Karen Sieber on her mission to archive the Red Summer of 1919Historians in the News
tags: archives, Red Summer of 1919
Karen Sieber currently works as the research and outreach coordinator for the Theodore Roosevelt Center and Digital Library. As a curator, her work includes Digital Loray, named a National Humanities Alliance “Humanities for All” site, as well as the Museum of Durham History’s H is for Hayti. Her current research includes travelling colleges of the 1920s and 1930s, and a project mapping Hobohemia.
When I began work on Visualizing the Red Summer, a comprehensive digital archive, map, and timeline of riots and lynchings across the United States in 1919, my initial motivation was, honestly, frustration. I first came to know about the Red Summer not in a book or classroom, but during a spring break visit to Knoxville, Tennessee, while asking my Airbnb host about the history of the neighborhood I was staying in. A violent white lynch mob had wreaked havoc on the city in late August 1919, part of a nationwide string of violence against African Americans that summer.
I was a student in my late 30s at the time, completing my undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Outraged by my ignorance of that summer (especially as a native Chicagoan, where some of the worst riots erupted), I sought more information. The same regurgitated Wikipedia information filled website after website. While I knew historic documents had to exist, almost none were digitized or discoverable in any manner, and those I could find were scattered across the country. For the average student, scholar, or interested layperson, the material was virtually inaccessible, and did not give a sense of connection to other similar events that took place that summer.
The term “Red Summer,” coined by James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP, refers to a series of more than three dozen geographically dispersed race riots, lynchings, and other violent attacks targeting African Americans in 1919. While each location’s circumstances were unique, trends and parallels emerged. Tensions between the races had been rising for a few years during the first wave of the Great Migration, with an increase in housing problems, job competition, and territorial disputes. World War I had recently ended, and African American soldiers returning home were often the subjects of attacks, sometimes at the hands of white servicemen. Although technically unconnected, the individual events likely fueled a collective mindset and fear.
I felt the need to act. Armed with my own frustration and an iPhone, I set off on a solo 7,500-mile road trip in the summer of 2015 to collect as much material as I could find related to the riots. I started by both reaching out to institutions near riot locations, as well as building off bibliographies from academic publications that did exist. Most books and articles focus on individual city’s riots, such as William M. Tuttle’s Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 (1970) or Richard C. Cortner’s A Mob Intent on Death: The NAACP and the Arkansas Riot Cases (1988), although they do occasionally mention violence elsewhere in the country. Journalist Cameron McWhirter’s comprehensive and well-researched Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America (2011) was also useful as I built a list of existing materials on the topic.
I designed a route to maximize my time and limited funds. Some days I would drive hours only to encounter a missing box or closed institution; on others I’d hit the jackpot and have 100 items to add in one sitting. I spent my days overwhelmed by stories from the riots: white soldiers attacking black soldiers in Bisbee, Arizona; a white mob overtaking police to lynch Will Brown at the Omaha, Nebraska, courthouse; a white jury sentencing to death sharecroppers who dared to organize in Elaine, Arkansas; and teenager Eugene Williams being stoned to death for floating into the “white” area along the shore of Chicago’s Lake Michigan.
As a public historian on this rogue acquisition journey, revisiting the events of the Red Summer felt more needed than ever—there was the impending centennial, but also current events. The murders of Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Laquan McDonald (a 17-year-old Chicagoan, like Eugene Williams) had sparked recent nationwide protests. Newspapers, politicians, and militarized police fueled tensions. Researching the 1919 riots in Charleston, South Carolina, I found the city still in mourning from the recent shooting at Emanuel AME Church. The week I was researching in nearby Columbia, Bree Newsome was making history with her defiant flagpole climb to remove the Confederate flag flying in front of the South Carolina state capitol building. It was hard to miss the parallels, which made my work seem even more urgent.
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