"Rioting" has been in the news a lot in the last couple of days, so I thought it might be good to take a minute and remember an important part of the riot history of the US; race riots.

Between 1900 and 1950, there were dozens of race riots throughout the US, in everything from small towns to big cities like New York and Chicago.* Changing social conditions like the Great Migration, high levels of European immigration, urbanization, economic competition, and Jim Crow caused a social situation in many urban areas that made violent attacks against Black communities frequent. Some of the more well-known riots are:

  • 1906 - Atlanta, Georgia
  • 1917 - East St. Louis, Illinois
  • 1919 - Chicago, Illinois
  • 1919 - Elaine, Arkansas
  • 1919 - Omaha , Nebraska
  • 1921 - Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • 1923 - Rosewood, Florida
  • 1943 - Detroit, Michigan

Its difficult to estimate to total number of Black people killed in race riots during this time period due to inaccurate and incomplete information, but its safe to say that the death toll is in the hundreds and there was millions of dollars in property damage done to Black communities throughout the US. The pinnacle of these riots occurred in 1919 during what is called the "Red Summer of 1919" when no less than 30 race riots happened during the summer and fall of that year.


But these really weren't "riots" in the traditional sense, they were attacks on Black communities. In almost all of the riots, it started with white people attacking or at least threatening Black people. Almost all of the rioting took place in Black communities and Black communities suffered the brunt of the destruction. Most riots started after whites perceived Blacks to be stepping out of the white supremacist hierarchy in place (which was often just based on rumor), or when they felt economically threatened by Blacks. Coincidentally, many of riots were precipitated by or heavily involved the local police.

Instances of riots focused on Black people and communities by whites fizzled out in the 1950's due to a combination of things like white flight, suburbanization, the post-war economic boom, and greater economic equality among whites. After the 1960's, "race riots" became framed around the narrative of Blacks as the rioters, but for almost a hundred years before then, "race riots" consisted of whites threatening and attacking Black people.

* Race riots happened before and after this time, but I'm focusing on this period because they share certain commonalities.