Black veterans and the Red Summer

Military service is an inherently patriotic activity.  It is a signal of allegiance to the goals of the nation state in a fundamental way that extends to other aspects of national pride.  Even in our contemporary discussions of patriotism and social activism, and effective strategy is to suggest that an act or belief violates our veterans and active duty military members.  Military service can also spur military members themselves to work for political change, altering their relationship with the state about their place in the national culture.  Black veterans sit at the intersection of these two forces, believing in the promise of American democracy and fighting for it upon return to their communities after military service.

The patriotism of Black members of the military, however, has been met with violence historically.   In 1919, Black veterans returning from service in World War I were subjected to an incredible amount of local hostility.  The year of 1919 was so deadly it was called The Red Summer. In more than thirty locations mob terror ran unimpeded and Blacks were attacked all over the nation. One driver of the Red Summer was the hostile response to the demands of Black soldiers returning from World War I. Having served the United States during the war, Black veterans came home unwilling to accept the Jim Crow racial status quo.  Having fought for the nation, they returned convinced that they should have full access to the rights of citizenship.  Their insistence that the American promise extend to them was met with intense racial violence by whites. This violence was not limited to urban areas, and it was not restricted to physical violence, reprisals included the destruction of or the appropriation of black owned property.

While many people know about the terrorism in Washington, D.C.; Knoxville, Tennessee; Longview, Texas; Omaha, Nebraska and Chicago, the violence was not restricted to large cities.  The little town of Elaine, Arkansas saw some of the most intense violence of the time.  It was motivated by an attempt to control the economic independence of local Black farmers, many of whom were returning from military service and seeking to organize.  Emboldened by service and the idea that they could organize for their collective self-interest, they sought to assert their rights in economic exchange.  They paid with their lives, freedom, and property.

Whites in Elaine held the expectation, based upon established custom, that they would be the privileged first buyers of the Black black farmers’ crops.  For sharecroppers, the prices were simply quoted to them by landowners with no knowledge of it was a fair rate.  The sharecroppers and Black landowners were both subject to this exploitation because the gin was owned and operated by whites.  The black farmers had the idea to unionize to bargain for better prices for their crops, and they were led by some returning veterans from World War I.

In testimony from Ed Ware, recorded by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, local famers had been offered 24 cents and then 33 cents for their cotton at the local gin that year.  Traveling to nearby gins, they soon discovered that they were being cheated.  They found out that the market price was actually 44 ½ cents in the neighboring town.  Selling cotton at the prices offered would have been at a discount of more than 33% to local whites, who would quickly maximize on this discount by lining their own pockets after the cotton was ginned and sold. Low prices would also work to keep sharecroppers in debt even during a time when cotton prices were higher than they been in several years.  When the men met at a church with an attorney they hired to aid them, violence ensued and the town soon erupted into a full scale massacre.

Although this is one of the deadliest massacres in the history of the US, few know that as many as 100 people were killed.  One of those killed was Leroy Johnston, a WWI veteran who had been injured in France during the war.  He and three of his brothers were pulled from a train and shot in cold blood.  The government sent in reserves to back the local whites in their rampage.  Incredulously, the entire affair was covered up and reported at the time as an attempted insurrection among local blacks.  The obscurity of the event also hides its economic motivations and consequences.

Mistakenly, all of the black farmers have been described as “sharecroppers.” While the majority of the men seeking to form the union were cropping “on the share,” a few of the men seeking to form the union were true tenant farmers renting the land while having no legal obligation to “share” their crop with the white landlords. Still others were landowners, and these landowners drew the greatest ire. After the massacre–under the auspices of “southern justice”–the black victims of violence were brought to court and charged as perpetrators of the riot, even though nearly ten times as many blacks were killed as whites in the violence.  The twelve landowning blacks who survived the massacre were the only persons sentenced to death upon conviction. The 75 other Blacks convicted, all sharecroppers, received prison sentences, but not the death penalty.  In a series of group charges, a direct relationship between black landownership and punishment was evident.

How much was stolen from these Black people?  At the time Wells-Barnett calculated that the twelve men had been robbed of over 350 acres of land.  The value of cotton on that land alone was over $85,000.  Adding in the property, animals, and everything else pushed the value to well over $100,000 at the time, which is equivalent to over $6,000,000 in income today. That is $500,000 for each of these families based only on what was stolen in 1919.

For the other 75 sharecroppers who were jailed after the massacre, Wells-Barnett meticulously calculated the acreage of the land these men worked.  They, too, were robbed of their income that year from the cotton crop, which would have paid them over $1,000 under the worst sharecropping contracts in Arkansas at the time.   Today, that would be more than $60,000 in income per farmer.  All told, the theft of the Elaine Massacre was more than $10,000,000 today.  That is the value of what was stolen from less than 100 Black people in one town in one year.  In an attempt to negotiate for access to the “free and fair market” like any other American, they were sentenced to death or long prison sentences.

This is only the crop and property theft, this does not include the damages due to the wrongful imprisonment of the twelve men sentenced to death (who spent more than 5 years behind bars before being released) nor the false imprisonment of more than 65 other men who gave forced confessions and  received sentences up to 21 years.  After the violence was over the damage was done.  Men who had been jailed were stripped of their property, run out of town, and those who remained were forced into the old economic system.

As the nation continues to grapple with patriotism, social movements, and economic justice, the story of Black veterans and the Red Summer provides a cautionary tale that patriotism and belief in the American system was restricted to only some Americans in the “separate but equal” regime.


  • Trevon Logan

    I am the the Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor in the Department of Economics at The Ohio State University. I am also a a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and an affiliate of the Initiative in Population Research, the Center for Human Resource Research, the Food Innovation Center, and the Criminal Justice Research Center at Ohio State. I currently serve on the editorial boards of Explorations in Economic History, Historical Methods and Demographic Research.

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