On this dayJul 19, 1919

White Mob Rampages Through D.C., Beating Black Residents

Image | Library of Congress

On July 19, 1919, rumors began spreading among white residents of Washington, D.C., that a black man had been accused of attempting to sexually assault a white woman. When news spread that police had released a black suspect from custody, white men across the city began planning a violent rampage against the black community.

This incident, the latest in several weeks of sensationalized, rumor-mill allegations of sexual offenses by black men against white women, lit a powder keg. During this era, any action by a black man that could be interpreted as seeking or desiring contact with a white woman could spark deadly violence. Accusations of “assault” were often based on merely looking at or accidentally bumping into a white woman, smiling, winking, getting too close, or even being disagreeable. The mere accusation of sexual impropriety, even without evidence or facts, often aroused a mob and resulted in lynching before the judicial system could or would act.

In the summer of 1919, which later became known as "Red Summer," major cities across the United States were sites of racialized attacks on black communities. These conflicts were often set off by white lynch mobs clashing with black WWI veterans standing up to defend their communities.

On the night of July 19, a mob of white men moved through a residential neighborhood near Pennsylvania Avenue NW, gathering weapons and more members as they traveled. The mob encountered a black man named Charles Ralls near Ninth and D Streets in Southwest D.C., and beat him severely. The mob beat its second victim, 55-year-old George Montgomery, badly enough to fracture his skull. Growing groups of white men, including civilians and military service members, spread out and continued their violent campaign deeper into the black community for several days.

At the time, Washington D.C.’s black community was relatively prosperous and included many members of the military. As black citizens realized the police were not going to protect them from the attacking mob, many took up arms in their own defense. By the third day of rioting, armed black groups were confronting white mobs in shootouts and street fights. On the fourth day, federal troops were deployed to quell the violence and the riot ended. The conflict left nine people dead, 30 severely wounded, and 150 beaten.

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