The Race Riots of 1919-1920
Surely, in the face of the recent assaults upon the law and the courts, from the East St. Louis Riots down to this orgy of fire and blood in Omaha, the time has come when it is incumbent upon the Federal Government to assume jurisdiction and set its hand to the task of stamping out the spirit of outlawry with which the state and local authorities have manifested their inability to contend.
The Atlanta Constitution, October 1919.
Amid postwar labor upheavals and the “red scare,” the United States was forced to confront racial disorders of a magnitude not seen since the end of Reconstruction. Changes in American society, however, were transforming the racial tensions that had once been almost exclusively confined to the south into a nationwide phenomenon. In the course of 1919 alone, between twenty and twenty-five separate outbreaks of rioting and racial violence marked what one prominent journal labeled “our own race war.” Once again, as in the anti-Chinese incidents of 1885 and 1886, the Army was called to restore order, this time between two groups of citizens who had developed into two separate, unequal, and sometimes hostile societies.
The Background of the 1919 Riots
World War I caused many social and economic changes within the United States, especially in regard to the 10 percent of the population that comprised the black minority. Black America emerged from the war as a community with rising expectations. No longer willing to accept passively the indignities and abuses of Jim Crow laws and other forms of racial discrimination practiced in the south, blacks showed a new determination to gain a practical realization of constitutional and civil rights granted a generation earlier in the years following the Civil War. World War I gave birth to what scholars have often referred to as the “New Negro,” more aware of discrimination and more active in opposition to it.
The industrial expansion brought on by the war, and the concomitant drop in the numbers of white workers and European immigrants, meant more jobs in northern industries for blacks and a corresponding expansion of employment opportunities in areas from which they had previously been excluded. The prospect of a better way of life, steady employment and increased financial opportunity, and an atmosphere incorrectly thought relatively discrimination-free spurred a mass migration of southern blacks to northern industrial cities between 1914 and 1919, most being actively recruited by northern industries seeking cheap labor to fill war orders. Almost 500,000 blacks moved north between 1916 and 1918 alone.
The wartime military service of some 380,000 other blacks stood as a source of immense pride and satisfaction to many in the minority community. Over 140,000 black servicemen went to France, and of this number, 42,000 served in two all-black combat units, the 92d and 93d Infantry Divisions. The vast majority, however, had noncombat roles in supply, stevedore, engineer, and labor battalions, in a marked and unwelcome departure from the elite black units of earlier wars. Of the black combat troops, only half served with the American Expeditionary Forces, and the four regiments of the 93d were put exclusively under French command and control.
The large number of blacks serving in the Army brought many whites into close contact with them for the first time. As a result, their military service caused much discussion within the Army, with conclusions that were in general unflattering. Black units serving in the AEF were frequently criticized as lacking motivation, determination, efficiency, and courage. According to a publication of the Army War College, blacks were deemed “unfit for command in combat,” while most black units were declared to be “inferior in combat to a corresponding white unit.” A representative white officer, Col. Charles C. Ballou, writing of his wartime experiences with blacks in command positions, termed black officers “slothful and negligent” and “prone to leave the frontline trenches and loaf around the kitchens.” Front-line service under black officers, he maintained, “was a farce.” By contrast, the more racially tolerant French frequently commended and praised the members of the 93d Division for their discipline, high morale, and bravery under fire. The 8th Illinois, the only regiment with all-black officers in the U.S. Army at that time, won numerous battle honors during its service under French command in the sectors surrounding Verdun, and sixty-eight of its soldiers received the Croix de Guerre for valor.
Wherever they served, their contribution to the struggle to “make the world safe for democracy” led blacks to demand a greater degree of equality at home after the war. NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) leader W.E.B. DuBois stated that “if the black man could fight the Kaiser … he could later present a bill for payment due to a grateful white America.” Although DuBois told blacks to “forget … special grievances,” and to “close … ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations … fighting for democracy,” he also predicted that blacks fighting for democracy expected their “full share of the fruits thereof.”
But the coming of peace did not produce the changes blacks sought. Instead, the period was marked by increased white hostility, violent outbursts against black civilians and soldiers, and acts of mob violence that included lynchings. In 1918 alone, sixty-three black men and women were lynched by mobs, leading many prominent Americans to compare the racial violence in America to the massacres of ethnic minorities in the Balkans, Turkish Armenia, and revolutionary Russia.
At the root of the trouble lay racism and antiradicalism, combined with the whites’ economic fears. The wartime gains resulting from the migration of blacks into the northern industrial cities created new arenas of interracial competition for jobs. White servicemen, newly returned from France, faced the possibility of unemployment in an economy not yet converted to peacetime production and blamed blacks for their economic woes. Some whites demanded that blacks return to the south and relinquish their new jobs, homes, and lives. Black strikebreakers further inflamed tensions, especially in areas such as in East St. Louis, Illinois, where whites striking for higher wages and better conditions saw their jobs filled with blacks hired by antiunion employers.
Both riots and charges of subversion brought the federal government into the conflict. Of twenty-five major racial disorders in the two years following the armistice, six resulted in calls for the Army to restore order. In only one could racial violence be equally attributed to the actions of both sides. The remainder originated from provocative and hostile actions of whites, often caused by off-duty soldiers, sailors, and marines. Although the attitudes of the officers and men of the predominantly white Regular Army toward blacks were conventional for the times, the Army quelled the disorders in a neutral manner, but not bloodlessly. Nonetheless, Army discipline and adherence to orders proved to be the key to quelling disturbances that otherwise could have degenerated into widespread, open racial warfare.
In July 1919 more than 1,200 officers and enlisted men from the numerous military posts in the Washington area were summoned by civil authorities to restore law and order to the city of 401,000, which was wracked by mob violence and interracial strife. Ironically, the riot was precipitated by uniformed members of the armed forces, whose actions resulted in considerable injury and loss of life.
