The Red Summer and "If We Must Die"

Tree by the Water, Red and Black Ink, LLC.


In 1919 more than 20 different racially violent events took place throughout the United States, from May of 1919 to October of 1919.  The events were so violent that this time span became known as the “Red Summer.”

The approximately 27 events occurred from Chicago, IL to Elaine, Arkansas;  from Washington, D.C. to Omaha, Nebraska; from Georgia to Knoxville, TN and so on.  It was clear that as blacks moved from the South to the North and as soldiers returned from World War I, authorities were not willing to protect the rights of ALL Americans even though they were willing to fight for freedom abroad.

In Chicago

On July 27, 1919 a young African-American teenager, named Eugene Williams, was having fun and playing in Lake Michigan in Chicago, when he accidentally drifted into the “white side” of the lake.  White beachgoers began to throw rocks at him and, reportedly, hit him in the head with stones.  As Williams continued to struggle, they continued to pummel him with rocks and Eugene Williams died in Lake Michigan.

When police arrived, they refused to arrest any of the stone throwers and instead reportedly arrested a black man who was nearby.

This outraged the black beachgoers and there was already tension between white and black citizens in Chicago.  The hostility spilled over into other parts of the city (in particular the South Side) and over the course of five days 23 black people and 15 white people were killed.

Over 1,000 black families were made homeless and it is worth noting that in the two years leading up to this event, at least 26 black families had their homes bombed in an effort to get black citizens not to move into white areas.

In Washington, DC

Just a few days before the event in Chicago, rioting broke out on July 19, 1919 in Washington, D.C.  There were rumors and accusations that a black man was going around attacking white women.  So on July 19, 1919, when soldiers heard about a black man who was taken into custody and released, they decided to take their frustration to the entire black community.

About four hundred white people gathered sticks, weapons and pipes and walked from a nightlife section of Washington, D.C. to a mostly black area in SW Washington.

The crowd came across a black man named Charles Linton Ralls and who was out with his wife.  They brutally beat Ralls.  They also came across a black man named George Montgomery and fractured his skull with a weapon.

The police showed up and arrested more black people than they did white people and this sent a signal that the racial violence would continue.

Over the course of four days dozens of people would die from their injuries until president Woodrow Wilson called in calvary men, Marines, Army soldiers and sailors to help stop the violence.

This riot was different, however, for another reason—black World War I veterans and citizens mobilized to defend their neighborhoods.  They set up barricades, posted lookouts and responded to the violence.

In Other Cities

In Georgia on August 28, 1919 a black man named Eli Cooper was shot to death while in a church and the church was then burned down.  

In Knoxville, TN, on August 30, 1919, a mob of people stormed a jail.  They were looking for a black man whom they believed was connected to the murder of a white woman.  The mob looted the jail, stole whiskey and went throughout the streets where they began rioting and looting in African-American areas.

In Bogalusa, Louisiana, on August 31, 1919, a black man named Lucius McCarthy, who was accused of attacking a white woman, was lynched and his body was dragged throughout the streets.  McCarthy was shot over 1,000 times and a bonfire was made around his body as it burned.  Lucius McCarthy was a U.S. veteran.

In Omaha, Nebraska

In Omaha, Nebraska, on September 25, 1919, a woman, named Agnes Loebeck, said that she had been attacked by a black man.

The next day the police brought a man named Will Brown to her home and Agnes identified him as the man who attacked her, although Will Brown vehemently denied attacking her.

While all of this was going on, a group of white people gathered outside of Agnes’ house.  They demanded that the police give Brown to them so that they could lynch him.  

The police were able to get Will Brown to the courthouse, but the situation was not over.

On Sunday, September 28, 1919, a group of men began to march to the courthouse.  By evening some 5,000 - 15,000 people had gathered.  They began to shoot into the courthouse and they set part of it on fire.  When firefighters came to put the fire out, the crowd would not let them through to the building.

The mayor of the city then came out of the building and pleaded with the group to let the firefighters through, but the group then attacked him and tried to hang him.  The mayor was eventually rescued.

The attackers posed for pictures in front of Will Brown's body.  Notice a young boy to the right looking on and men not ashamed to show their faces in front of the burning body.

The attackers posed for pictures in front of Will Brown's body.  Notice a young boy to the right looking on and men not ashamed to show their faces in front of the burning body.

Members of the crowd then made their way into the courthouse and grabbed Will Brown.  By the time they got him to the front door almost all of his clothes were ripped off.

They took him to a nearby spot and the large crowd let out a roar in approval.  Brown was quickly hoisted up with a noose around his neck and his body was riddled with bullets.

He was then tied to the back of a car and driven around for a few blocks.  The attackers then got oil from nearby lamps and doused his body.  They set him on fire and posed for pictures around his burning body.

He again was tied to a car and driven throughout the streets of downtown.  The attackers cut up pieces of the rope that was used to hang him and sold it for 10 cents a piece.

If you were a black person living in 1919, you were being sent a very clear message as many of the attackers, even though there were pictures of them, were never brought to justice.

Claude McKay, who was an outstanding writer during the Harlem Renaissance, wrote a poem about the events of that “Red Summer” of 1919.

If We Must Die

If we must die—let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,

Making their mock at our accursed lot.

If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,

So that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain; then even the monsters we defy

Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!


Oh, Kinsmen!  We must meet the common foe;

Though far outnumbered, let us still be brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!

What though before us lies the open grave?

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but—fighting back!

- Claude McKay, 1919, “If We Must Die”


© 2017 Danita Smith, Red and Black Ink, LLC.


Armstrong, Ken. “The 1919 race riots.”  Chicago Tribune. Accessed September 2017.

The Crisis.  “During the last three days of August the daily press reported the following:” October 1919.

Johnson, James Weldon.  The Book of American Negro Poetry. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1922).

Lynching in America:  Targeting Black Veterans.  Equal Justice Initiative. 2016. Montgomery, AL. 1900 - 1924.  “A Horrible Lynching.”  Accessed Oct. 2017.

Perl, Peter.  “Race Riot of 1919 Gave Glimpse of Future Struggles.”  Washington Post, March 1, 1999.  Page A1.  

St. Landry Clarion.  “The Chicago Riots”.  Saturday, August 2, 1919.


Will Brown's charred body with attackers posing in front of a camera.  Omaha, Nebraska, 1919.

Danita Smith