The following is an excerpt from Cross-Border Cosmopolitans: The Making of a Pan-African North America by Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey, available everywhere books are sold.
THE MESSIANIC MOMENT, 1919–1931
The year 1919 marked the tercentennial of chattel slavery’s genesis in English North America. White supremacy may have warped notions of forgiveness, of forbearance, and of the significance of African bondage, but the arrival of this anniversary coincided with a watershed moment for racial consciousness. A resurgence of white power had toppled Reconstruction in the South, ushered in Jim Crow, and triggered an upsurge in Ku Klux Klan and other paramilitary activity among the white masses. In the lead-up to 1919, the category of New Negro emerged in recognition of the fact that, when under siege, it was spiritually and morally inexcusable to turn the other cheek. Scholars have pointed out that the idea of a New Negro “was a bold … act of language, signifying the will to power, to dare to recreate a race by renaming it.” “Race riots”—white supremacist pogroms led by mobs bent on ethnic cleansing—tested the mettle of the New Negro, sparking the 1919 Red Summer.
As early as July, white mobs prowled the streets of Washington, D.C. In pursuit of imaginary Black rapists, they besieged Black men steps from the White House and Capitol. An African American resident who witnessed the spectacle explained that Black civilians responded to the ominous threat by summoning a fighting spirit “buoyed up by deep religious fanaticism” in pursuit of racial martyrdom. For the New Negro, the trauma of past injustices “came before him like ghosts in a dream and he swore by the eternal gods and the best blood of his heart ‘They shall not pass.’” Indeed, the bloodlust of the would-be lynchers awoke “the sleeping Demon of Race Consciousness” in ordinary Black folk who “sensed the flavor of the glory of hate and dropped the sting of death into the white man’s cup of arrogance.” The dramatic prose of this eyewitness account served a significant purpose, even if only rhetorical. The resident concluded that the New Negro, rebirthed in a baptism of unquenchable fire, reached his tipping point in 1919, vowing “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, death for death, and damnation for damnation.”
The fear of racial Armageddon extended north, across the U.S.-Canadian border. In the tame streets of Quebec City, panic-stricken French Canadians, bewildered by the carnage of Red Summer, “assailed” a handful of African Canadians with questions about racial violence in Washington, D.C. White Canadians’ fear of “race riots” was not overblown. In September 1918, a deadly clash between Black and white spectators at a sporting event in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, made national headlines. Because interracial violence was possible—even in Canada, although incomparable to the United States—African Canadians who fought in the Great War did so partly because combat experience would equip them with the skills and disposition to protect their families and communities in a racially hostile world. As early as 1919, in fact, Black men in Toronto, like others in the Atlantic World, expressed confidence that their participation in the Great War had produced thousands of battle-hardened citizens who could “combat the outrages” of white supremacy.
In the United States, white supremacists instigated nearly sixty deadly interracial clashes in 1919. Jamaican-born Harlem resident Claude McKay’s 1919 sonnet “If We Must Die” captured the fight stance of the New Negro and the dire conditions that inspired dogged resistance to white mob violence. In Chicago, where some of the most ferocious fighting occurred from 27 July to 3 August, African Americans had been stockpiling weapons for weeks. Some had been preparing ever since news broke of the East St. Louis pogrom in 1917.
When the violence began, it seemed as if Chicago’s 2.6 million white residents had mobilized against 125,000 African American residents. Some 10,000 of those who resided in the city’s Black Belt had fought fiercely against German troops on the Western Front in the 370th Infantry Regiment. After observing their proficiency in killing enemy combatants, the Hun called them “Black Devils.” This killer instinct served their community well. When a car full of white joyriders in the downtown Loop district brandished a machine gun, an informal Black militia patrolling the neighborhood allegedly killed the machine gunner and seized the weapon. The getaway driver, a woman, was “severely beaten.”
In the United States, white supremacists instigated nearly sixty deadly interracial clashes in 1919.
Skirmishes in Chicago resembled guerrilla warfare. An eyewitness described this insurgency as one in which Black women also played an “active” role, sometimes fighting directly or indirectly by inciting Black boys to pelt white mobs with rocks. When a hurled brick struck a policeman, knocking him off his horse at 35th and Wabash, police shot into a crowd of Black bystanders. In response, an unidentified Black man, “incensed by their cowardly act,” approached the officers and unloaded a salvo of bullets from an automatic gun. He escaped. The next day, sniper fire struck two mounted officers at 23rd and State. “After these incidents, the behavior of the white officers was splendid,” avowed the eyewitness.11
In total, fifteen white and twenty-three Black Chicagoans died. Some African Americans believed that the authorities “suppressed the truth” about the white death toll. The eyewitness—whom the Black press called a “brilliant” lawyer with two degrees from Columbia University—cited a white insurance company that processed twenty-seven death claims as a result of the violence. “If death is to be their portion, New Negroes are determined to make their dying a costly investment for all concerned,” wrote Negro World founding editor Wilfred Domingo in September 1919.
Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey is assistant professor of post-Reconstruction U.S. and African Diaspora history at McGill University, where he holds the William Dawson Chair. He also goes by Nii Laryea Osabu I, Oblantai Mantse of Atrekor We.