Aside from witnessing the Civil War’s first foreboding gun shots, Charleston’s historic streets served as a stage for one of the nation’s first race riots in the early 20th century. Wall Street Journal reporter Cameron McWhirter retraces the riot and the ensuing racial quarrels that swept across the country in his recently published book Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America.
Unbeknownst to many locals, Charleston’s riot foreshadowed decades of civil turmoil. McWhirter offers riveting reports vividly illustrating the largest case of mass brutality to stain the Holy City’s streets since the Civil War. According to McWhirter, riled-up sailors from the nearby Charleston Navy Yard flooded downtown streets the evening of May 10, 1919, indiscriminately attacking black civilians while searching for a black man who, after receiving money from a group of sailors outside of a pool hall to purchase alcohol, allegedly pocketed the cash and fled the scene.
Although the riot claimed five lives and resulted in numerous injuries, the author emphasizes city authorities’ prompt and decisive response in suppressing the uprising roughly an hour after it escalated. “It wasn’t a perfect situation, but compared to race riots throughout the year, it was one of the better ones,” says McWhirter, noting devastating, unrestrained riots in Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago, caused by authorities hesitating because of improper planning and political and legal ambiguities. “I was amazed at how the situation was handled so well in Charleston — it was the success story of 1919.”
Charleston’s riot mirrored the racial unrest that pervaded segregated towns and cities throughout the nation. The author states that early-20th-century racial frictions flared due to decorated black soldiers returning home from World War I calling for equality, as well as black sharecroppers’ growing success and, extending beyond Southern territories, blacks’ migration to Northern cities.
“There were a lot of racial problems then, and Jim Crow was certainly alive and pickin’,” says McWhirter, who extensively researched 20th-century American racial issues during a 2007 Nieman fellowship at Harvard University. “This country had a lot of problems coming to terms with black people becoming a part of democracy, this big experiment.”
McWhirter’s expansive journalism background — he’s written for various renowned publications since 1988 — fostered a detached, fact-driven perspective toward a topic that’s often diluted with political and racial rhetoric. “I just wanted to lay out the facts,” says McWhirter, whose book relies heavily on police reports, victim interviews, and various published accounts. “I wanted the language of the book to be very understated,” he says. “What happened was obviously terrible and I tried not to over-embellish anything. I think it would’ve weakened it.”
Blending investigative, journalistic reporting with historical hindsight, Red Summer thoroughly details a season that paved the way for future civil rights activism and, after decades of steadfast, uncompromising advocacy, ushered in a more racially tolerant society. “Black and white relations would never be the same again,” says McWhirter, regarding the 1919 riots. “Ultimately, after a lot of strife, that would be a good thing — it shows progress. If you would’ve told Woodrow Wilson, the president at the time, that a black man would be in office in 2011, his head would’ve popped off.”
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