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Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  322 ratings  ·  64 reviews

A narrative history of America's deadliest episode of race riots and lynchings

After World War I, black Americans fervently hoped for a new epoch of peace, prosperity, and equality. Black soldiers believed their participation in the fight to make the world safe for democracy finally earned them rights they had been promised since the close of the Civil War.

Instead, an u

Hardcover, 272 pages
Published July 19th 2011 by Henry Holt and Co.
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Tamora Pierce
In 1919 America was terrified of anarchists, workers' strikes, socialists, communists, the arrival of Prohibition, and black soldiers--men who were used to fighting--returning to the country after WWI. Riots and lynchings broke out in unusually bloody numbers that year all over the country, and a lot of things changed.

I didn't know that originally the NAACP was led by whites. During the course of this summer, the NAACP not only tripled its size and spread across the nation, but its leadership b
Mary Johnson
Dec 31, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Very well-written. How did we miss so much in history class? Or, more exactly, why was so much not included in high-school history class?
Bryan Alexander
This is an excellent, harrowing, and inspiring account of American race riots in 1919.

The bulk of Red Summer traces horror after horror through that year, as white Americans attacked blacks across the country. In Chicago, Washington DC, Knoxville, Omaha, and small towns from Arkansas to Georgia similar stories unfolded, beginning with accusations of criminal misdeeds by black men. White mobs assembled and set to work, lynching, destroying buildings, or rampaging through black-populated areas an
Jul 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
Although I think there are more thrilling historical writers than McWhirter(he tends to pile fact upon fact, mini-biography upon mini-bio,event upon event, in a predictable rhythm), the sum of this book is inarguably great. The growth of the NAACP, during a summer in which blacks were lynched and race riot followed riot in larger number than seen before, is the anchor of this book;the organization came to life because blacks unexpectedly , in the experience of White America, fought back, in full ...more
Oct 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
Red Summer recounts a series of events in American history that have largely been swept under the rug. Most Americans know about lynching parties in the Deep South and the power of the KKK. The Southerner as vicious racist is part of our popular culture. However, how many of us know that there were far more destructive race riots begun by whites in Chicago, Washington DC, and Omaha (Omaha?!), let alone the fact that many of these mob attacks took place during one year in our history and were tol ...more
Christopher Saunders
Cameron McWhirter's Red Summer chronicles, in graphic detail, the outbreak of racial violence which swept across America in 1919, from full-fledged riots to lynching and casual murders. McWhirter employs a somewhat jerky, disorienting narrative of having a chapter focus on a specific incident, then pulling back in the next chapter for a broader look at social context. Once one inures yourself to it, the book does an excellent job arguing that the post-World War I era seeded the modern Civil Righ ...more
Randall Wallace
Jul 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
The last black U.S. congressman left in 1901, while in the North, black power was restricted to a few urban areas. The 1917 St. Louis Riot spawned a cartoon asking President Wilson when he would make America safe for democracy? WWI enlisted 367,710 black men, most were put in crappy supply jobs, but those who got to fight “acquitted themselves well.” In 1919, the Defender was the nation’s largest black newspaper and reached into the deep South. It defended black rights, encouraged northern migra ...more
Kevin Kizer
Aug 16, 2011 rated it liked it
Oh man, an intense book about the intense year of 1919 when, in general, blacks started to fight back against the lynchings and racism they faced. A lot of this was fueled by black veterans returning from WWI. They were treated like heroes in Europe but came home to almost total oppression. Not a book to read if you are already depressed.
Aug 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
Horrifying, gut-wrenching account of ignorance and hatred run amuck. But also, an uplifting account of people fighting back and fighting for their right to be afforded the same rights as white society. Well researched account of an awful part of this country's story.
Edward Sullivan
A vivid, unsettling, deeply researched chronicle of the worst anti-Black racial violence since Reconstruction that engulfed the United States, in the north and south, in large cities and rural areas, in 1919.
Aug 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
I found Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America somewhat challenging to read but not for reasons that one might expect. The writing is not challenging; on the contrary, it is a straight forward presentation of factual information. The length of the book is not intimidating; not including the Notes, Bibliography or Index sections, it extends for a mere 274 pages. Nor is the topic is insignificant; rather, it covers an important aspect of 20th century history in the Unite ...more

African-Americans have returned from meritorious service and victory in World War I in Europe. They have been celebrated and feted in the early months of the year for their service with parades and speeches. Hope for a better earned life is in the future for African-Americans as a share in the American Dream.

Post war domestic tranquility is not to be had for any or all. Economic slumps, social change and unrest, and old beliefs are all part of a dangerous fuel that will lead to the Red Sum
Nov 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
A humbling, powerful, and eye-opening book; would that it were fiction! The following passages were particularly memorable:

(after the Chicago riot) Others saw white prejudice and economic disparity at fault. The Urban League declared Washington and Chicago were "solemn warnings to our country" and "only by improving the housing, health and recreation opportunities of the Negro at the same time that we demand of him the contribution of his hands and brain in industry can we look for fundamental i
Marcus Nelson
Apr 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Lynching – it’s amazing to me to think that at one point in our nation’s history that a mob of men could overpower a jail, with little effort, drag off its imprisoned, mutilate them then kill them. All with no recourse.


