What do these towns have in common? Cincinnati, Springfield, IL, Omaha, Knoxville, East St. Louis, Tulsa, Poughkeepsie, and Cairo, IL.
Well, for one, we’ve been in and through all these towns with the Secret History of American River People project.
Also these are just a few of the hundreds of communities in which white mobs have enacted deadly racial violence against non-white people, often in an attempt to drive them from their homes and businesses.
I’m working on a Secret History book and part of my research takes me to investigate racial segregation and displacement in river communities. I was looking at the Cairo Riots of 1967 and the history of lynchings there, including William “Froggie” James, in the early 1900s.
I knew about the 1921 Tulsa Massacre in the thriving Black business community known then as Black Wall Street during which 75–300 Black people were killed, nearly 1000 were wounded, and 10,000 black people were left homeless.
I’d heard about the 1917 East St. Louis riots in which 40–250 Black people were killed and another 6,000 Black people were left homeless.
In both cases, the economic losses in the Black community were in the millions, even measured by the dollar value of the time, and resulted in the destruction of the Black-owned business community and the mass expulsion of Black residents.
I wondered, how many of these little-known and rarely-discussed mass racist violence incidence were there? Is there a complete list of incidents of mass racial violence in the United States?
So far, I have been unable to find anything but patchy lists that include some but not all.
Part of the difficulty is that we don’t know what to call this. Race riots? Massacres? Racial violence? Ethnic cleansing?
These incidents, of which there are likely well over a hundred, are most often referred to as race riots. But that masks the facts of who are perpetuating the violence and who are the victims. Further muddying the waters, white mobs perpetuating violence against Black people is often conflated with civil unrest by Black people against racial injustice, such as those in Watts, Miami, and after the Rodney King beatings.
And riot is the wrong word to talk about what are essentially massacres. These are incidents of mass racial violence by white Americans against racial minorities. What do we call that?
If prolonged efforts to terrorize and displace an ethnic minority happened in another country, we would call it ethnic cleansing, and I think that is the most accurate, an effort by white people to terrorize and expel Black and Brown people who were an economic threat, into submission and subservience.
Here are two lists that taken together might be the closest comprehensive list of ethnic cleansing events I’ve found (not even including 500 years of Native American genocide):
Two other resources I’ve found since I started looking is the excellent reporting of John Biewen (who also has two excellent series with Chenjerai Kumanyika, Seeing White and The Land That Never Has Been Yet):
Suggested within John’s reporting and by several other sources is Elliot Jaspin’s Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America. I haven’t read this yet, but it has moved to the top of my list.
I am obsessed with these incidents because I believe they hold the key to understanding race in America. Both in the past and particularly today as desperate white Americans grapple with changing demographics.
These incidents were typically triggered by questionable accusations against members of the Black community, usually Black young men, after decades of underlying economic tension around the success of Black business communities.
Whereafter white mobs would extract vengeance against members of the Black community and Black-owned businesses. Whole neighborhoods were razed and thousands killed.
There was also the legal equivalent of the white mob, whole Black neighborhoods legally bulldozed by the violence of “urban renewal” to make room for a park or a freeway or nothing at all. We saw this in Kingston, NY where a thriving Black-owned business district was driven out or bulldozed under, sat fallow for decades, and was eventually repopulated by tony white businesses.
I think this is important because it reveals the lie behind the American demand that minorities stop complaining and pull themselves up by their bootstraps (a physically impossible task), because that is exactly what these Black communities had done.
Black churches were sources of Black community and solidarity. Black-owned banks mean interests on loans stays in the Black community. Black-owned stores and services mean that money stays in the Black community. Black entertainment, theaters, taverns, hotels, colleges, lawyers, landlords, doctors, and even successful Black politicians.
Despite staggering odds, Jim Crow, segregation, redlining, discrimination, and starting from zero after emancipation (despite a promise of 40 acres and a mule, never received), segregated Black neighborhoods were successful. Primarily because of mutual support and self-reliance within the Black community.
American history demonstrates, if you are both a successful Person of Color in this country and an economic threat, the white majority will do everything it can legally and extralegally to neutralize you as a threat, including terrorism and intimidation.