicated in race riots. Equally important, the film was part of a larger mass media culture that routinely depicted antiblack violence as a necessary and even admirable dimension of U.S. culture.

The race riots that occurred from 1917 to 1923 may be understood as a continuation of the tradition of publicly sanctioned assaults against the progress of African Americans as a group. This national wave of riots was in part a response to the fact that black people were waging increasingly effective struggles against white supremacy. In 1909 a group of liberal whites and African Americans founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP scored a major victory in 1915 with the Supreme Court’s Guinn v. United States decision. This decision outlawed the “grandfather clauses” in certain state constitutions that had allowed white men to vote without passing a literacy test as long as their grandparents had voted prior to 1867. It also gave registrars the discretion they needed to exclude black southerners whose grandparents had not been legally able to vote prior to the end of the Civil War, 1866, or 1867, depending on the state. The Guinn decision encouraged African Americans across the South to undertake new initiatives to becoming registered voters.

Meanwhile, large numbers of black southerners were moving to the North in order to take factory jobs in the burgeoning war economy. By the time thousands of black World War I veterans returned from France demanding their civil rights, the NAACP was becoming a mass-membership protest organization with hundreds of new branches forming in the South and Midwest. African Americans in Florida organized the first statewide civil rights movement of the century, and black voters began to flex their political muscles in Chicago, East St. Louis, New York, and other cities. Many white citizens, however, interpreted black advancement as threatening their own interests. The leadership of the Democratic Party in Miami, Florida, responded to African-American voter registration with the following broadside published in the Miami Herald:

ENEMY FROM WITHIN (Ortiz 2005, p. 206)


African Americans endured a renewed wave of riots, massacres, and acts of racial terrorism between 1917 and 1923. All too often, rising black aspirations were met with violence. The peak period of recorded violence occurred during the tumultuous months between April and October 1919, a season James Weldon Johnson called the “Red Summer.” Race riots broke out in Washington, D.C.; Charleston, South Carolina; and Long-view, Texas, among other places. Lynching was also prevalent during these years. Eleven African-American men were burned alive at the stake in 1919. In the same year lynch mobs murdered sixty-nine black people, including ten World War I veterans whose military service was viewed by some whites as a threat to the racial status quo. Antiblack race riots were often waged over the course of several days, and garnered international attention. The riots cost hundreds of lives and incalculable property damage. The riots also undermined the political and economic status of African Americans in numerous communities across the nation.

The intensity of these riots may be explained in part by examining the social context of violence in this period. White rioters enjoyed an almost universal immunity from prosecution, whereas their black counterparts were often incarcerated for defending their homes and neighborhoods. White citizens who shot or beat a black person to death in broad daylight had little to fear from law enforcement authorities, who in any case often participated in vigilante activities themselves.

Race riots were not inspired by blind racist hatred. White citizens who rioted were motivated by political and economic, as well as social, factors. For example, the 1920 Election Day massacre of African Americans who attempted to vote in Orange County, Florida, was

designed to enforce black disfranchisement. The East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917 was aimed in part at keeping African Americans from moving up the occupational ladder. The Tulsa, Oklahoma, Race Riot of 1921 destroyed a thriving black business district, and white rioters explicitly targeted properties owned by African Americans. Remembering the years she spent building up a successful hairdressing practice in Tulsa, Mabel Little recalled decades later, “At the time of the riot, we had ten different business places for rent. Today, I pay rent” (Hirsch 2002, p. 8). Riots in small towns and rural areas drove African Americans off the land and often allowed white residents to take control of black property for drastically reduced rates or for nothing at all. The massacre and forced removal of the African-American community in Rosewood, Florida, in 1923 wiped out generations of black land ownership.

It is important to place these riots in historical context. In terms of lives lost per capita, these riots were far bloodier than the 1960s race riots but not as deadly as the antiblack riots of the nineteenth century. In each of the major race riots between 1917 and 1923—with the partial exception of the Houston Race Riot of 1917—the instigators and perpetrators of violence as well as property destruction were white citizens. This does not mean that white people in the United States were somehow biologically or culturally predisposed to violence. Instead, white rioters were acting on behalf of perceived pressures, interests, and ideologies. It is necessary to examine the roots of white violence in order to understand the genesis of the race riots. The savagery of the riots, the losses African-American communities suffered, and the effects on race relations between whites and blacks continue to echo down into the twenty-first century.


