8 Successful and Aspiring Black Communities Destroyed by White Neighbors
Atlanta Race Riot (1906)
When the Civil War ended, African-Americans in Atlanta began entering the realm of politics, establishing businesses and gaining notoriety as a social class. Increasing tensions between Black wage-workers and the white elite began to grow and ill-feelings were further exacerbated when Blacks gained more civil rights, including the right to vote.
The tensions exploded during the gubernatorial election of 1906 in which M. Hoke Smith and Clark Howell competed for the Democratic nomination. Both candidates were looking for ways to disenfranchise African-American voters because they each felt that the Black vote could throw the election to the other candidate.
Hoke Smith was a former publisher of the Atlanta Journal and Clark Howell was the editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Both candidates used their influence to incite white voters and help spread the fear that whites may not be able to maintain the current social order.
The Atlanta Georgian and the Atlanta News began publishing stories about white women being molested and raped by Black men. These allegations were reported multiple times and were largely false.
On Sept. 22, 1906, Atlanta newspapers reported four alleged assaults on local white women. Soon, some 10,000 white men and boys began gathering, beating, and stabbing Blacks. It is estimated that there were between 25 and 40 African-American deaths; it was confirmed that there were only two white deaths.
Greenwood , Tulsa, Oklahoma “Black Wall Street” (May 31 – June 1, 1921)
During the oil boom of the 1910s, the area of northeast Oklahoma around Tulsa flourished, including the Greenwood neighborhood, which came to be known as “the Black Wall Street.” The area was home to several lawyers, realtors, doctors, and prominent black Businessmen, many of them multimillionaires.
Greenwood boasted a variety of thriving businesses such as grocery stores, clothing stores, barbershops, banks, hotels, cafes, movie theaters, two newspapers, and many contemporary homes. Greenwood residents enjoyed many luxuries that their white neighbors did not, including indoor plumbing and a remarkable school system. The dollar circulated 36 to 100 times, sometimes taking a year for currency to leave the community.
The neighborhood was destroyed during a riot that broke out after a group men from Greenwood attempted to protect a young Black man from a lynch mob. On the night of May 31, 1921, a mob called for the lynching of Dick Rowland, a Black man who shined shoes, after reports spread that on the previous day he had assaulted Sarah Page, a white woman, in the elevator she operated in a downtown building.
In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Black Tulsa was looted, firebombed from the air and burned down by white rioters. The governor declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, removed abducted African-Americans from the hands of white vigilantes, and imprisoned all Black Tulsans, not already confined, into a prison camp at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.
In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, over 800 people were treated for injuries and estimated 300 deaths occurred.
Chicago Race Riots (1919)
The “Red Summer” of 1919 marked the culmination of steadily growing tensions surrounding the great migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North during World War I. Chicago was one of the northern cities that experienced violent race riots during that period.
Drawn by the city’s meatpacking houses, railway companies and steel mills, the African-American population in Chicago skyrocketed from 44,000 in 1910 to 235,000 in 1930. When the war ended in late 1918, thousands of white servicemen returned home from fighting in Europe to find that their jobs in factories, warehouses and mills had been filled by newly arrived Southern Blacks or immigrants.
On July 27, 1919, an African-American teenager drowned in Lake Michigan after he challenged the unofficial segregation of Chicago’s beaches and was stoned by a group of white youths.
His death, and the police refusal to arrest the men who caused it, sparked a week of race rioting between Black and white Chicagoans, with Black neighborhoods receiving the worst of the damage.
When the riots ended on Aug. 3, 15 whites and 23 Blacks had been killed and more than 500 people injured. An additional 1,000 Black families had lost their homes when they were torched by rioters.
President Woodrow Wilson castigated the “white race” as “the aggressor” in the Chicago uprising.
Rosewood Massacre (1923)
Rosewood was a quiet, self-sufficient whistle-stop on the Seaboard Air Line Railway in Florida. By 1900 the population in Rosewood had become predominantly African-American. Some people farmed or worked in local businesses, including a sawmill in nearby Sumner, a predominantly white town.
In 1920, Rosewood Blacks had three churches, a school, a large Masonic Hall, turpentine mill, a sugarcane mill, a baseball team and a general store (a second one was white owned). The village had about two dozen plank two-story homes, some other small houses, as well as several small unoccupied plank structures.
Spurred by unsupported accusations that a white woman in Sumner had been beaten and possibly raped by a Black drifter, white men from a number of nearby towns lynched a Rosewood resident. When the Black citizens defended themselves against further attack, several hundred whites combed the countryside hunting Black people and burning almost every structure in Rosewood.
Survivors hid for several days in nearby swamps and were evacuated by train and car to larger towns. Although state and local authorities were aware of the violence, they made no arrests for the activities in Rosewood. At least six Blacks and two whites were killed, and the town was abandoned by Black residents during the attacks. None ever returned.
Washington, D.C. Race Riots (1919)
Postwar Washington, D.C., roughly 75 percent white, was a racial tinderbox. Housing was in short supply and jobs so scarce that ex-doughboys in uniform panhandled along Pennsylvania Avenue.
