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The Forgotten Washington Race War of 1919

For all the ink spilled lamenting Washington, D.C.’s allegedly massive racial divide, it is worth noting that the District of Columbia, perhaps more than any other American city, has come an extraordinarily long way from its history of racial violence.   Most cited in this history is the violence that erupted in 1968 from which some of the city has only just begun to recover in recent years.  Mentioned less often, and indeed unknown to many Washingtonians, is the racial violence that occurred in the wake of victory in World War I.

In 1919 the District erupted into what newspapers deemed a “race riot,” but what can more accurately be described as a four-day race war.  After winning the Great War, Washingtonian veterans returned home to a city where steady jobs were hard to find for workers of any race.  White sailors panhandled downtown in their uniforms.  Black soldiers who had fought in France listened incredulously as wives explained that there were no jobs available to them.

On a muggy Saturday night in July 1919, white veterans were drinking in the bars clustered downtown when their banter gave birth to a rumor.  The Metropolitan Police Department had arrested, questioned and released a black man suspected of sexually assaulting a white woman—and not just any white woman, either, but the wife of a Navy man.  The story snaked through the packed saloons and pool halls. 

The men poured out of the bars, across the National Mall and down into an impoverished black neighborhood in Southwest D.C.  They carried in their hands the pipes and lumber they had found along their drunken march. 

Charles Ralls was enjoying an evening stroll with his wife Mary when the mob fell upon him.  He was the first black man they saw and, for that, he was beaten to a bloody rag.  About a block away, 55 year-old George Montgomery was returning home with groceries.  His purchases soon lay scattered near the dark corner of 9th and D Streets SW, waste for rats even before the mob cracked his skull with a brick. 

The violence rolled unabated from Saturday night into Sunday’s dusk, by which time the mobs discerned that the police would not intervene.  Thousands of white veterans in uniform snatched black people from streetcars, sidewalks and beat them without reason or mercy.  Black women cried in the streets for God to save them.  “Before I became unconscious,” recalled 17 year-old Francis Thomas, “I could hear [two black women] pleading with the Lord to keep them from being killed.”  A 22 year-old black man, Randall Neale, was walking near 4th and N Streets NW when a white Marine shot and killed him from a passing trolley car.

By Sunday night, black Washington had had enough.  Veteran sharpshooters cleaned their rifles before scaling walls to the roof of Howard Theatre.  U Street NW was their Rubicon and they defended it against white invasion.  The Washington Post reported: “In the negro district along U Street from Seventh to Fourteenth streets, the negroes began early in the evening to take vengeance for the assaults on their race in the downtown district the night before.” 

After securing their neighborhoods, some black men went on the offensive, pulling unsuspecting white riders from streetcars and beating them to pleading ruins.  Ten white and five black residents would die that night.  An African American teenaged girl shot and killed a police officer.  Black and white men fired at each other from moving cars.  The nation’s capital was at war with itself. 

On the fourth day of bloodshed, President Woodrow Wilson decided that he should act.  He ordered nearly 2,000 military servicemen into Washington to crush the violence and restore order.  The troops justifiably expected to meet fierce resistance from the warring residents.  Hundreds of guns had been bought and sold during the past three days alone.  Saloons and taverns closed; local officials pleaded for calm.  It seemed the servicemen summoned by the president would hardly be numerous enough to quell the battleground.

But then, it started raining.  It started raining and the rain did not stop until every man in the city had lowered his gun, sheathed his knife or just shoved his fists back into his empty pockets and gone home.  Rain dispersed the mobs. 

Over the coming weeks, Washington cooled.  Streetcars and sidewalks filled again with residents aware that little had changed.  Their lives and city soon thumped again.    The Justice Department blamed “Russian soviet interests” for “sow[ing] discord among the negroes” and a prominent local white preacher blamed Prohibition for causing the “Bolshevism” that caused the “race riots.” 

In his opening prayers in the House of Representatives on July 22, the Rev. H. N. Couden, Congress’s blind chaplain, tore through the political gauze when he beseeched the Lord to deliver Washington from “the hateful thing we call race prejudice.”  As soon as the Reverend ended his prayer, Congressmen blamed the riot-war’s violence on communist Russian agitators and refused to investigate the Metropolitan Police Department’s inaction.  President Wilson continued to give speeches about freedom and democracy, and the Washingtonians killed in July’s mayhem awaited burial in segregated cemeteries.

Such racial violence is unthinkable in today's Washington, not just because the Metropolitan Police Department is more responsive than it was in 1919, but because today's Washington is divided less by race than it is by household incomes.  Unlike many other major American cities, the District boasts a sizeable and deeply rooted African American middle class.  This demographic grows each year as more young black professionals move to the District.  But today, unlike in 1919, the city's poor white population is practically nonexistent.  Through most of the twentieth century, Washington's poor white families relocated to other cities and counties.  They left behind a city that appears horribly fractured along racial lines because nearly all its poor residents are black or brown.