Updated: Jan 27, 2021
At the intersection of 7th and T Street NW currently stands a school, a bank, a CVS and a Chinese restaurant. In the summer of 1919, dubbed the "Red Summer" by civil right activist James Wheldon Johnson, that intersection was one of the flashpoints where DC's black community took a stand against an angry mob who were on a rampage after an alleged assault on a white woman by two black men. The event was the catalyst for violence after months of tension following the end of WWI. Black soldiers who fought on the front lines in a terrible war returned to a country that would still not accept them as equals, and white people just wanted the country to return to what it had been before the war, racial dynamics intact. In addition, President Wilson had segregated the Federal workforce, essentially forcing the African American community out of jobs that used to be a source of stable work. The city was a cauldron of resentments, simmering in the summer heat.
Once word of the alleged assault spread, followed by other reported rapes in the area by supposedly the same men, a mob of white veterans and active duty military personnel went on a manhunt throughout the city, harassing and assaulting black men and black businesses wherever they found them. The metropolitan police conducted their own search, arresting black men, absent of any evidence, the only thing the men having in common with the rapists were they were also black. Black leaders in the community were deeply concerned at the indiscriminate "justice" being meted out at the hands of the mob, and saw that they would find no protection from local authorities. Clashes were happening all over the city, and the papers called for the President to bring order and stamp down what was being reported as a black uprising, ironically. So, led by the NAACP and other key figures, the black community rallied themselves to fight and protect themselves and their families.
On July 19th, group of over 2,000 members of the black community armed themselves and created barriers along U street and Florida Avenue, with concentrations at 7th and 6th Street. Many of them were war veterans themselves. They held the line against both a large group of equally armed white men, National Guard, and policemen. Black sharpshooters positioned themselves on the roof of the Howard Theater. As the white mob advanced, shots were fired and fighting broke out. Hundreds of arrests were made, mostly of black men. But the line held and the mob was denied access to the U Street neighborhood.
That day was a point of pride for the black community in DC. James Wheldon wrote in the Crisis Magazine "calm and determined, unterrified and unafraid...they had reached the determination that they would defend and protect themselves and their homes at the cost of their lives." In the years that followed, U Street became one of the urban centers that gave rise to the New Negro movement and the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African American thought and reexamination of their position in this country. This battle was a small piece of a war for civil rights that would still continue for decades. The riots of 1919 are often eclipsed in history by the race riots of 1968, events set off by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The riots and frustrations we see on behalf of the black community stem from these same concerns, continuing 101 years after this event. While I touch on this during my Harlem Renaissance tour, I tend to focus more on the positive, but the outcome of that day cannot be understated as a turning point in how the black community in DC viewed itself as having a rightful place in the social fabric of the nations capital.
If you want to hear more about how U Street became the "secret city" that gave rise to the new black identity, check out my Harlem Renaissance tour every other Saturday until December 5th. Tickets can be bought here at https://www.otmdc.com/bookings-checkout/the-harlem-renaissance-in-dc.