We Remember: Chronicling 10 Race Massacres In America


When we talk about the turmoil Black Americans have faced since arriving to this country in slave ships, we often skip over a chapter in which gruesome violence burned entire Black communities to the ground without consequence. Whole neighborhoods, businesses, families, neighbors, churches, gone at the hands of angry white mobs.

One hundred years after the devastating Tulsa Race Massacre, the nation still struggles to acknowledge its past and the violence Black Americans faced at the hands of its white citizens. 

James Weldon Johnson, writer of the “Black National Anthem,” coined the term “Red Summer” to describe the summer months of 1919 because of the surge in racial violence Black Americans faced. 

Here, we remember some of the known race massacres that took place in this land.

Historical Context

The summer of 1919 came months after the end of World War I. During this time, there was a reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan after the white supremacy group disbanded after the Civil War. Black veterans returning home from World War I and II were often victims of white lynch mobs who, historians say, felt threatened by the social mobility of Black people.

The summer of 1919 was also three years into the Great Migration where droves of Black people fled to northern cities in search of economic opportunity and safety. In addition to the violence and racist ideology that took hold in the former slaveholding states, a boll weevil infestation crippled the cotton economy, damaging the livelihoods of thousands of sharecroppers across the South. 

Even before Red Summer, the period after the Civil War known as Reconstruction saw a surge in Black political power, and predominantly Black communities where businesses, schools, and people thrived. Mob violence, massacres, and an early form of mass incarceration –– the convict leasing program –– suppressed Black people who had gained their freedom after centuries of slavery. 

Here is a look at some of the race massacres that we know about. Death tolls recorded are estimates since many of the massacres were downplayed or ignored. 

We Remember

Rosewood, Florida (1923)

From January 1, 1923 to January 7, a white mob shot, lynched, and killed residents of the Black town, Rosewood, Florida. A white woman, Fannie Taylor, claimed a Black man broke into her home and assaulted her igniting her husband, James Taylor, and a throng of white citizens including members of the Ku Klux Klan to search Rosewood for the man. At the end of the violence, dozens were left killed, and all of the citizens were permanently driven out of the town.

In 1997, the late John Singleton directed a film about the massacre entitled Rosewood.

Atlanta, Georgia (1906)

On September 22, 1906, a mob of white citizens began a two-day massacre of Black citizens in Atlanta, Georgia. The emergence of a Black elite class fueled tensions among white people who felt threatened by the growing number of Black people living in the city.

Between political tension and the white elite's attempt to remain in power, unsubstantiated claims that four white women had been assaulted by Black men sent the city into days of violence that targeted Black people. In addition to the death and destruction, the Black economy also suffered as a result of the massacre.

Colfax, Louisiana (1873)

In 1872, after an even split across racial lines led to a Republican candidate for Louisiana governor getting the backing of then-President Ulysses S. Grant, a disgruntled white mob formed a white supremacist group called the "White League." The group terrorized Black people across the state.

In April 1873, a militia of Black men took control of Grant Parish courthouse, to protect local power from being overthrown. A group of 150 white men made up of White Leaguers, members of the Klan, and former Confederate soldiers, surrounded the courthouse. Gunfire was exchanged and an estimated 60 to 120 Black men were killed.

Wilmington, North Carolina (1898)

The nearly-forgotten 1898 massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina was the result of a coordinated state-wide attack on Black newspapers. Wilmington was the state's most populous city at the time and had a thriving Black population. Alexander Manly, owner and operator of The Daily Record had published an op-ed directly addressing a white-owned paper's racially-charged article. Grasping at political power, a white mob targeted Manly, surrounded the city and killed at least two dozen Black people –– though some estimate the death toll in the hundreds.

Elaine, Arkansas (1919)

Out of fear of what Black people organizing could do, a white mob in Elaine, Arkansas fired shots into a church where a group of Black farmers were meeting. The farmers inside returned fire and in the gunfight a white man was killed. The white men spread rumors that the group of Black men was spearheading an insurrection, prompting the governor to deploy soldiers to "kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately."

The soldiers went beyond their orders and at least 200 Black people were killed. An official count of the number of Black people killed during this massacre was never recorded.

In the chaos of the soldiers and mob, five white people died which led to the Black men going on trial and a Supreme Court decision that paved the wave for due process rights. Read more about the trial and its impact here.

East St. Louis, Illinois (1917)

Thousands of African Americans migrated to East St. Louis, Illinois to work in World War I-era factories. In the spring of 1917, white laborers at the Aluminum Ore Company went on strike, leading to the hiring of hundreds of Black people, escalating racial tensions in the city.

On July 1, 1917 a white man in a Ford drove into a Black neighborhood and began shooting into homes. Black residents of the neighborhood armed themselves and fired into another Ford car coming down the street, killing two men inside. The second car turned out be police officers who'd come to investigate the shooting. The following day, an angry white mob poured into the community and began brutalizing Black people over several days. Some people were lynched, others beaten to death, the neighborhood had been burned to the ground.

Survivors of the massacre used old doors to make a raft to get across the Mississippi River to get to the St. Louis side.

Washington, D.C. (1919)

A Black woman, Louise Simmons, reported being attacked by a Black man on June 25, 1919, which received little response from local newspapers. Five days later, a white woman reported being attacked by a Black man, prompting a media frenzy and the massacre of at least 39 African Americans.

While 100 police officers looked for the man who attacked the women, soldiers who had recently returned from World War I were brought on in the search by the chief of police at the time. Hundreds of Black men were rounded up, detained, and some imprisoned.

Memphis, Tennessee (1866)

Following the end of the Civil War, a mob of defeated white people in Memphis led an unprovoked attack on Black residents. Forty-six, mostly Union veterans, were killed in the massacre, at least 70 people were wounded in the attack. The mob destroyed all four of the Black schools that had been built and 12 churches that were built or under construction.

Clinton, Mississippi (1875)

On September 4, 1875 over 2,000 formerly enslaved Black people gathered to for a political rally on the former Moss Hill plantation grounds. The rally was to get the new, eligible voters excited about their access to the ballot and included Republican and Democratic speakers. In the crowd was also members of the "White Liners," a white supremacy group formed in the nearby town of Raymond, Mississippi.

A white man heckled the Republican speaker, former Union officer H.T. Fisher, for "telling lies." An argument ensued and the White Liners opened fire on the crowd, killing at least five Black people, including two children. The violence continued for weeks, leading to the deaths of an estimated 30-60 Black Mississippians.

Chicago, Illinois (1919)

As the Great Migration fueled Chicago's Black population boom, the need for adequate housing became a touchstone for racial tensions in the city. On July 27, 1919, a young Black boy was swimming in Lake Michigan and eventually drifted into the "whites only" section of the water. White swimmers stoned the boy who shortly drowned. Police didn't make any arrests in the drowning, even after witnesses identified a man they said was responsible for the boy's death.

Rumors about the incident swarmed the city, prompting 13 days of violence between white and Black people in the city, despite a militia being deployed in response to the violence.

More to Remember and Learn

There are unfortunately several more race massacres that occurred in American history. To learn more, click here.

Photos: Getty Images