In late June and early July of 1919 several attempted rapes of white women were reported in the District of Columbia and surrounding areas. Police officials within the 804-member city police department became convinced by eyewitness reports that one black was responsible for several of the crimes. Many whites, however, believed that a premeditated epidemic of sexual assaults by blacks upon area white women was under way. Although suspects were arrested, most were released amid strong press criticism of the district government for lax law enforcement. In particular, the Washington Post ran a sensational campaign about a “crime wave” in the city, highlighting rapes both actual and imaginary. The stories were picked up by Washington’s other daily newspapers, the Washington Times, the Washington Herald, and the Washington Evening Star, generating outrage within the white community.
Late in the evening of 18 July the wife of a sailor on her way home from work was jostled by two black men. Although frightened, the woman was not assaulted. On the following evening, several hundred off-duty white soldiers, sailors, and marines entered a black residential area in southeast Washington to avenge the incident. In route the mob assaulted several blacks and laid siege to the home of a black family. The city police and the military provost guard intervened and broke up the mob, but they were too late to prevent other clashes. Racial partisanship was an old tradition among the metropolitan police, who arrested eight blacks but only two white sailors. When policemen tried to arrest a black man later that night, he wounded one of them – the first sign that racial conflict in the nation’s capital would not be a one-sided affair.
The situation remained tense throughout the next day. By nightfall on 20 July violence erupted with greater intensity in the vicinity of 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. As police attempted to arrest a black man, a group identified by witnesses as “soldiers, sailors, and marines” intervened, assaulting blacks who were returning home from work. The incident provoked an immediate response by blacks. Scattered rioting lasted throughout the night and into the early morning of 21 July.
Attempts to calm the situation were unsuccessful. The Washington branch of the NAACP requested that Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels restrain the sailors and marines in the Washington area. Daniels did nothing, however, apparently blaming most of the trouble on the blacks and making no effort to protect them. Black leaders often sent a delegation to meet with Commissioner Louis P. Brownlow and other city officials on Monday, 21 July. Reports of police beatings of black prisoners had spread, and the delegation predicted that mounting black frustration could explode into greater violence. One member told Brownlow that the black people of Washington were “determined not to stand up and be shot down like dogs,” but they were “prepared to protect their families and themselves and would do so at all hazard.” The role of servicemen in the early stages of the riot did little to engender the trust of the black residents of the city. The black community leaders asked Brownlow if black soldiers would be included among any federal troops assigned to the police force. Upon being informed by Brownlow that all colored soldiers had been discharged, the black leaders bluntly told the assembled city officials that the black community believed that they would not receive a “square deal” from the white soldiers.
After his meeting with the black leaders, Brownlow quickly met with Secretary of War Baker and Army Chief of Staff March at the War Department, requesting the help of any available federal forces to end the cycle of violence. The Navy Department agreed to supply 400 marines, and the War Department promised troops to reinforce the police. The special legal status of the District of Columbia ensured prompt help from the federal government, so shortly after the meeting several police precincts were reinforced with mixed military detachments equipped with motor transport. A unit of five officers and ninety men of the 3d Calvary under the command of Lt. Col. William O. Reed also made ready to supply the police with reinforcements if called. Yet the night of 21 July brought renewed strife.
The new violence reversed the pattern of the earlier clashes. Now the majority of assaults were directed by blacks against white citizens and police. Black men in automobiles mounted hit-and-run attacks, while Army cavalry detachments repeatedly charged surging white mobs that were attempting to break a police cordon around black neighborhoods. In contrast to the previous nights, military personnel were no longer a source of the interracial violence; the only service personnel involved were those assigned to riot duty. Dozens of blacks and whites were injured; 15 were killed, and over 300 were arrested.
The violence of the night of 21 July prompted a full-scale intervention by the federal government. Baker, acting under instructions from President Wilson and working with Navy Secretary Daniels, ordered additional forces sent to Washington to restore public order. Under the wartime policy of direct access, no presidential proclamation was issued. All federal forces were placed under the command of Maj. Gen. William G. Haan, director of the Army’s War Plans Division of the War Department General Staff. An artillery officer who excelled in organizational matters, Haan had combat experience in the Philippines and during World War I had commanded the 32d Infantry Division. His forces included 1,000 soldiers and U.S. marines from nearby Camp Meade and the Quantico Marine Base and 85 cavalrymen. In addition, MID agents in civilian clothes mingled with the populace seeking information, and the police enlisted 1,000 special deputies.
With ample power at hand, Haan quickly set about to restore order in the district. Instead of acting simply in support of the district police, federal troops assumed primary responsibility for law enforcement. The creation of a unified command placed all law enforcement forces under Army direction and control. The centralization of authority in the hands of one commander produced an immediate and dramatic change in the city. Although a few incidents and casualties marred the first day of the military law enforcement, in general the saturation of trouble spots with federal troops quickly succeeded in restoring order. By Thursday, 24 July 1919, rioting in Washington, D.C. had ended, and the Army indicated its strong desire to return law enforcement responsibilities to the district police. Larger federal units left Washington, D.C. on 27 July, while a smaller Army detachment of thirty-five officers and men of the 63d Infantry remained in the city to support police forces until the following day, when they too were withdrawn.
The participation of soldiers, sailors, and marines in attacks against the black populace on the nights of 20 and 21 July had been confirmed by many reports in the press and those presented to War and Navy Department officials. Although initially showing no concern, Secretary of the Navy Daniels later instructed the chief of naval operations to “direct officers in the district to spare no effort to prevent participation of men wearing the uniform.” He further ordered that all commanding officers in or near Washington report the names of men in the Navy or Marine Corps so offending. Although the New York Times stated on 21 July that “several hundred soldiers, sailors, and marines participated in the rioting,” Haan later denied that any soldiers still in the Army had any part in this mixup. He attributed the presence of men in uniform to the large number of recently discharged soldiers who were legally allowed to ware their Army uniforms. However, his request that the War and Navy Departments deny passes to enlisted personnel wishing to visit the city demonstrated his concern that servicemen might either take part in the disturbances or become victims of them. In any case he found the performance of federal military personnel on riot duty worthy of praise and requested that Baker dispatch a suitable letter of commendation for Marine and Navy units that served in the city.