W. E. B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, and other African-American leaders believed that the social forces unleashed by World War I would help blacks challenge the system of white supremacy in the United States. In addition, a number of industrial labor union organizing committees undertook major interracial unionizing campaigns in Chicago, Birmingham, and other urban areas. The most powerful unions had traditionally operated with color bars that excluded African Americans, Chinese, and others. Black workers, however, responded with guarded optimism to organizers’ efforts to build interracial locals. James Weldon Johnson sensed a revived spirit of hope among African Americans as he traveled throughout the country during the war:

I was impressed with the fact that everywhere there was a rise in the level of the Negro’s morale. The exodus of Negroes to the North … was in full motion; the tremors of the war in Europe were shaking America with increasing intensity; circumstances were combining to put a higher premium on Negro muscle, Negro hands, and Negro brains than ever before; all these forces had a quickening effect that was running through the entire mass of the race. (Johnson 1933, p. 315)

It was not long, however, before the forces of reaction regained the upper hand. Anticolonial and revolutionary movements were defeated, many by military force. In the United States, fear of working-class and black militancy led to a right-wing political backlash known as the “Red Scare.” J. Edgar Hoover, the attorney general Alexander Mitchell Palmer, and others used their authority to arrest, detain, and ultimately expel thousands of “alien” political activists. As “law and order” types such as Hoover gained ascendancy, spaces for social and economic justice organizing diminished rapidly. State and federal authorities used powers gained through the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 to disrupt legitimate protest groups while ignoring the real crimes that exacerbated racial tensions. For example, in the two years leading up to the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, scores of African-American homes were bombed, and yet state authorities conducted no meaningful investigations nor were any of the perpetrators ever found. When similar bombing attacks rocked black homes in Miami, Florida, undercover federal agents appeared more interested in spying on African Americans than in catching the guilty parties. In contrast, the African-American soldiers who were involved in the Houston Race Riot of 1917 were vigorously prosecuted and nineteen were executed.

The Red Scare and the federal government’s campaign to uncover “agitators” reinforced white supremacy and increased the likelihood of racial violence. As Department of Justice investigators bullied and interrogated African Americans in Chicago and East St. Louis about their true reasons for coming North, the larger public was encouraged to see black people as subversive outcasts in a virtuous “White Republic.” The mainstream media fueled the fire of antiblack racism by publishing sensational headlines such as: “Negroes Flock in from South to Evade Draft” (St. Louis Times), “North Does Not Welcome Influx of South’s Negroes” (Chicago Herald), “Negro Migration: Is It a Menace?” (Philadelphia Record), and “Negro Influx On, Plan to Dam It” (Newark [N.J.] News) (Gregory 2005, p. 47.)

Rising postwar unemployment and inflation added fuel to the competitive fire. The race riots that broke out in East St. Louis (1917) and Chicago (1919) occurred in the wake of failed strikes as well as stillborn attempts to create multiracial trade unions. As corporations and their organizations methodically destroyed the most important vehicle for collective working-class economic improvement—unions—a sense of anger and desperation swept through urban neighborhoods. As competition between workers intensified, racial tensions flared anew. The economic dimensions of the riots cannot be overestimated.


The race riots of 1917 to 1923 occurred during the era of legal segregation (or Jim Crow as it was commonly called). Segregation was designed to generate chronic interracial strife and distrust. In his monumental study of segregation, An American Dilemma (1944), Gunnar Myrdal pointed out that one of the major goals of segregation was to separate black and white working-class people so that southern elites would be able to quash social reforms. Thus, the once-promising moments of solidarity between whites and blacks in the post-Reconstruction years were replaced by the ascendancy of “Judge Lynch” in the latter half of the 1880s. The defeat of the Federal Elections Bill of 1890, which had been introduced by the Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, quickened the federal government’s general retreat from its role as a guarantor of Constitutional equality and civil rights. Between 1877 and the eve of the East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917, antiblack violence was viewed by the majority of white Americans as an inevitable albeit sometimes embarrassing fact of U.S. political life.

