5 Riots That Shocked America

5 Riots That Shocked America

Donna Patricia Ward - March 10, 2017

Americans riot. During America’s almost 250 year history, mob violence has been used to terrorize populations and to demand political change. Hand-to-hand combat, street fighting, setting buildings on fire, and pulling people from their homes have been modes of violence used in some of America’s most notorious riots.

Rioting in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century was rather commonplace. Yet, while the violence in the riots was the same, they still managed to shock observers. Below are five riots that shook America. Some resulted in no change, others prompted civilian action, and still others exposed a pattern of racial violence that remains virtually unchanged today.

5 Riots That Shocked America
Richmond Times Dispatch

Bread Riots, Richmond, Virginia – 1863

Most of the battles of the American Civil War occurred in southern states. As the two warring armies entered the countryside and faced each other in battle, maintaining a farm was nearly impossible. Even for those that were able to farm a few acres, when the armies were nearby, they often took the crops, livestock, and foodstuff for their own consumption. This left those in the countryside on farms and small towns without food. Women and their families left the countryside for the city in hopes of finding war-related work and food.

As the war dragged on, those on the home front dealt with soaring inflation and high food prices. For long-time residents of the cities, they had to deal with the massive onslaught of the migrating refugees who had the clothes on their backs, a family bible, and little else. The little food available for poor city-dwellers suddenly had to be shared with poor refugees. There simply was not enough to go around; even being wealthy did not exclude a person from hunger.

Women protested in front of the Confederate Capitol in Richmond. They demanded that President Jefferson Davis supply them with the bread they so badly needed. Unwilling or unable to alleviate the food shortages, Davis provided no assistance. On April 2, 1863, roughly 5,000 women and their family members stormed into shops and warehouses, smashing windows and setting small fires, taking whatever they could. They took jewelry, clothes, food, and other items. The smash and grab of the Civil War left shops destroyed and businesses ruined. The Mayor of Richmond proclaimed martial law with the state’s militia sent to squash the violence.

Women took an active and violent role in demanding bread. While no one was killed during the protesting, the act of women rioting was a stark contrast to the ideals of nineteenth-century womanhood. The Richmond Bread Riots of 1863 illustrated that women were willing and able to demand that the government fulfill their responsibilities to their citizenry and ultimately changed the way that women participated in the Republic.

5 Riots That Shocked America
Memphis, TN Riot May 1866 from Harper’s Weekly. Public Domain

Memphis, Tennessee Riot – 1866

Memphis, Tennessee sits along the shores of the Mississippi. The hinterland of Memphis, prior to the Civil War, was filled with cotton fields and slave labor. When the Civil War ended and the Thirteenth Amendment signed forever outlawing slavery in the United States, Memphis became a mecca for freedmen and their families. As a river town, Memphis held the promise of jobs for the ever-increasing shipping traffic. Along the riverfront, freedmen and Irish laborers fought for the same jobs and dealt with discrimination.

In addition to the freedmen from the hinterland, Memphis had numerous mustered-out black Union soldiers also seeking labor opportunities. Memphis was a southern town that fell to Union forces in 1862. The sight of Union soldiers was not new in 1866. What was new was the sight of mustered out black Union soldiers. As residents of Memphis continued to adjust to peacetime they also had to adjust to the changes in social hierarchy. As long as slavery was legal, the Irish would never be at the bottom of the American social order. Once slavery was outlawed, freedmen and the Irish began battling for which group would be at the bottom of the ladder in a post-slavery country. Complicating this matter further was that the Memphis police force consisted mostly of Irish immigrants.

When black soldiers mustered out of the army and celebrated in the saloons and taverns of Memphis, the Irish police officers ensured that these freedmen knew where they stood in the social hierarchy. Tensions between the two groups intensified as Federal black soldiers patrolled the city to ensure the peace. On April 30, 1866, three black mustered-out soldiers and four Irish police officers had a violent encounter. As one officer shot a former soldier lines were drawn. The next day, on May 1, 1866, whites began pulling black people from their homes, burning houses, churches, schools, and businesses. White mobs raped several black women dozens of black residents were killed. The violence lasted for three days before martial law was declared to restore order to the city.

In the riot’s aftermath, 46 blacks and two whites were killed and hundreds of homes, schools, and churches were burned, and many blacks fled Memphis. Northerners were appalled at the violence, and support shifted from President Andrew Johnson’s Presidential Reconstruction plan toward the more militarized plan. The Radical Reconstruction Act carved the South into five military zones, Congress ratified the Fourteenth Amendment that defined who was an American citizen and that those citizens have a right to due process and equal protection under the law, and ultimately was the catalyst that led to the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

5 Riots That Shocked America
Cover of Le Petit Journal depicting Atlanta Race Riot. Public Domain

Atlanta Race Riot – 1906

When Sherman’s army burned Atlanta in 1864, it paved the way for a great American city to rise from the ashes. After the Civil War, Atlanta built anew and became the railroad hub of the South. Soon, industry and textile mills became a beacon for tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and immigrants seeking better employment opportunities.