The Washington, D.C. race riot evoked a mixed response from the political and military figures most actively involved in its suppression. For Secretary Daniels, a southerner, the race riot deserved no more than a passing mention in his diary, and the role of marines and sailors in the outbreak of the disorder received no comment. Secretary Baker, on the other hand, was rare among government officials of his day in holding progressive views regarding racial problems. Reporting on the situation to President Wilson, he praised the “attitude of the colored people, particularly their leaders” who helped to ease the great interracial tension in the city. General Haan did not attribute the origin of the trouble to the general population, either black or white. Instead, he placed the blame on the newspapers wholly. As he informed one of his military colleagues, “things quieted down as soon as I got control of the newspapers. It was merely a newspaper war. When I got them to agree to say approximately what I wanted them to say, which was the truth, then soon everything was over.” Perhaps the most significant insight into Haan’s thinking can be gained from a letter he wrote on 5 August. Dismissing the importance of the riot, he stressed that it was just a “short mopping up affair,” and expressed the opinion that had troops been committed earlier in the race riot in Chicago that summer more lives could have been saved. For him, the safeguarding of human life by prompt military intervention was the central factor in dealing with a civil disturbance.
The Army’s principal aim had been that of upholding the law and restoring order with as little bloodshed as possible. To deal with the causes of the trouble was outside its mission and perhaps, given contemporary attitudes, beyond anyone’s power. A member of the British Foreign Office, he noted that the disturbance reflected “deep underlying conditions for which there is no remedy at hand.” He expressed relief also that “there has so far been none of those disgraceful outbursts of savagery which sometimes characterize riots in places where the race question is more acute than in Washington.” Within a month, however, the Army was called to intervene in an area where such savagery was clearly evident.
As in Washington, D.C., the rape of a white woman by a black man was the cause of a racial disturbance in Omaha that required federal troops to quell. On 25 September 1919 a 19-year-old white woman, Agnes Loebeck, was allegedly assaulted at gunpoint by a black male in south Omaha. The assault was witnessed by Millard Hoffman, described by the newspapers and subsequent reports as “a crippled friend” of Loebeck’s. The following day police arrested a 41-year-old black man, Will Brown, who was known by many to be living with a white woman. The victim identified Brown as the perpetrator of the assault, although the police and Army intelligence later reported that the identification was not positive. In the local Omaha Bee, however, the incident was cited as only one further example of unpunished depredations committed upon white women by blacks. Here, too, local politics was a factor. The newspaper was controlled by a recently ousted political machine that was highly critical of the new reform-minded city administration. Over the course of several months it had published a series of articles highlighting alleged instances of black criminality to embarrass city officials.
The first attempt by a mob to lynch Brown was unsuccessful, but two days after his arrest rumors began to circulate that another attempt would be made on his life. On the afternoon of Sunday, 28 September, a group of approximately fifty youths from age fourteen to twenty, reputed to be friends of Loebeck’s, gathered at the Bancroft School in south Omaha and began a one-mile march to the downtown Douglas County Court House. By 1600 this group had been joined by a much larger crowd. Although initially good humored, the mob turned rapidly hostile, demanded that the prisoner be surrendered to them, and stoned the building, breaking all the windows on the first and second floors. These actions forced the forty-five Omaha policemen present to retreat to the third and fourth floors. The county jail was on the fifth floor. The mob then stormed the building. The police opened fire, killing two, but only succeeded in delaying the mob temporarily. Within minutes the situation had escalated far beyond the capacity of the police to control. The Army later estimated that by 1945 the crowd numbered some 5,000 people.
Throughout the confrontation, Omaha Mayor Edward P. Smith refused resolutely to surrender Brown, an effort that nearly cost him his life. As the mob surged onto the fourth floor of the courthouse, Smith, who was trying to calm the crowd, was seized, dragged from the building, and hoisted up a nearby trolley pole the mob intended to use as a makeshift gallows. The timely intervention of two police detectives, who cut the critically injured mayor down and rushed him away in a waiting automobile, saved him from certain death. Still intent on reaching the prisoner, the mob broke into hardware stores and pawnshops, seizing firearms and ammunition. By 2030 several rioters had looted a nearby gasoline station and seized fuel which they promptly used to set fire to the first several floors of the courthouse, hoping to burn out the police and Brown. Attempts by the fire department to extinguish the flames were thwarted. As the heat and smoke became intense, police authorities moved Brown and the other prisoners to the roof. At this point the mob finally captured Brown. The actual sequence of events remains unclear, but one account maintains that the prisoners on the roof, in spite of police efforts, surrendered Brown to save their own lives.
The mob then took Brown to the corner of 16th and Harney Streets, near the courthouse, hanged him, mutilated and riddled his body with bullets, dragged it through the streets of the city at the end of a rope, and burned it. Still not satisfied, the mob ransacked more stores in search of arms and then went to the nearby police station to lynch blacks being held there. After Brown was murdered, however, the police captain on duty at the jail released the other black prisoners, an action that undoubtably saved their lives. Mob violence at the courthouse ended abruptly around 2230 when the first federal troops arrived. The local Army commander, acting without prior War Department authorization, had decided to intervene under Army regulations allowing the deployment of troops in an emergency situation.
Omaha municipal officials had already directed requests for aid both to local posts and to the War Department in Washington, D.C. Because of this dual approach, Army intervention proceeded slowly at both levels. Lt. Col. Jacob Wuest, commanding officer at Fort Omaha, was the closest to the riot and first received news of the mob’s formation in the early evening. To a telephone call from a captain of the Omaha police requesting aid, he replied (erroneously, in view of the emergency) that he could not deploy troops without the authority of the War Department. A short time later, the federal marshal in Omaha also requested troops. Again Wuest refused to act without permission from Washington. He received additional calls from various local authorities but remained firm, informing local, state, and federal civil officials that “federal troops could not be used as a posse comitatus” without authorization from higher authority.