Why was the segregation era marked by so much violence and so many race riots? Segregation—like slavery—was a labor system designed to extract surplus labor power, property, tax revenue, wealth, and economic opportunities from African Americans and redistribute these resources to the dominant society. “Race prejudice,” the sociologist Oliver C. Cox observed, “is a social attitude propagated among the public by an exploiting class for the purpose of stigmatizing some group as inferior so that the exploitation of either the group itself or its resources or both may be justified” (Cox 1948, p. 393).

Industrial and agricultural employers were the major beneficiaries of this racial wealth redistribution, and they treated black workers’ efforts to organize or even assert themselves in their workplaces with repressive measures. Convict labor, debt peonage, and the chain gang may be seen in this context as institutionalized forms of economic—and often physical—violence.

Thus, when African Americans attempted to seize the opportunities offered by the improved economic climate of the early war years, it was not hard to predict that employers would react in a visceral manner. As African Americans began to leave the South in large numbers in 1916, state and local authorities in some areas ordered police forces to try to halt the exodus. African-American workers in Macon, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida, among other towns, were beaten and driven away from train stations. African-American sharecroppers in the Arkansas Delta began organizing an agricultural labor union as well as challenging large farm owners for a larger share of King Cotton’s profits. Landowners responded by assaulting the union’s meeting place, and ordering law enforcement officials to crush the sharecroppers. These activities led to the Elaine, Arkansas, Race Riot of 1919, which destroyed agricultural unionism in the Delta and drove cotton wages back down. When African Americans in Longview, Texas, began experimenting with cooperative purchasing and marketing of farm produce—thus bypassing creditors and merchants—whites in the area launched a major assault against the black community. While the Longview Race Riot of 1919 was allegedly sparked by a black man’s presence in a white woman’s bedroom, the NAACP and local African Americans understood that the violence had been sparked by the cooperative venture and growing black assertiveness. The racial dynamics exposed in the Arkansas Delta and Longview, Texas, would be repeated over and over again between 1917 and 1923 as the white elite responded—sometimes with violence—to black gains by acting to reassert the status quo.


One common excuse used to rationalize racial terrorism was black male sexual violence—rape or assault—against white women. A careful study of the historical record, however, shows that alleged sexual assault was given as the stated reason in only about 15 to 20 percent of all lynching incidents. In spite of the pioneering investigative work of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the NAACP, and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching—all of whom demolished the myth of the black rapist—racial violence is still associated with sexual assault in the popular mind. In At the Hands of Persons Unknown (2002), Philip Dray noted that “Wells was one of the first people in America to perceive that the talk of chivalry and beastlike blacks ravishing white girls was largely fallacious, and that such ideas were being used to help maintain a permanent hysteria to legitimize lynching, as it reinforced the notion that the races must be kept separate at all costs” (p. 64). One white North Carolinian disavowed this racial hysteria in an editorial letter that appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer on February 5, 1922:

We have a reputation of being bloodthirsty murderers down here in North Carolina, and it is our industrious lynchers who have secured that reputation for us.… All this snorting about the fierce pride of the Anglo-Saxon race is the most disgusting poppycock ever invented. If no [N]egro were ever lynched for anything but rape, it might have some shadow of excuse. But alleged rapists constitute only a small proportion of the victims of mobs in the south these days. Negroes are lynched for all manner of crimes, ranging down to simple misdemeanors.

The Jim Crow system did sanction one form of sexual license: white exploitation of black women. African-American domestic workers who toiled in white households were frequently subjected to sexual assaults. Cleaster Mitchell, who worked as a domestic in Arkansas, recalled in Remembering Jim Crow that “one time in the South, it’s bad to say, white men was crazy about black women. They would come to your house. They would attack you. They took it for granted when they saw a black lady that they could just approach her, that it was not an insult to her for them to approach her” (Chafe, Gavins, and Korstad 2001, p. 214). In fact, while white supremacists often cloaked their attacks on black communities with the excuse of black-on-white sexual violence, they understood that white men and women often initiated interracial sexual unions. In 1921 the Houston, Texas, Ku Klux Klan issued a warning to white male citizens against interracial sex. The warning was reprinted in the February 4 edition of the Afro-American:

Proclamation: Co-habitation of white men with Negro women is against the laws of this state, is against the interest of both races and is the direct cause of racial trouble. Such practices must stop. We want no more half-breeds… . This warning will not be repeated. Mene Mene Tekel Upharsen. Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.


