This was the earliest major incident in a nationwide outbreak of racial violence that came to be known as the “Red Summer.” Race riots bloodied the streets of some two dozen American communities between April and October 1919. The clashes were in large measure due to white fears over a newfound assertiveness demonstrated by the black servicemen returning from World War I, and paralleled the hysterical antiforeign, antiradical “Red Scare” of 1919 and 1920.
According to the May 11, 1919, edition of the Charleston News and Courier, trouble began when rumors spread that a black man had shot a white sailor in a local pool hall. White servicemen, accompanied by local whites, raided a shooting gallery and began attacking black passersby. Other African Americans responded with gunfire as several black businesses were destroyed by the rioters. United States Marines were ordered to detain all sailors at the navy yard, and some blacks were disarmed. By the time hostilities ceased that night, three African Americans were dead, seventeen were wounded, and seven white sailors had received severe injuries.
The newly formed Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called on the U.S. Navy to punish the sailors and to compensate black businessmen for their losses. They also asked Mayor Tristram Hyde for protection against future mobs, the hiring of black policemen, and the formation of an interracial committee to prevent future riots. Hyde agreed to all of these requests except the hiring of black policemen, thus providing the Charleston NAACP with their first partial victory.
Drago, Edmund L. Initiative, Paternalism, and Race Relations: Charleston’s Avery Normal Institute. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Waskow, Arthur. From Race Riot to Sit-In, 1919 and the 1960s: A Study in the Connections between Conflict and Violence. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966.