Wuest’s initial inaction clearly demonstrated a lack of knowledge of both Army regulations concerning emergency situations and of the direct access policy that had been in effect for two years. He did, however, monitor the developments at the courthouse throughout the evening, sending his adjutant to observe events and to make regular telephone reports. Other officers were sent into Omaha to collect all personnel on leave. In the meantime, Wuest ordered machine guns to be taken out of storage, ammunition to be made ready, and units to prepare for action. If he hoped to avoid federal action he was soon disillusioned. At 2045 he learned from the Nebraska adjutant general that National Guard troops were unavailable, because the closest unit, at Benson, west of Omaha, had been disbanded. Soon afterward, Wuest received a report that the mob had set the courthouse ablaze. After waiting a further hour and a half, during which time Brown was lynched, Wuest decided to intervene without orders from Washington. Later he explained that “the situation at this time had become so acute that it was evident that any further delay would be disastrous [sic] and that in order to protect the lives and property of the citizens of Omaha prompt action would have to be taken without [any] longer awaiting instructions from Washington.” Lynching alone was evidently, to his mind, insufficient reason for risking action that might subsequently have been determined by Army authorities to be an unjustified or an illegal usurpation of civil authority.
Once in action, he moved decisively. He assembled his command by 2225 and ordered a group of 6 officers and 206 men into Omaha. Dividing the force, he sent the 27th Balloon Company, under the command of Maj. Henry C. White, to disperse the mob at the courthouse, while the 17th Balloon Company under Maj. Clarence H. Maranville proceeded to the black district to protect the populace from further violence. The 17th reached its station on commandeered streetcars, amid reports of the imminent arrival of the mob. The two detachments deployed with five machine guns to supplement their already substantial firepower. At 2245 Wuest received instructions from Secretary Baker directing him to offer all possible assistance to Omaha authorities.
Major White’s force arrived in the vicinity of the courthouse in time to prevent any further loss of life or property. His unit quickly succeeded in dispersing groups milling around the charred building. Apart from breaking up small gatherings of rioters and putting an end to scattered looting, White’s troops experienced no trouble. Meanwhile, Maranville’s force found the black community tense. Several soldiers reported exchanging shots with snipers on rooftops, but no casualties were incurred by either side. At midnight, a second detachment of 108 troops arrived to reinforce the 17th Balloon Company. Early the next morning, Wuest’s units reported that the city was quiet. On the morning of 29 September, Col. John E. Morris assumed command of the troops in Omaha. With Morris came sizable reinforcements from Camp Dodge, Iowa; Camp Grant, Illinois; and Camp Funston, Kansas. The largest detachment, from Camp Dodge, consisted of a provisional machine-gun company of 11 officers and 152 men with ten heavy machine guns.
The Omaha Army commanders quickly published emergency orders to prevent a repetition of the previous day’s events. Colonel Morris had the newspapers in Omaha publish a proclamation warning that any citizen bearing arms faced immediate arrest, and a further proclamation ordering blacks to remain indoors. In the afternoon the Army launched an observation balloon in west Omaha, providing a panoramic view of the entire black neighborhood. A thunderstorm aided the Army in keeping people off the streets; by nightfall of 29 September the city was reported quiet and under control.
While the troops spent an uncomfortable night in the rain, the Central Department received news of the disturbance. The call from Omaha triggered a flurry of activity. Wood immediately called the Army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Peyton March, who granted him authority “to call upon any troops within the limits of the department.” Although troops had initially intervened under the conditions outlined by Army regulations that had been in effect before the outbreak of World War I, Wood assumed command under authority of the wartime policy of direct access formulated in 1917. This policy was reaffirmed by both Army officials and Secretary Baker on 3 and 15 October 1919, respectively. President Wilson was not consulted, but Wood did issue a proclamation informing Omaha citizens of the arrival and mission of the Army, and added that the governor of the state had called upon the president requesting federal aid. The general then set off for Omaha from Bismarck by rail, an uncomfortable journey in a caboose where, he noted, “we were in the air about as much as we were in our seats.”
Arriving late in the evening of 30 September, Wood immediately met with Nebraska Governor S. R. McKelvie, Acting Omaha Mayor Ure, and Colonel Morris. He approved Wuest’s earlier troop dispositions and ordered additional deployments to prevent any further outbreaks of rioting. Then he created a strong reserve at the city auditorium – a provisional battalion, company, and machine-gun company – capable of being thrown quickly into any trouble spot. Three other company-size detachments were deployed at 24th and Lake Streets, in the black neighborhood, the courthouse and city hall, in the city center, and in south Omaha at 24th and O Streets. Each soldier received a rifle, bayonet, and 200 rounds of ammunition, and each machine-gun unit was ordered to keep at hand 6,000 rounds per gun. The New York Times quoted Wood as warning that “those who attempt to interfere with the military authorities will find themselves fighting the United States Army.
Wood next issued a proclamation outlining the reasons for the federal military presence. He also prohibited public gatherings and carrying of firearms by all people except the police and military. Drawing on community support to help with local policing, he approved the deputizing of 200 men of the American Legion. The legionnaires made a favorable impression upon Wood, who later deputized men from this private, patriotic veteran’s organization in other civil disorders that the Army was ordered to quell. He observed in his diary that the legionnaires “have done good work and have shown what can be done with them in case of civic emergency.” On the following day, 1 October 1919, Wood declared modified martial law in Omaha.
Drawing on his previous civil experiences, Wood set out to rebuild the law enforcement agencies in the city to prevent any future repetition of the recent mob violence. In virtually all after action reports, Army officers criticized the performance of the Omaha Police Department. Wuest, for example, noted that “the police on duty made no effort to disperse the crowds when opportunity offered to do so.” The cornerstone of Wood’s plan was to revitalize the Omaha police force by adding 100 carefully selected men and by purchasing an array of modern weapons including .45-caliber revolvers, riot guns, and .30-caliber machine guns. His request that these items be supplied from federal arsenals, however, was rebuffed by the War Department, citing statutes that forbade the sale of federal arms to municipalities.
Undaunted, Wood went on to other matters. He had spent a great amount of time and energy dealing with the investigation and arrest of mob ringleaders, interviewing several participants himself. On the basis of photographs, the Army detained a number of people, arresting 100 men by 2 October on charges that ranged from arson to murder. Pending trial, the accused were held in Army custody. Omaha police compiled further lists of 300 people being sought for questioning in connection with the riot, including Agnes Loebeck’s crippled friend, her brother, and a suspected ringleader named William Francis, all of whom had disappeared.
