Anatomy of a White Race Riot

(The Red Summer of 1919; Destruction of Tulsa's 'Black Wall Street in 1921; and Decimation of Rosewood, Florida in 1923)

Author’s note:  In light of the current so-called “riots” in Ferguson, Missouri, I thought it might be instructive to give some perspective as to what “race riot” really means.  This is written especially for those  legions of  “holier than thou” white people who may be heard, seen and read as they rail against the “looters” and “rioters” in Ferguson in the aftermath of the murder of unarmed teen Michael Brown at the hands of now non-indicted white killer-cop, Darren Wilson.    

And, this history is also meant to serve as an object lesson to black people, a reminder, a remembrance – a history lesson, to be sure – but one that hopefully helps contextualize our current and centuries-long struggle against white supremacy and white racism.  

For the young people of Ferguson….

The Rosewood, Florida massacre was a violent, racially motivated conflict that occurred during the first week of January 1923 in rural Levy County. An unknown number of blacks and two whites were killed. The town of Rosewood was burned to the ground in what contemporary news reports characterized as a white race riot.

Racial disturbances were common during the early 20th century in this nation-state. But, Florida held the dubious distinction as the nation’s leader in the number of lynchings of black people in the year just before the massacre, including the Perry race riot when a black man had been burned at the stake in December 1922.

Rosewood was a quiet, primarily black, self-sufficient, indeed prosperous, whistle stop on the Seaboard Air Line Railway.

Enraged by false accusations that a white woman in nearby Sumner had been raped by a black drifter, white men from neighboring towns lynched a Rosewood resident.

Blacks in Rosewood organized to defend themselves against further attack. But several hundred white men methodically combed the woods, swamps and countryside hunting for black people. During the “hunt,” they torched every single structure in black Rosewood.

For several days – over a week — black escapees cowered in the nearby alligator, snake and mosquito-infested swamps, and finally managed to escape by hopping aboard passing trains or being picked up by the occasional  horseless carriages.

Both state and local authorities were fully aware of the violence  that their white neighbors and friends were committing against the black people of Rosewood; but they made no attempts to stop it or arrest anyone.

Rosewood was abandoned by its black residents. None ever returned.

Survivors, their descendants, and the perpetrators remained silent about Rosewood for decades. Sixty years after the riot, the Rosewood massacre was revisited in major media in the early 1980s.

Eventually, the aged survivors and their descendants sued the state of Florida for failure to protect them. In 1993, after the Florida Legislature finally took notice of the race riot of 1923, Florida provided nominal compensation to the survivors and their descendants.

The Rosewood massacre was the subject of a 1997 film directed by John Singleton. In 2004, the state designated the site of Rosewood as a Florida Heritage Landmark.

Anatomy of a white race riot

White-against-black race riots began in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War…in New York City.

Irish immigrants were upset that they were being drafted into the war to fight against slavery, and that “their” city was being “inundated” by newly escaped slaves who were taking “their” jobs. Roving bands of whites hung blacks from lamp posts for the crime of walking down the street.

Black communities and enclaves in New York City were set alight, including a black orphanage.

The Atlanta Riot (1906), the Omaha Riot (1919) and the Tulsa Riot (1921) followed.

But it was the Red Summer of 1919 that most closely followed the pattern set by New York. Chicago’s South Side, the Irish and blacks were competing for jobs at the stockyards. Both groups had been packed into teeming, filthy, substandard housing. In 1919, the Irish had been in the city longer, and were organized around athletic and political clubs.

A young black Chicagoan, Eugene Williams, inadvertently floated across an invisible racial borderline in Lake Michigan and into white territory. Williams drowned after being hit by a rock thrown by a young white man. Witnesses pointed out the killer to a policeman, who refused to make an arrest. An indignant group of blacks attacked the officer. White violence erupted across the city.

Mobs of white men and white women began pulling black people off trolley cars, carriages,  and accosting pedestrians – male, female, old, young, anybody with black skin.

But they especially targeted black businesses.  They beat and killed any black people, again including children, unlucky enough to be on the street, with baseball bats and iron bars.

But the black people of Chicago fought back. Still, a total of 23 blacks and 15 whites were killed.

Three years later, in 1921, the Tulsa, Okla. Race Riot occurred when blacks had the temerity to resist the attempted lynching of 19-year-old shoeshiner Dick Rowland.

Thirty-nine people (26 blacks, 13 whites) were confirmed killed. Recent investigations suggest that the actual number of casualties is probably much higher. White mobs set fire to the black Greenwood district (“Black Wall Street”), destroying 1,256 homes and as many as 200 businesses. Arson fires leveled a full 35 blocks of both residential and commercial neighborhoods. And as many as 300 black people were killed outright.

The Oklahoma National Guard rounded up every single black person it could find in Tulsa and forced them into several internment (concentration) camps, including a baseball stadium. Some white rioters actually resorted to the still new technological marvel of aeroplanes to chase and shoot escaping black refugees. These planes dropped homemade kerosene and dynamite bombs on the fleeing black populace of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

So…let’s get real.  It was not until the “riots” in Detroit during the middle of World War II that that word began to be associated with black people.  Indeed, there is documented evidence that white people have been rioting against one dark people or another going all the way by to the pre-Revolutionary War period.  The concentration and focus by white people today, therefore, on the  “rioters and looters” in Ferguson must needs be understood in this historical context.

Herbert Dyer, Jr. is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Herb may be reached at: Read other articles by Herb.