Some of the most vicious racial violence in American history took place between 1917 and 1923. The hostility stemmed partly from the dramatic shifts in the demography of race. Black workers who had been historically confined to the South had begun to move north and to compete with whites for factory jobs. These black workers often found jobs as strikebreakers, the only way many could get hired. In addition, animosity flared as black veterans returned from World War I insisting on the civil rights that they had fought for in Europe. In Chicago, Illinois, Longview, Texas, Omaha, Nebraska, Rosewood, Florida, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Washington, D.C., white mobs burned and killed in black neighborhoods.
In Tulsa, 40 city blocks were leveled and 23 African American churches and a thousand homes and businesses were destroyed. In 1921, Tulsa (about 12 percent black) had the Southwest's most prosperous African American business community. Booker T. Washington had called this area "the black Wall Street."
The violence erupted after a 19-year-old African American bootblack was arrested for supposedly assaulting a white, female teenager working as an elevator operator. Police later concluded that the young man had stumbled into the woman as he was getting off the elevator. An inflammatory newspaper article that helped touch off the violence was headlined "To Lynch Negro Tonight."
The death toll from the violence is still disputed. A government report said that 26 blacks and 10 whites had died, and another 317 were injured. A recent scholarly study concluded that black deaths approached 100 and may have been much higher.
Another incident of racial violence took place on New Year's Day in 1923, in the tiny black settlement of Rosewood, Florida. A white mob, from as far away as Georgia and purportedly searching for an alleged rapist, burned the town of 150 residents. Only one structure, a house owned by the community's only white resident, was not destroyed. Newspaper accounts differ on the total number of people killed; one report lists 7 deaths, another 21. One Rosewood resident, a blacksmith, was hanged.
Lacking hard evidence, historians have had to rely on oral history. One man, who was 11 years old at the time of the attack, recalled his father's reports of the violence. He described a black man who was forced to dig his own grave, then was shot and shoved into it; a man was hanged from a tree in his front yard when he told a posse that he could not lead them to the alleged rapist; and a pregnant woman was shot as she tried to crawl under her porch for protection. In 1994, the state of Florida paid $2.1 million in reparations.
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