Although racial tension obviously caused the Omaha riot, Wood’s publicly stated conclusions more closely fit the needs of his presidential aspirations than they did reality. Much of his strategy for capturing the Republican Party’s presidential nomination rested on “Americanism” and a staunch opposition to radicals and aliens. Hence, Wood concluded that the Industrial Workers of the World was behind the violence in Omaha. Two days after he arrived in the city, he recorded in his diary that “there were a number of requests for IWW meetings and one Russian soviet, all of which were declined.” A passage in his diary on 2 October further reflected his belief that “every day demonstrates more and more the fact that preparations have been made by the IWW or some other organized element of disorder, to create very serious trouble and probably burn a good section of the city.” On the eve of his departure he addressed the Omaha University Club, categorically blaming the IWW for the trouble in the city. Wood exhorted his listeners to stand up to this threat, declaring that “there will be no red flag where there are brave public officials.” His speech reflected the “red scare” hysteria that was sweeping the nation, but in the case of Omaha there was a significant gap between his campaign rhetoric and the actual measures he took. Wood’s actions in deploying troops, rebuilding the Omaha police force, investigating the riot, and arresting the ringleaders of the lynch mob indicated that he had a better understanding of the situation than his public utterances revealed.
The Army’s efforts in Omaha involved the largest contingent of federal troops deployed to meet a racial disturbance during 1919-1920, 70 officers and 1,222 enlisted men. By early October the initial emergency had passed, and by midmonth only two companies of regulars remained in the city. The last troops departed Omaha on 15 November. Although more prompt action by Wuest on the evening of 28 September could probably have saved Will Brown’s life and prevented massive property loss in downtown Omaha, federal troops stopped additional violence and protected the black community from further mob actions. Wood’s way of seizing and exercising authority marked another departure from prewar procedures for using the military in domestic disorders, and his analysis of the riot’s origins were obviously flawed. Yet, the overall performance of the Army in Omaha represented a fair and effective effort.
Army intervention in a racial disturbance in Phillips County, Arkansas, differed greatly from other situations. Here the setting was southern, rural, and agricultural. Furthermore, the events surrounding the Elaine disorder are still a matter of great controversy. The various interpretations of what transpired range from a white pogrom to a black uprising.
These interpretative differences extend to the Army intervention. Depending on the viewpoint accepted, federal troops are seen as either defenders of public order who saved a community terrorized by black agitators or as props of a local racist regime. Most interpretations, however, miss the fundamental reason for federal military intervention – to support lawful authority and to restore and maintain order. In performing its constitutional role the Army was duty bound to support a legally constituted, yet predominantly white, government unsympathetic to the blacks of Phillips County.
Phillips County lies in the southeastern corner of Arkansas, along the Mississippi River. Helena is the county seat, and Elaine, the closest settlement to the disturbance, is twenty miles farther south. In 1919 the rich alluvial soil supported an agricultural, cotton-based economy. The county population was about 45,000, with blacks forming 75 percent of that total. Typical of the southern socioeconomic order of the time, most real property, financial holdings, and political power were controlled by whites. The overwhelming black majority consisted of poor farmers, tenants or sharecroppers, who worked for a subsistence income. In 1919 a poor crop due to bad weather created special hardship among them. The despair of the black farmers and the growing activism by blacks nationwide awakened new demands for reform of the tenant-landlord relationship, under which sharecroppers were compelled to make all purchases from commissary stores operated by landowners and receive such credit for their cotton as the landlord decided to allow them.
This awareness by blacks found expression in Phillips with the formation of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America led by Robert Lee Hill, a 26-year-old black man. In spite of white threats, Hill succeeded in mobilizing black tenant farmers and channeling their grievances into an organization capable of extracting concessions from local white landlords. Many whites viewed these developments with resentment and alarm, seeing in them the initial signs of a racial uprising. New and sudden refusals of black men and women to pick cotton or to work as domestic servants convinced whites that the union was bent on their destruction.
On 30 September 1919, black efforts to organize a union collided with white fears. In Hoop Spur Church, a few miles from Elaine, a group of blacks met to make final arrangements for a class-action lawsuit directed against their landlords. Fearing white interference, they came to the meeting armed. Meanwhile, Deputy Sheriff Charles Pratt and W. A. Adkins, a special agent for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, along with two other persons, left Elaine ostensibly to investigate a nearby marital disturbance. When they noticed activity in the vicinity of the Hoop Spur Church, the deputy sheriff and his companions went to investigate. What followed cannot be accurately ascertained and is still subject to dispute, but a violent confrontation took place that resulted in Adkin’s death and the wounding of Pratt. During the exchange of gunfire the others in the ill-fated party fled to a nearby town and notified authorities in Helena.
Expecting further trouble, both black and white communities began amassing men and weapons. Black farmers gathered near Hoop Spur Church, recovered Adkin’s body, and sent Pratt off for medical attention. The posse searched the surrounding area and by late morning located the farmers in a thicket, southwest of Hoop Spur. In the ensuing exchange of gunfire a member of the posse was killed, another wounded, and a black farmer injured. Not expecting such determined resistance, the posse retreated and requested help from Governor Charles H. Brough in dealing with what they termed a “negro uprising.”
Upon receiving news of the racial strife, Brough contacted Secretary of War Baker requesting federal troops. In a further telegram, he warned Baker that “negroes [are] said to be massing for attack.” Baker responded by giving him verbal permission to use any available federal troops to suppress the disturbance, under the policy of direct access. A delay resulted because the commander of Camp Pike, Arkansas, Brig. Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis – confused about procedures to obtain military aid – refused to honor the request until orders arrived from Washington.
