5 Riots That Shocked America
5 Riots That Shocked America

5 Riots That Shocked America

Donna Patricia Ward - March 10, 2017

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.

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