The summer of 1919 saw the worst of this with widespread riots in the south and the north and even in DC. But something unprecedented happened. Blacks began fighting back. Intensely. Jim Crow was still highly in effect but with many Black soldiers returning from WWI, the i
Donna Lewis
Mar 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This was a very difficult book to read. The year 1919 was one of incredible unrest between blacks and whites. Returning black soldiers, meeting scorn and derision, were no longer accepting if second class citizenship. The rise of the NAACP helped black communities to consider protecting themselves. Highlighting riots in cities such as Charleston, Cleveland, Washington DC, Chicago, and Omaha, the author Cameron McWhirter, is able to trace the growing determination of blacks. Some riot cities had ...more
Jan 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Not an easy read, but so glad I found it.
(don't remember what pointed me to this book, that I had to get thru interlibrary)
There's some difficult gore, made most difficult due to the horror of how humans can treat one another. I know this is factual, but found it extremely difficult to comprehend the inhumanity of whites and white crowds brutally torturing and killing fellow humans simply because of their black skin color.
Maybe today's brutalities aren't so unusual after all; while we hear more
Diana H.
Sep 14, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
At the end of World War I, as thousands upon thousands of troops were coming home victorious, race became a deadly issue in cities across the country. Race riots broke out in cities from Washington, D. C. to San Francisco, CA. While the death toll has never been fully realized, or recorded, it’s a fact that many more blacks than whites perished during these riots.

Who and what was responsible for this outbreak? Many factors played a part, but the main reason it seems is that after fighting for ou
Nov 20, 2011 rated it liked it
I loved The Warmth of Other Suns, and this promised to be along the same lines. The book was good, and I think it chronicles a chapter in American history too few people know about. The last chapter does a nice job placing the summer of violence into a broader context, as well.

My only issue with the book was that, while covering the violence in the various towns, McWhirter throws out names of victims without ever letting readers get to know any of them. The names pile up--in a way a fitting meta
Aug 11, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: social-history
A better-then-average book from a journalist writing history. The writing style is engaging and he is thorough with his sources and documentation. My biggest issue, and this is not surprising, is that he does provide the depth of background that a historian would. I found myself wanting a much fuller explanation of the Red Scare, Great Migration, war demobilization, labor crisis, and African American war experience that led to the events he described. In addition, his decision to tell the narrat ...more
Sep 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
From April until November of 1919, the country experienced a blood bath of lynchings, riots,beatings.The war was over and black soldiers returned expecting to be w3lcomed and to enjoy a better live.In Europe they had found acceptance and greater freedom, The USA had no intentions of letting this happen.Most of the horrors occured in the South but range as far as New Haven.New York and Chicago saw riots.The authors style is compelling and the book reads like a novel. He has extensive notes and a ...more
Oct 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: book
In 1919 african american (black) soldiers came back from fighting for their country in WWI and found the same Jim Crow America. Empowered by their efforts in WWI, hopeful for improvement in their civil rights, they smacked into a white population that wanted them to go back to their place. A post-war recession made fighting for scarce jobs a reality. This aggravated an already volatile situation. Race riots and lynchings occurred throughout the nation. Governments were either passive or they act ...more
Fraser Sherman
Jan 01, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
The summer of 1919 was the highpoint for lynchings in American history. McWhirter looks at eruptions of violence in Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, DC and elsewhere and the black response. With many black men back from the war and believing they'd proved themselves the equal of any white, there was much less willingness to back down in the face of white violence. this is a good account, though I think McWhirter's optimistic arguing this is the turning point where everything started to get better (it's ...more
Steven  McCord
Dec 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In general, I think, many people chose to ignore the past because brings with it truly challenging messages for those of us living in the present. My experience reading about the Summer of 1919 was no exception to this rule; it was difficult to endure the new found knowledge of what Americans (specifically whites) did to their African American brethren at this specific time in history. I think we could all take lessons from books like this which demonstrate the lowest potential of humanity and g ...more
May 06, 2012 rated it really liked it
While this is not always a fast read, it is a fascinating one. This era of American history has been, rather shamefully, forgotten. The author does a really good job of showing how the riots of 1919 led to both the civil rights movement of the 60's and to the state of race relations today. If the book has a flaw, it is, to me, the multitude of personalities who are introduced (sometimes with too much backstory) and who the reader than has to keep track of.
Aug 31, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A sober and sobering read. Pairs nicely with books on the Great War and books about the peace of 1919 in Europe and a world setting.
That such violence spread in cities and farm communities makes me wonder what happens in the quiet countryside and sleepy waters of swamp and timber land. I notice that mid-Atlantic states are not mentioned but surely there must be activity there during the Red Summer.
Like any good read it answers many questions but also leaves you wanting more.
Matthew Rohn
Dec 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
The history of the race riots and pogroms throughout the US during the summer of 1919 are presented here with great depth and an accessible and engaging writing style. McWhirter provides a good deal of context about the post-reconstruction era and early stages of the long civil rights movement, but could use more focus on the political and international reaction to the violence to complement the long narrative passages. Major recommendations for non historians
Martin Hogan
McWhirter writes for the reader, not at the reader. He doesn't beat the reader up with injustice. He presents a fact by fact (as much as could be harnessed) story without formulating an opinion for the reader.

A tough topic not to carry an opinion within the soul.

A must-read for knowing the identity of American citizenship.
Mar 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: serious
This is essential reading. It covers a part of American history that I was never really taught in school. It provided context for works I'd read in my African American Literature classes - Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. I developed a clearer understanding of the roots of the NAACP.
Aug 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
First off, I believe any American should read up on the summer of 1919. It illustrates a crucial point in American history that is often not highlighted or even mentioned.

The book itself is well-written. Using Joe Ruffin's story from start to finish gave a nice narrative to the incidents making up the Red Summer.
Sep 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
Well-researched, if oddly paced, but also highly disturbing (in a good way -- this topic should horrify you in many ways). Encourage anyone to understand the various civil rights movements through American history to read this.
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Cameron McWhirter is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He was awarded a Nieman Foundation Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard in 2007. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia. "

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