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Remembering Red Summer: Years Of Racial Violence 'Set The Stage' For Tulsa Massacre

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's known as the Red Summer, but it actually stretched well into the fall of 1919. From April through November of that year, a wave of white mobs attacked Black communities in cities across the country, killing hundreds, if not thousands of civilians. Red Summer refers to the blood they shed.

Washington Post staff writer DeNeen Brown has investigated this history closely. She helped make two new documentaries from National Geographic and PBS about the 1921 race massacre in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla. She told us we actually should think of the Red Summer as not one season, but several years of racist violence.

DENEEN BROWN: Well, I argue that Red Summer actually began in 1917 in East St. Louis, Ill., when white mobs attacked Black people, pulling them off of streetcars, beating them. That was a reign of terror that engulfed at least 26 cities - included Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Omaha; Elaine, Ark.; Charleston, S.C.; Knoxville; Houston. These attacks set the stage for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

CORNISH: Can you take us back to this period in time in terms of what was going on with these Black communities? I'm thinking of post-war, post-pandemic and also the start of the Great Migration. But how does this play out in terms of Black and white communities coming up against each other?

BROWN: OK. So Red Summer coincides with the second resurgence of the Klan. There were police chiefs. There were police officers. There were mayors. There were governors. There were senators who were proud members of the Klan. They actually carried Klan cards. It also coincides with the Great Migration, when you see millions of Black people fleeing the South for cities in the North and also cities in the West. They encounter white people who are angry over the competition for jobs and also for voting power.

This period coincides with what historians call the New Negro. That means Black people were no longer subservient. This was a period when Black soldiers were returning from World War I. They were expecting human rights. They had been willing to die to defend their country. There's a famous quote by W. E. B. Du Bois who wrote, we returned from fighting. We returned fighting.

CORNISH: This is the atmosphere...

BROWN: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Going into that period - 1919, 1920, 1921. This is sort of what the country has been marinating in, for lack of a better word.

BROWN: Yes. Yes. Yes. So coming out of the Civil War, following the period of reconstruction, Black people are building Black towns across the country. They're building Black wealth. They're building universities. They're also building capital power and voting power. And as a result of that voting power, there's a huge backlash against them. You start seeing Jim Crow laws, segregation. The number of lynchings increases during this period. There was this real move, this drive, to exterminate Black people, to clear out their communities, to stop their economic progress, to wipe them out.

CORNISH: Do you see any parallels or historical lessons for the modern observer, given the last year we've had a lot of protests over racism more broadly?

BROWN: Yes. So this was a period of history that was kept out of textbooks, was whitewashed out of American history. But it happened. I mean, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Black people were killed. There is a direct parallel between that period with what is happening now in this country. There was great economic progress, voting progress. The country saw its first Black president. And then you have this backlash, which was very similar to the backlash that occurred around the turn of the century, during this Red Summer period.

And in order to understand what's happening now with police brutality, what's happening now with the racial tensions, you have to understand Red Summer. You have to understand what happened during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The fires that burned, destroying Black Wall Street, still burn today.

CORNISH: DeNeen Brown has been writing about this for The Washington Post.

Thank you so much for your time.

BROWN: Thank you. It was great to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.