Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"Literally Devoured": Washington, D.C., 1919

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"Literally Devoured": Washington, D.C., 1919

Article excerpt

On a hot evening in July 1919, Carrie Minor Johnson shot and killed Harry Wilson in a second floor bedroom of her house in northwest Washington, District of Columbia. Johnson was a seventeen-year-old African American woman, and Wilson a detective sergeant of the Municipal Police Department. Wilson had burst into Johnson's house at the head of a group of policemen seeking to capture a sniper who had been shooting at several white people on the street outside. After Wilson fell, one of his fellows emptied his revolver into the darkened room, injuring Johnson and her father, both of whom were then pulled out from under a bed, arrested, and brought out to the street to await an ambulance. According to the Washington Evening Star, a bystander told Johnson that "fear of creating further trouble was the only thing that prevented a rope from being placed about her neck" ("Race Riot at Capitol" 1).

The next night, Dr. Evelyn G. Mitchell, a white woman, ventured on her own into a black neighborhood not far from where Wilson had been killed. In her account of that night, Mitchell told of encountering groups of armed African American men on the streets, whom she described as forthcoming and brave, but also frightened and bewildered. They were awaiting a white mob, determined to fight it off or die trying. By her account, Mitchell walked around LeDroit Park for hours, listening to and reassuring dozens of men, none of whom presented the least threat to a lone white female appearing from the night. Instead they spoke freely to her, asking for information, and protesting white characterizations of themselves as vicious. One told her, "A man would be less than a man if he didn't fight for his family and his home" (173).

Three days before Mitchell's outing, the nation's capital had exploded into what some newspapers chose to call "Race War." On Saturday night, July 19, 1919, a mob comprised largely of white soldiers, sailors, and marines had formed on Pennsylvania Avenue a few blocks from the National Mall, intent on violence. As they moved through the streets, they chased and beat any black man unlucky enough to cross their path. Their response to the sight of unaccompanied black women goes unmentioned in contemporary accounts, but there is at least one story of the mob unsuccessfully pursuing a black man and woman walking together. The evening's spree was the culmination of weeks of hysterical front page headlines in the city's white newspapers describing in lurid terms a "crime wave" which had at its center inflammatory allegations of black male assaults on white women. (1)

Following this initial spark, for nearly four days and nights fighting raged in the streets of Washington. Black men were chased down, pulled off street cars, beaten, left bleeding on streets and sidewalks. At least one was nearly hanged from a street lamp. Beginning on Sunday, July 20, white men--mostly civilians and recently discharged soldiers, as enlisted men had been ordered to their barracks--were chased away from black sections of the city by armed black citizens, some on foot and others in cars. The city's police force, famously understaffed, was generally ineffectual. Cavalry cordons on loan from the army rushed through the streets around the National Mall, managing to mostly contain a large mass of white rioters within the bounds of the cordon, and averting or breaking up some confrontations in surrounding streets. But fighting in residential neighborhoods around the city, on and around streetcars, and just outside the cavalry cordon continued to erupt until Tuesday night, when a heavy rain and the massing of some two thousand regular troops persuaded rioters and defenders alike to retreat indoors.

The riot that engulfed Washington was part of a larger wave of mayhem sweeping the country in the aftermath of the Great War, fueled by economic and demographic upheaval which brought on hundreds of strikes, anarchist bombings, and intense political repression in the form of the so-called "first Red Scare. …

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