King Street has not always been the touristy commercial district of Charleston. In place of its present-day antique shops, trendy fashion design outlets, and tempting eateries was once a sprawling corridor with many Black-owned and -operated businesses, especially around the southern section of the street. As testaments to their industriousness and as a sliver of autonomous space within the repressive racial climate of the city, however, Black business owners and the African American community writ large took considerable pride in this section of Charleston. Today there are no reminders of the crucially important businesses that once stood on the same street that so many people flock to during the tourist season—and there is no marker of one of the most gruesome episodes of racial violence that took place here that blemishes the city’s history.
In the immediate aftermath of World War I, African American servicemen and women—having served overseas in order to, in the words of President Woodrow Wilson, “make the world safe for democracy”—came back to the United States only to find that democracy continued to be threatened at home. Chafing at this injustice, many African Americans adopted the mantle of the “New Negro,” a concept popularized by author Alain Locke. In 1925, Locke wrote about the wave of Black migration to urban areas in the South, North, and Midwest that began during the war years. Collectively, the members of this new generation, as Locke reflected, maintained “a new vision of opportunity, of social and economic freedom.” Recognizing the economic and social diversity of the growing communities, Locke argued that this generation of urban Blacks--regardless of class status--began casting aside the deference that had been expected of them by urban whites and developing “more positive self-respect and self-reliance” that would lead to their “rise from social disillusionment to race pride.”
Embodiments of the “New Negro” took on many forms, all of which were typically characterized by the shedding of the deferential demeanor that the white community expected. Sometimes this was represented by such grand displays as parades through the streets or organizing voter registration campaigns, and at other times by more humble, but no less profound, ways such as the wearing of expensive clothes or owning a successful business. This generation of “New Negroes” displayed a racial assertiveness and demanded their rights as American citizens; but, in the fearful eyes of many whites, this so-called “New Negro” represented nothing more than an insubordination that would ultimately jeopardize the very premises of Jim Crow segregation.
In the midst of these tense racial relations was a painful post-war recession. Together, these conditions made the potential for violence almost palpable in the air. During the Saturday night of May 10, 1919, the whole city of Charleston was caught in a conflagration of death and destruction.
Although the exact circumstances surrounding the origin of the riot are still a matter of dispute, many scholars agree that two seamen who had recently been discharged from the Charleston Navy Yard felt slighted by a young African American man. A scuffle soon broke out between these three men. One neighbor, after trying to resolve the dispute, fired his pistol into the air. Rumors began to spread throughout the city that these two white soldiers had been harmed or even killed by a Black man. In an effort to exact vengeance, groups of white men raided nearby shooting galleries for weapons and began prowling the streets in an indiscriminate murderous rampage.
White mobs violently assaulted African Americans in the streets, beating and robbing dozens of people. They stopped trolleys and forcibly ejected passengers from their seats. Several Black-owned and -operated businesses—powerful physical representations of the economic self-reliance of the “New Negro”—were purposefully destroyed. One gentleman in particular, a man by the name of W.G. Fridie, owned a well-respected barbershop at 305 King Street that catered to a predominately white clientele. Nevertheless, the mobs ransacked this business as well. Spanning several blocks and involving hundreds of people, the violence raged unabated for hours.
Eventually, Mayor Tristram Hyde was finally able to restore order by sending in the National Guard. At this point, however, the damage had been done: dozens of African Americans were critically injured and at least three—possibly as many as six—were dead. In the ensuing investigations, only two servicemen were court martialed for rioting while the remainder got off scot-free. All other rioters who had charges levied against them had their charges dropped. Meanwhile, the Black community languished with virtually no reparations from the government whatsoever. The only business to be compensated for damages was the aforementioned barbershop owned by W.G. Fridie.
The violence in Charleston originated at the hands of whites and was continued in large measure by whites. Dozens of instances of racially-motivated mob violence—all-too-similar to the one described above—occurred in far-flung places across the country, including Southern cities like Norfolk, Virginia; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Elaine, Arkansas—but also places outside of the South, such as Chicago, Illinois; Omaha, Nebraska; and even Washington, D.C. Collectively, these brutal acts of violence are referred to as the “Red Summer of 1919.”
Although the physical shackles of slavery had been broken during the American Civil War, the haunting legacies of slavery persisted long afterwards, and the massacre that occurred here in Charleston bears witness to that fact. Whether by convoluted legalistic manueverings, oppressive cultural norms, or outright violence like that described above, African Americans struggled under a social order that was in many ways reminiscent of the dehumanizing days of slavery. Although African Americans aspired for a better future for themselves, exemplified perhaps most idealistically in the idea of the “New Negro,” whites instead sought to reinforce their second-class citizenship—and, effectively, reimpose a new, more subtle form of enslavement.