The flurry of telephone calls and telegrams demonstrated anew the uncertainty of some officers about the procedure for summoning federal troops to deal with a civil disturbance. Apparently Sturgis was ignorant of Army regulations regarding emergency situations and the policy of direct access to federal forces. Baker gave his permission presumably on behalf of the president, and subsequent orders confirmed this presumed delegation of authority in its opening phrase “by direction of the President.” Whether Baker actually consulted with the president is unclear; Wilson had suffered a stroke on 25 September, while on a nationwide whistle-stop promotion tour for the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, and for the next two weeks was close to death. Nor is it clear why Baker felt obliged to consult Wilson in what amounted to a pro forma effort to comply with normal prewar procedures. The best estimate is that the troop commitment was actually made under the wartime procedure of direct access. That evening the War Department confirmed Brough’s authority to summon regular troops, and Sturgis responded by ordering Col. Isaac C. Jenks to lead a force to Elaine.
Shortly after midnight, Jenks and 583 officers and men departed Little Rock, Arkansas, on a special train for Elaine. Brough accompanied the troops. Jenks’ command consisted of six provisional companies reinforced by a machine-gun unit with twelve guns, an ammunition train, and a medical detachment. The federal force arrived around 0900 and found Elaine in chaos. “On arrival,” Jenks reported later, “we found the town in [a] great state of excitement. Hundreds of white men, all carrying firearms, were on the streets, near the station and in groups all over town.” He acted quickly to bring the population under control by ordering that anyone carrying a weapon, either black or white, be immediately disarmed. White officials in Elaine were all too willing to brief Army personnel on black activities. According to Jenks’ adjutant, Capt. Edward G. Passailaigue, a committee of civilians met the train claiming that “negroes of the surrounding county had assembled and were killing the whites.” Moreover, the committee told Jenks that “a large party of negroes were reported in a wood west of Elaine.”
Acting on this information, Jenks decided to investigate the reports of black outlaws in the woods. Dividing his command, he left Maj. John R. Baxter in Elaine with two companies and orders to collect all weapons and to unload the equipment from the train. Jenks took with him four companies under the command of Maj. Nathaniel E. Callen. Less than a half hour after arriving in Elaine, these regulars left for Hoop Spur, accompanied by civilian guides and Governor Brough. After traveling a mile and a half, the column discovered a black woman, lying on her doorstep, shot through the neck by persons unknown. Although medical attention was rendered, the woman died soon afterward. When the battalion reached the vicinity of Hoop Spur, the troops began to reconnoiter the surrounding countryside, which consisted of open fields interspersed with woods and canebrakes. Callen deployed three companies in a loose skirmish line. One company was placed in reserve and followed 200 yards behind the leading elements. The sweep progressed uneventfully until the regulars reached a canebrake, where they encountered a group of armed black men.
The sequence of events is unclear. There is no indication that the blacks were given the opportunity to surrender, nor is there any indication of which group precipitated the subsequent action. In an exchange of gunfire, Cpl. Luther Earles was fatally wounded and Sgt. Pearl B. Gay suffered minor injuries. The official reports do not mention black casualties, but troops did take some fifty prisoners. Many fled and escaped in the dense underbrush. The battalion completed its search of the area and turned back toward Elaine with their prisoners. En route the party came upon a farmhouse containing sixty-five white women and children, guarded by ten men with shotguns, who had fled there in fear of the “negro outlaws.” Passailaigue reported that “had troops not arrived, the fate of that party would have been disastrous.” Jenks stationed men in outposts here and at Hoop Spur to calm the fears of the whites in the area and dispatched one company with two machine guns to Helena, the county seat, “to prevent disorder and to protect the prisoners in the city jail from mob violence.” This detachment, commanded by Capt. Herbert H. Lewis, prevented a lynching on the night of 2 October. At the same time, Jenks sent twenty-five men to the town of Millwood, Arkansas, presumably to disarm whites patrolling the streets.
Jenks’ troops engaged in mopping-up operations, and military patrols combed Phillips County, arresting blacks suspected of a role in the Farmers and Household Union movement or the recent hostilities. With the immediate threat neutralized, Jenks outlined five objectives for his command that he deemed essential for the restoration of order: to guard inhabitants of outlying localities where danger seemed imminent; dispatch strong patrols to apprehend ringleaders and to obtain evidence; prevent any shootings, lynchings, or other disorders in the area to “relieve the mental distress of the people … protect the colored people from any kind of violence and enable them to resume their work.”
During rural sweeps between 3 and 6 October, the Army arrested several hundred blacks, taking the majority to Elaine for questioning. The interrogations were a joint local police and Army effort conducted by Lt. George S. Deaderick, whom Jenks praised for his “remarkable energy in his work.” Most of the black prisoners were soon released, but many made accusations later that during the interrogations they had been maltreated and tortured by Army and law enforcement personnel for the purpose of extracting confessions and other evidence.
Besides those allegations, other troubling questions lingered after the disorders in Phillips County. It was never definitely established how many fatalities occurred, and whether they resulted from the actions of whites, blacks, or federal troops. Captain Passailaigue noted that “to the best of my knowledge about twenty negroes were killed by soldiers for effusing to halt when so ordered or for resisting arrest. In all cases, all of the negroes were armed.” Yet another intelligence report from Maj. Eugene E. Barton, an officer at Camp Pike, put the total number at 14 dead for blacks. Jenks made only passing reference to an incident in which 2 black men were machine-gunned and killed by troops on outpost duty guarding women and children. Other sources put the total of blacks killed in the Phillips County disturbance as high as 200; more reasonable estimates range from 50 to 73. Despite the infrequency of fatalities resulting from federal military interventions, no Army investigations were conducted into the validity of these figures or into the circumstances surrounding the 2 to 20 civilian deaths attributed to federal forces. Even without exact confirmation, Elaine was the bloodiest disturbance involving federal troops since 1894.
After all the bloodshed, normal conditions were quickly restored in Phillips County. Governor Brough, satisfied that his presence was no longer needed, returned to Little Rock on 3 October. Four days later the local sheriff supported by a white citizens’ committee issued a proclamation “to the Negroes of Phillips County.” Blacks were exhorted to “Stop Talking! Stay at home – Go to work – Don’t Worry!” After consulting with Brought, Jenks returned to Camp Pike on 9 October, leaving behind 53 men under the command of Capt. David E. Lane. They stayed in Elaine and Helena guarding prisoners until 15 October, when they returned to Camp Pike.