However, Washington’s Black community was then the largest and most prosperous in the country, with a small but impressive upper class of teachers, ministers, lawyers and businessmen concentrated in the LeDroit Park neighborhood near Howard University.
By the time the “Red Summer” was underway, unemployed whites bitterly envied the relatively few blacks who were fortunate enough to procure low-level government jobs. Many whites also resented the influx of African-Americans into previously segregated neighborhoods around Capitol Hill, Foggy Bottom and the old downtown.
In July 1919, white men, many in military uniforms, responded to the rumored arrest of a Black man for rape with four days of mob violence. They rioted, randomly beat Black people on the street and pulled others off streetcars in attacks. When police refused to intervene, the Black population fought back.
Troops tried to restore order as the city closed saloons and theaters to discourage assemblies. When the violence ended, 15 people had died: 10 whites, including two police officers; and five African-Americans. Fifty people were seriously wounded and another 100 less severely wounded. It was one of the few times when white fatalities outnumbered those of Blacks.
Knoxville, Tennessee Race Riots (1919)
In August 1919, a race riot in Knoxville, Tenn., broke out after a white mob mobilized in response to a Black man accused of murdering a white woman. The 5,000-strong mob stormed the county jail searching for the prisoner. They freed 16 white prisoners, including suspected murderers.
After looting the jail and sheriff’s house, the mob moved on and attacked the African-American business district. Many of the city’s Black residents, aware of the race riots that had occurred across the country that summer, had armed themselves, and barricaded the intersection of Vine and Central to defend their businesses.
Two platoons of the Tennessee National Guard’s 4th Infantry led by Adjutant General Edward Sweeney arrived, but they were unable to halt the chaos. The mob broke into stores and stole firearms and other weapons on their way to the Black business district. Upon their arrival the streets erupted in gunfire as Black snipers exchanged fire with both the rioters and the soldiers. The Tennessee National Guard at one point fired two machine guns indiscriminately into the neighborhood, eventually dispersing the rioters.
Shooting continued sporadically for several hours. Outgunned, the Black defenders gradually fled, allowing the guardsmen to gain control of the area. Newspapers placed the death toll at just two, though eyewitness accounts suggest the dead were so many that the bodies were dumped into the Tennessee River, while others were buried in mass graves outside the city.
New York City Draft Riot (1863)
The Draft Riot of 1863 was a four-day eruption of violence in New York City during the Civil War stemming from deep worker discontent with the inequities of the first federally mandated conscription laws.
In addition, the white working class feared that emancipation of enslaved Blacks would cause an influx of African-American workers from the South. In many instances, employers used Black workers as strike-breakers during this period. Thus, the white rioters eventually turned their wrath on the homes and businesses of innocent African-Americans and anything else symbolic of their growing political, economic and social power.
On July 13, 1863, organized opposition broke out across the city. The protests soon morphed into a violent uprising against the city’s wealthy elite and its African-American residents.
The four-day draft riot was finally quelled by police cooperating with the 7th New York Regiment. Estimates vary greatly on the number of people killed, though most historians believe around 115 people lost their lives, including nearly a dozen Black men who were lynched after they were brutally beaten. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed causing millions of dollars in damage. Up to 50 of the damaged buildings had been burned to the ground by rioters, including the Colored Orphan Asylum, which housed more than 230 Black children.
The East St. Louis Massacre (1917)
During spring 1917 Blacks were arriving in St. Louis at the rate of 2,000 per week, with many of them finding work at the Aluminum Ore Company and the American Steel Company in East St. Louis.
Some whites feared loss of job and wage security because of the new competition, and further resented newcomers arriving from a rural, very different culture. Tensions between the groups ran high and escalated when rumors were spread about Black men and white women socializing at labor meetings.
In May, 3,000 white men gathered in downtown East St. Louis. The roving mob began burning buildings and attacking Black people. The Illinois governor called in the National Guard to prevent further rioting and conditions eased somewhat for a few weeks.
Then on July 1, white men driving a car through a Black neighborhood began shooting into houses, stores, and a church. A group of Black men organized themselves to defend against the attackers. As they gathered, they mistook an approaching car for the same one that had earlier driven through the neighborhood and they shot and killed both men in the car, who were, in fact, police detectives sent to calm the situation.
The shooting of the detectives incensed a growing crowd of white spectators who came the next day to examine the car. The crowd grew and turned into a mob that spent the day and the following night on a spree of violence targeting Black neighborhoods of East St. Louis. Again, guardsmen were called in but various accounts suggest they joined in attacking Black people rather than stopping the violence.
After the riot, varying estimates of the death toll circulated. The police chief estimated that 100 Blacks had been killed. The renowned journalist Ida B. Wells reported in The Chicago Defender that 40-150 black people were killed in the rioting. The NAACP estimated deaths at 100-200. Six thousand African-Americans were left homeless after their neighborhood was burned.