The Philadelphia Race Riot of 1918 illustrates many of the dominant patterns of the urban conflagrations of 1917 to 1923. The Philadelphia riot started after African Americans began purchasing homes in predominantly white residential communities. White homeowners protested black homeownership because they believed it would devalue their own investments. The political scientist Michael Jones-Correa argues that urban race riots occurred more often in areas with higher rates of preexisting white homeownership. According to Jones-Correa, “The higher the number of white homeowners, the greater the chances of an urban disturbance. This provides some confirmation to the notion that it was the resistance of white homeowners to the increasing movement of blacks into formerly all-white residential neighborhoods that helped contribute to the civil disturbances of the period” (Jones-Correa 1999, p. 13).

It was the newly purchased home of Adelia Bonds, a black probation officer, that became the flashpoint of the Philadelphia Race Riot. Bonds had violated an unwritten rule by purchasing a house in a predominantly white area. Bonds’neighbors began harassing her on a daily basis, threw objects at her home, and attacked nearby African-American churches in retaliation. On July 26, a group of white citizens gathered in front of Bonds’residence at 2936 Ellsworth and began throwing large stones at the house. Fearing for her safety, Bonds fled to the top story of the house and fired warning shots at the crowd. One of these rounds hit Joseph Kelly, a white person, and the riot began. The Philadelphia police were unable to quell the violence, and in any case, many sided openly with the white rioters. The Philadelphia Race Riot resulted in four deaths and approximately sixty wounded. Leaders of the Methodist ministers’ Meeting of Philadelphia lodged a formal protest with the mayor’s office, stating:

We desire you to understand that we put the whole blame upon your incompetent police force. But for the sympathy of the police, their hobnobbing with the mob, what has now become the disgrace of Philadelphia would have been nothing more than a petty row, if that much.

Your police have for a long time winked at disorder, at the beating up of Negroes, the stoning of their homes and the attacking of their churches. In this very neighborhood divine worship has time and again been disturbed by white hoodlums and there has been no redress. In nearly every part of the city, decent law-abiding Negroes have been set upon by irresponsible white hoodlums, their property damaged and destroyed, while your police seemed powerless to protect.

We also call your attention to the fact that this riot was not started by Negroes; that the Negroes who were annoyed were of the orderly, law-abiding type; that your police arrested Negroes almost exclusively and let the white hoodlums roam the street to do more damage… . Further, your police disarmed only colored people and permitted whites to pursue them with guns. This is the cause of this condition and the whole blame is on your own police force. (“Race Riots in Philadelphia,” Afro-American [Baltimore, MD], August 2, 1918).

Many of the social behaviors demonstrated in the Philadelphia Race Riot were repeated in the much larger Chicago riot the following year as well as in the other Red Summer race riots. In general, when these riots broke out local police and law enforcement officers openly fraternized with white citizens who were assaulting African Americans. In some instances—Philadelphia for example—the eventual presence of state troops appears to have quelled the violence. In the Tulsa Race Riot, however, state guardsmen contributed to an already disastrous situation by failing to disarm white citizens as they looted and destroyed black property. Some white troops openly referred to African Americans as “the enemy,” as if the rioters were engaged in an Allied military invasion. In East St. Louis, William Tuttle reports that “State troops fraternized and joked with lawbreaking whites and many were seen helping in the murders and arson” (Tuttle 1970, p. 13).