Assessing the cause of the disturbance in Elaine, the officers involved firmly maintained that the black community of Phillips County was responsible. Their view reflected the opinion of local whites on racial disorders – and, indeed, the prevailing view of whites nationwide. Jenks cited intelligence information that supposedly revealed that members of the black community, and especially the Farmers and Household Union, “plotted to kill twenty-one of the leading landowners.” Furthermore, he maintained that the “negroes placed the whites at a considerable disadvantage, before the arrival of the troops.” Passailaigue was more emphatic about the so-called black plot in Phillips County: “Upon examination, negroes confessed that they had planned to kill all the whites they saw in the outlying districts and then march on and ‘Clean up’ the town of Elaine. The attack on Elaine was planned for Thursday morning. The whites in that section are out-numbered 5 to 1 and to my mind, had troops not been sent to quell the disorder, the negroes would have succeeded in carrying out their murderous plans.” How much of this information originated from the panic-inspired perceptions of the white community or from black confessions obtained under duress is unknown. Who fired the first shot it is impossible to say, but an exploitative social and economic system lay at the root of the trouble in the county.
Although peace had returned to Elaine, the white communities in the plantation counties along the Mississippi River continued to fear the possibility of a black uprising. Such was the case in Desha County, south of Elaine. When Deputy Sheriff J. H. Breedlow and two other whites attempted to arrest Doc Hays, a black man accused on 21 January 1920 of stealing hogs, they met unexpected resistance. Ten armed black men objected to the arrest and freed Hays after a brief struggle with the deputy and his men. Local officials, fearing the clash was a portent of another rebellion, requested help from the governor. Brough responded to the request by making a telephone call to Camp Pike, seeking federal troops to prevent a race riot. The post commander complied by sending a detachment of 130 men under the command of Maj. Austin F. Preston, who hastened to Dumas by special train the next day. Upon arrival Preston quickly discovered that a black uprising was not in the offing, and two days later the troops returned to Little Rock. Brough was quite satisfied, for in his opinion the “presence of troops in Desha … prevented the development of race feeling, which might have had a serious result.
The next racial disturbance grew out of an explosive situation in Lexington, Kentucky: the trial of a black man accused of raping and murdering a ten-year-old white girl. The trial was a cause celebre in Fayette County, Kentucky, and contained all the elements necessary to produce a lynch mob. Long before the guilt or innocence of the accused had been established, local whites arrived at their own verdict. Local law enforcement authorities were aware of the danger and took elaborate precautions to ensure that the decision of the court would not be preempted by a mob. The recently reconstructed Kentucky National Guard, commanded by Adjutant General J.M. DeWeese, reinforced the local authorities, who added fifty men to their own police force. Rope and wire barriers were erected around the courthouse to control crowds, and the accused was held in the state penitentiary at Frankfort to ensure his safety, pending trial.
On the morning of 9 February 1920, a special train brought the defendant to Lexington, where the court, after a trial lasting forty minutes, sentenced him to die in the state’s electric chair. Security precautions had seemed to work, for the prisoner had arrived safely at the courthouse to be tried and to hear the jury’s verdict and the judge’s sentence. During the proceedings, however, a hostile mob collected outside and gave every indication of becoming increasingly impatient with the seemingly slow course of justice. Suddenly, at 0930 the mob stormed the courthouse with the intent of lynching the prisoner. Police and guardsmen deployed in close formation with their backs to the entrance. After issuing several warnings for the crowd to disperse, DeWeese gave the signal to open fire at point-blank range. As a result five members of the mob fell dead or were dying, and eighteen others were wounded. Although this action halted the mob’s attack on the courthouse, the mob then turned to looting hardware stores and pawnshops in search of weapons. With the situation rapidly moving beyond their control, the authorities requested outside help.
Using the wartime policy of direct access, Governor Edwin P. Morrow made a request to General Wood, commander of the Central Department, for federal troops. Wood immediately deployed troops in his own initiative, afterward informing the War Department as outlined in Army regulations regarding emergencies. At Wood’s direction the 1st Division staff at Camp Zachary Taylor near Louisville alerted 2d Brigade units to prepare for riot duty. Within minutes past noon, troops had boarded a special train supplied by the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company and started the seventy-mile three-hour journey to Lexington. A provisional unit of West Point, Marshall was a cavalry officer who had served with the AEF in France. Upon arrival, he immediately got off the train with his command at Water Street, two blocks from the courthouse. Several hundred local citizens who were gathered at the station immediately dispersed when the troop train arrived. Marshall’s major concern was the mob, estimated at 10,000 people, milling outside the courthouse. His first action was to issue a proclamation placing Fayette County under martial law, “assuming all functions both civil and military in said County.” Later on the same day he issued another proclamation stating that he, having declared martial law, was now empowering “the civil and criminal authorities in this County and State to assume and administer their usual functions excepting in cases wherein I may deem it necessary to assume jurisdiction.”
Next Marshall set out to raise the siege of the courthouse. So that troops might converge from two directions simultaneously, he divided his command. He led two platoons from the east along Main Street, while Patterson took a second group to the rear of the courthouse. The formations mixed sound riot tactics with the patriotic air of a fourth of July parade: “Sergeants, unarmed, preceded the detachment by thirty feet. General Marshall marched immediately in front of the flag, also unarmed. Two squads, deployed as skirmishers, followed the flag at thirty feet; two columns of files on either side of the street followed the line of skirmishers. The rear guard was composed of one squad deployed as skirmishers.”
The summary report prepared by Maj. George Cornish offers considerable insight into the situation in Lexington and the Army’s response. In dispersing the mob on 9 February, he noted that “no overt act of violence was shown the United States troops.” He attributed the moral effect of federal forces to the citizenry’s acceptance of the rule of law: “The general sentiment of the mob was that the United States Government as represented by its troops stood for law and order and had to be respected.”