Black males were awarded the right to vote with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment; they became active and successful political contenders. Worried of the political power that black men may achieve and the upheaval of the old social order, whites and ethnic Europeans began targeting black businesses.

Whites, with the help of two prominent newspapers, began reporting that black saloons had images of nude white women on the walls. Newspapers reported on sex crimes committed on white women with the presumption that black men were the perpetrators. On September 22, 1906, a newspaper ran a report that four women were sexually assaulted and soon, a seemingly utopian Atlanta was engulfed in violence.

In response to the sexual assault reports, white men and boys began pulling black people off of trolley cars and beating them. Blacks were gathered, beaten, stabbed, and killed in retaliation for the sexual assaults. Black men and women were pelted with stones and clubbed. A national newspaper ran an article during the three-day unrest stating that the only way to ensure peace was for the races to be separated. The state militia was called in to end the violence. African-Americans who once advocated for change through peaceful and non-violent means began calling on their followers to arm themselves with as many guns as possible.

5 Riots That Shocked America
Damage from Springfield Race Riot, 1908. Public Domain

Springfield, Illinois Race Riot – 1908

Abraham Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois in 1861 on train to become the sixteenth President of the United States. Since the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s interment, Springfield had developed into a bustling central Illinois town. Continuing a theme seen in previous race riots, two blacks were arrested for alleged crimes against white women. To protect the black men, city officials moved the men out of the city jail.

When an angry mob of whites stormed the jail to lynch the two black men on September 22, 1908, the mob found that they were gone. The angry white mob began attacking black homes, churches, and businesses.

As reported in a St. Louis newspaper, white mobs entered the homes of black families throughout Springfield, forcefully took them out of their homes, and put them onto train boxcars. For black men and women that refused to leave their homes, the white mob set the home on fire blocking doors and windows to prevent escape. For those forced onto train cars, they were shipped to St. Louis, Missouri with no money, clothing, or personal property. Upon their arrival in St. Louis, they were kicked off of the trains to fend for themselves in a new city.

The violence that ensued during the Springfield race riot demanded action. In St. Louis, middle-class African Americans formed an agency to assist the new arrivals with finding homes and jobs. This agency eventually became the Urban League of St. Louis. Tired and fearful of more mob violence, civil rights activists formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose mission was to advocate for justice and equality through legal challenges and to fight for a national anti-lynching law.

5 Riots That Shocked America
Stoning of a black man during the 1919 Chicago Race Riot. Public Domain

Chicago, Illinois Race Riot – 1919

When the United States entered into the Great War, black men were not permitted to join the military. Instead, they had to wait to be drafted. Military units were segregated based upon race and many black outfits fulfilled ancillary roles as white units engaged in battle. The segregated units represented neighborhoods back home; most were segregated with the unwritten rule that no white person would enter a black neighborhood and no black person would enter into a white neighborhood. Even beaches along Lake Michigan adhered to the unmarked boundaries between white and black.

As men mustered out of the military at the end of the war, a flu pandemic broke out. In Chicago, rumors swirled that black soldiers stationed in France returned home and intentionally infected whites who were attempting to keep black families contained in a small area called the Black Belt. Every day there were skirmishes between the ethnic groups that bordered Chicago’s Black Belt.

On July 27, 1919, a young black boy swam into what was considered the white part of Lake Michigan. A white boy threw a rock, hitting the black boy on the head. As the black boy drowned, violence broke out on the beach and then spilled into the segregated neighborhoods on Chicago’s near south side. When the violence began, the city shut down the street cars, stranding workers and forcing them to walk home. For four days, blacks and ethnic whites were engaged in a full-fledged riot with street fighting and setting buildings on fire. Fueling more violence were rumors of plans to set the Black Belt on fire and to force all blacks from the city. Big Bill Thompson, mayor of Chicago, refused the governor’s offer to send the National Guard to quash the violence.

In the end, 23 blacks and 15 whites were killed, hundreds injured, numerous buildings destroyed or damaged, and over 1000 African Americans left homeless. Although he never admitted or denied participation, former long-time Mayor Richard J. Daley was 17 years old and a member of an Irish Athletic Club with many known participants in the riot. During his terms as mayor, Chicago’s Black Belt was turned into the largest high-rise housing project in the world.