African Americans attempted to defend their neighborhoods—sometimes using armed self-defense—during the Philadelphia Race Riot, and this was also a pattern played out in Chicago, Tulsa, and East St. Louis among other places that experienced riots. This was not a new phenomenon. African Americans had periodically engaged in armed self-defense in order to prevent lynching or other acts of racial violence. For example, some antebellum northern black communities created “vigilance committees” in order to protect escaped slaves from being recaptured and re-enslaved by their masters. In regard to the riots that occurred between 1917 and 1923, it is also important to remember that many black men of the period had received military training, and it is likely such expertise was used in the thick of the urban riots. Armed self-defense was a double-edged sword, however. African Americans might prevent an immediate act of violence from occurring only to incur the wrath of whites who simply regrouped and called for reinforcements. For example, the Tulsa Race Riot began after a group of armed African Americans gathered to help law enforcement officials prevent the lynching of a young man accused of bumping a white woman in an elevator. When white Tulsans realized that the black community was organizing to stop the lynching, they attempted to disarm a group of black veterans. Gunshots broke out and the riot commenced.

Active-duty military members as well as recently discharged white veterans played a major role in sparking and sustaining antiblack violence in the Charleston, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C., race riots of 1919. African Americans and their communities expected that their military service and patriotic support for the war effort would lead to first-class citizenship. White officers however, tried to convince black troops that they should continue to play a subordinate role to their white peers. Even the relatively liberal General C. C. Ballou ordered the African-American soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division to respect segregation and to “refrain from going where their presence will be resented” (“Soldiers Must Not Ask for Legal Rights,” Afro-American, April 12, 1918).

Ironically, the all-black 92nd Division went on to become one of the most highly decorated infantry units in U.S. history. Its record of facing and defeating numerous elite German combat units earned this division high honors. White officers and soldiers, however, were alarmed that African-American soldiers in the 92nd and other black units had received a hero’s welcome in occupied France, and they sought to show after the war that

black war service would not change race relations in the United States. One letter writer in Florida warned:

The Negro returned soldier who is full of the “equal rights” treatment he got in Europe during the past months will do exceedingly well to remember that for every one of him there are about a thousand white returned soldiers who were completely fed up on the same equal rights stuff over there, and they are not going to stand for one moment any internal rot started by any yellow-faced coon who has the hellish idea that he is as good as a white man or a white woman (Ortiz 2005, p. 162).


The final race riot of the period, the Rosewood Massacre, is shrouded in mystery. One explanation for the white riot that killed an undetermined number of African Americans is that it began after a black man sexually assaulted a married white woman on New Year’s Day, 1923. However, Sarah Carrier, an African-American woman who worked as a maid for the white woman in question, testified that this woman was actually assaulted by her white lover. Because Carrier was subsequently murdered by white citizens who claimed they were looking for the alleged rapist, her side of the story was quickly suppressed. Another explanation for the riot’s origin was given by a white eyewitness who later claimed that area whites were jealous of the relative prosperity of African Americans in Rosewood. Whatever the case, whites from the nearby sawmill community of Sumner and other places further away gathered in Rosewood in the first week of 1923 and completely annihilated the African-American community. Black landowners were permanently driven out of Rosewood, and many of their descendents were financially impoverished. In 1994 the State of Florida granted partial restitution to some of the Rosewood survivors and their descendents.

The race riots of 1917 to 1923 were not driven primarily by what later analysts would refer to as “racial hatred.” White rioters were motivated by economic, political, and social considerations. There are several common assumptions about race relations that are unsustainable after a careful survey of these riots. The role of so-called poor whites in initiating racial violence has been exaggerated. In fact, many of the whites involved in the riots appear to have been homeowners (especially in Chicago and East St. Louis) or large landowners and employers (especially in the Arkansas Delta). These groups sought to defend their material interests against perceived African-American gains or accomplishments. Class conflict played a major role in the making of racial violence.

Local police forces as well as military units played crucial roles in these riots. In general, law enforcement officers sided with the rioters in the early stages of these conflicts, and this led to an escalation in the violence. The rioters, however, did not need police officers to lend credibility to their activities; they were acting in a long tradition of antiblack violence that was supported by the media and many political leaders of the day.

African Americans suffered enormous material, physical, and psychological damage as a consequence of the riots. Some historians have argued that the riots of 1917 to 1923 led to an eventual quickening of black protest activity. In the short term, however, the riots dispersed black communities, destroyed black businesses, and wiped out fragile economic gains that African Americans had made in the preceding half-century. U.S. society continued to wrestle with the troubling legacies of these race riots into the early twenty-first century.



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Paul Ortiz