Pandemics and protests: America has experienced racism like this before

By JPB Fellow Jennifer D. Roberts

“Riot Sweeps Chicago” should sound and feel intuitively familiar. However, this headline covered the front pages of a newspaper over a hundred years ago. Named the “Red Summer of 1919”, a spate of violence and bloodshed occurred from April to November 1919 with riots, lynchings, and mobs across the country. Hundreds of African American lives were claimed and hundreds more were left maimed and homeless. The most violent episodes occurred in Chicago, IL, Washington, D.C. and Elaine, AR and were precursors for what many are now learning to be the Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa.

Signifying the Red Summer, Eugene Williams, an African American teenager, violated the unofficial segregation of a Chicago beach and then was stoned by a man, who was part of a white mob, and then subsequently drowned. The terrorizing racism that followed ignited one of the longest and bloodiest race riots ever witnessed in the country. Similar to today, these racist incidents that captured national and international attention came on the heels of a pandemic—the 1918 influenza outbreak. Read more.