An increased desire and urgency of many African Americans for full equality came with their participation in World War I and the great migration of more than one million blacks by 1918 who had left the South for jobs in the North and the West. During this time, Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican activist, introduced an alternative to integration espoused by the NAACP. On August 1, 1914, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a separatist movement that attracted a lower social and economic level of blacks than the NAACP and “promoted black social and moral independence within white society.” Garvey exalted race pride and “everything black.” He received a wide following that “offered the best testimony to the sense of betrayal the war and its aftermath kindled in black communities.”
The importation of a million negroes into the Northern States, to fill the places of white artisans and laborers drafted for the Great War, had its tragic sequel in the race riots which occurred during July and September, 1919, in four cities – Washington, Chicago, Omaha and Elaine, Arkansas. In three of the four cities, except Chicago, Regular Army troops were required to restore order. Overall, black hopes for equality were diminished in the summer of 1919 that marked a new watershed in racial disturbances that “spread like wildfire” across the nation. These riots, resulting in 62 deaths and hundreds of injuries, were in part due to negro assurance, based upon the wide acceptance among the blacks of the doctrine of the social equality of the races as enunciated by negro editors. Other contributing causes were the alleged assaults committed by blacks upon white girls, and the industrial enmities engendered by the transplanting of these blacks on Northern soil, displacing white men not only from positions of lucrative employment, but, dispossessing them of their homes as well.
The riots in Washington, D. C., began on Saturday, July 19, 1919. The riot was the the responsibility of the mob composed of white men – soldiers, sailors and marines – which ran amuck through the streets of the national capital, maiming, injuring and killing innocent Colored citizens, the alleged provocation being a succession of assaults committed by negroes on white women. Bands of soldiers, sailors, marines and civilians made their way to the Center Market district in the heart of the city, dragging many negroes from street cars and automobiles and assaulting them. The Police Reserves were called out, but could not quell the rioting, which by nightfall had spread to other parts of the city. A score of badly injured negroes by this time had been removed to the Emergency Hospital.
According to one contemporary account “The newspapers in other sections of the country (some of them) have attempted to justify these riots on the ground that Negroes in Washington attempted to rape white women. A more vicious and cowardly libel on the Negroes of Washington was never uttered. The Negroes of Washington, D.C., have for more than a hundred years maintained a reputation for law and order, and respect for womanhood unequaled by the Negroes of any other section of the country. That they have now suddenly developed into rapists with a penchant for second or third class white women will not be believed even by the liars who make the charge to divert attention from the real cause of these outbreaks.”
D.C. Eye Witness Account
Later that Saturday night, a mob of veterans headed toward Southwest D.C. to a predominantly black, poverty-stricken neighborhood with clubs, lead pipes, and pieces of lumber in hand. The veterans brutally beat all African Americans they encountered. African Americans were seized from their cars and from sidewalks and beaten without reason or mercy by white veterans, still in uniform, drawing little to no police attention.
On Sunday, July 20, the violence continued to grow, in part because the seven-hundred-member Metropolitan Police Department failed to intervene. African Americans continued to face brutal beatings in the streets of Washington, at the Center Market on Seventh Street NW, and even in front of the White House.
By the late hours of Sunday night, July 20, the African American community began to fight back. They armed themselves and attacked whites who entered their neighborhoods. Both black and white men fired bullets at each other from moving vehicles. At the end of the night, ten whites and five blacks were either killed or severely wounded.
After four days of violence and no police intervention, President Woodrow Wilson finally ordered nearly two thousand soldiers from nearby military bases into Washington to suppress the rioting. However, a heavy summer rain, rather than the troops themselves, effectively ended the riot on July 23, 1919.
In the end, several men were killed from gunshot wounds; nine were killed in severe street fights; and an estimated thirty or more eventually died from other wounds they received during the riot. Over one hundred and fifty men, women, and children were beaten, clubbed, and shot by both African American and white rioters. Six Metropolitan Policemen and several Marine guards were shot during these riots. Two of those shootings were fatal.