The Charleston riot of 1919 was one of several incidents of civil unrest that began in the American Red Summer, of 1919. The Summer consisted of terrorist attacks on black communities, and white oppression in over three dozen cities and counties in the US.
The fateful night of May 10, 1919, began innocuously enough but quickly escalated into a nightmare. It all started when five white sailors believed they had been cheated by a black man. Unable to locate the alleged wrongdoer, they resorted to attacking African Americans indiscriminately. The situation took a deadly turn when a black man, feeling threatened, fired a shot, resulting in the tragic death of one sailor. Within moments, word of the street brawls and shootings reached the Charleston Naval Yard, prompting an influx of sailors into the black district.
The fighting started at a pool parlor, but it rapidly spread throughout the commercial section of King Street, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Over 500 sailors, with some white civilians joining in, targeted black individuals, businesses, and homes. Street cars were halted by pulling down the trolley poles, and passengers of African descent were brutally attacked.
Amid the escalating violence, the authorities intervened. Marines were dispatched to support the naval police in quelling the riot. Working in tandem with the city police force from a joint command center, order was finally restored.
The aftermath of the Charleston riot was devastating. According to the New York Tribune, it marked the worst violence in Charleston since the Civil War. Tragically, five black individuals lost their lives, and another succumbed to injuries later. Seventeen black men, seven white sailors, and one police officer suffered severe injuries, with 35 black and eight sailors admitted to hospitals. The riot left a trail of ransacked stores, damaged black businesses, and homes, some of which sustained extensive damage.
In response to the violence, the Navy imposed restrictions on men entering Charleston, and naval troops patrolled the streets to maintain order. Three sailors were court-martialed; one was acquitted, while the other two received a year in a naval prison, followed by dishonorable discharges.
In the wake of this tragedy, the Interdenominational Minister’s Union and the Charleston Branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) confronted the city’s leadership, advocating for the rights of the affected. Their demands included the appointment of black policemen, compensation for those who had lost property, punishment for the sailors responsible, and the formation of a biracial committee to prevent future violence. As a result, reparations were made to those who suffered losses, and the perpetrators of violence were apprehended. Additionally, a biracial committee was formed, although the city of Charleston would not see black policemen for another three decades, although Charleston would not have black policemen for another thirty years.
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