The troops quickly cleared the streets adjacent to the courthouse. Marshall then issued orders that anyone caught loitering after 1700 would be arrested. By the appointed hour the mob had dispersed, and soon after a train arrived carrying a provisional company of the 26th Infantry and a section of the 3d Machine Gun Battalion. With these additional forces Marshall was able to divide Lexington into four military districts and implement a pass system to discourage people from gathering near the courthouse. Key installations, such as the building holding the condemned man and the arsenal at the University of Kentucky, were placed under heavy guard. In the very early morning of 10 February, a third troop train arrived with the 1st Infantry Brigade. This unit relieved the 2d Brigade of its responsibilities, and that same evening the 2d Brigade left Lexington, escorting the condemned prisoner to the state penitentiary in Eddyville, Kentucky.
With the condemned man out of town, the threat of further mob action was greatly diminished. Within a week Marshall left Lexington with all but seventy-one soldiers under command of Lt. Col. G.W. Maddox, who remained to protect local officials and a grand jury that had been convened to investigate the original mob action. Three weeks later, after the dismissal of the grand jury, the last of the regulars departed Lexington.
The Army intervention in Lexington lasted two weeks and involved 1,000 officers and men. Besides two provisional infantry regiments and machine-gun battalions, detachments of sanitary, signal, field artillery, and motor transport corps units participated in the operation. On the racial issue, Cornish’s report reflected the mood then prevalent in white America. He concluded: “There are no evidences of a race riot in Lexington. White civilians state that the negroes themselves wish to see the negro [William] Lockett lynched.” Discounting MID’s concern about radicals in America, Cornish reported that no radical influence was evident and that “there were no evidences of any foreigners in the mob.” The major noted that the troops showed no inclination to fraternize with either rioters or radicals and that the 20 percent of foreign-born troops employed in the upheaval in Lexington were “absolutely trustworthy.” Perhaps because of the commander’s attitude, the Army troops in Lexington maintained strict neutrality and successfully aided local officials in keeping order, although Marshall had no legal authority to declare martial law. The presence of troops in Lexington, more than any other factor, broke the will of a lynch mob and provided a decisive end to a stormy period. The Lexington riot was the last racial incident that required federal military involvement in the immediate post-World War I years.
The Military Intelligence Division and
The Army’s Military Intelligence Division (MID) continued to play a key role in domestic surveillance operations between its creation in 1917 and 1921 by monitoring the racial situation. It amassed vast quantities of information on racial disturbances and the black community at large. MID’s reports, however, tended to indicate more about prevailing American racial attitudes, especially those of its own officers, than about the causes and possible solutions of the race problem.
Soon after the war, MID relied on two specialists on blacks in America, whose reports were subsequently read widely by military officials faced with racial disorders. Maj. Elbert Cutler, a white man with a doctorate from Yale, had a deep interest in sociology, then an emerging academic field. The MID director, Brig. Gen. Marlborough Churchill, described him as an “absolutely impartial expert in sociology.” Cutler’s colleague was Maj. W.H. Loving, a black man who had served honorably in the Philippine Constabulary. General Churchill portrayed him as one of the best types of “white man’s negro.”
Cutler outlined his views in a 1919 memorandum entitled “The Negro Situation.” From Cutler’s point of view, a clear link existed between radicalism and the new black activism. “The doctrines preached by IWW agitators and radical socialists,” he warned, “are daily winning new converts among the negroes.” To him, black insistence on equal rights was a dangerously radical concept, and the NAACP a source of insidious propaganda. Hence, he believed it was a great mistake to allow the “negroes to arm themselves.” Though Cutler, for all his education, viewed racial matters in the same way as many of his fellow soldiers and other less educated whites, he did hold a few progressive ideas. He deplored lynching, terming it a national disgrace, and believed that police forces in communities containing sizable black populations should exercise complete neutrality in upholding the law: “It is essential that a police department be alive to the importance of giving proper protection to both whites and colored when they are conducting themselves as law-abiding citizens and that an even-handed control be exercised over whites and colored who are inclined toward antagonistic conduct.” The trust of his thinking aimed at the maintenance of law and order and interracial peace. He disapproved of social equality but accepted the need for legal equality, provided it supported the status quo.
Major Loving wrote the “Final Report on Negro Subversion” on the eve of his retirement in August 1919. in it he offered a thorough survey of the principal black newspapers, organizations, and personalities of the time, including DuBois’ NAACP and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Emphasizing the theme of radicalism, Loving supported the notions of his white colleagues and countrymen. He emphasized that “until about four years ago radical sentiment among Negroes was of a moderate character and confined to resentment of lynching, disfranchisement, Jim Crowism, etc.” The turning point, he argued, came in 1915 when young blacks flocked to the “torch of Socialism.” The growth in popularity of socialism among blacks was rapidly creating a crisis, according to Loving, shown in IWW recruitment of “thousands of Negro laborers.”
To remedy the situation, he proposed reform of some of the major irritants to the black community. Like Cutler, he believed that Jim Crow laws needed to be eliminated to stem the tide of black radicalism. He suggested no concrete formula for effecting these changes, however. Although both officers attempted to shed light on the causes of the racial problems plaguing the nation, neither produced a valid assessment of the cause, let alone a workable policy for dealing with them.
The Army’s involvement in quelling race riots in 1919 and 1920 revealed that it was not immune from the pervasive racism of white America, and yet that it could frequently perform nonpartisan duty in racial disturbances, protecting both black and white communities. In Omaha, Lexington, and Washington, D.C., the Army played a positive and key role in protecting both black and white lives and property. But the events in Elaine and Dumas emphasized that performing its duty of restoring law and order often necessitated upholding a political, social, and economic structure, the injustice of which to blacks helped to cause the initial disturbances. The events in Elaine, when contrasted with those in Omaha, demonstrate how difficult intervention could be for the predominantly white Army, whose members held the same racial views as other whites, and for the Army’s reputation for fairness and neutrality under such circumstances. Finally, the Army’s role in suppressing race riots was remarkably similar to its role in quelling violence arising from labor disputes. The same causations and policies were cited for interventions; the same procedures were followed once troops were deployed; and adherence to the same policies of neutrality and restraint were attempted, although, as evidenced in Elaine, not always achieved.