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Mass racial violence, also called race riots can include such disparate events as:

  • attacks on Irish Catholics and other immigrants in the 19th century
  • attacks on Italian immigrants in the early 20th century and Puerto Ricans in the later 20th century
  • attacks on African Americans that occurred in addition to the lynchings in the period after Reconstruction through the first half of the 20th century.
  • frequent fighting among various ethnic groups in major cities, specifically in the northeast and midwest United States throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century. This example was made famous in the stage musical West Side Story and its film adaptation.
  • unrest in African-American communities, such as the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic violence

Riots defined by "race" have taken place between ethnic groups in the United States since as early as the pre-Revolution era of the 18th century. During the early-to-mid- 19th centuries, violent rioting occurred between Protestant "Nativists" and recently arrived Irish Catholic immigrants. These reached heights during the peak of immigration in the 1840s and 1850s in cities including New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. During the early 20th century, riots were common against Irish and French-Canadian immigrants in Providence, Rhode Island.

The San Francisco Vigilance Movements of 1851 and 1856 are often described by sympathetic historians as responses to rampant crime and government corruption. In addition to lynching accused criminals, the vigilantes also systematically attacked Irish immigrants, however. The anti-immigrant violence later focused on Mexicans and Chinese immigrants.

During the late 19th century and early 20th century, Italian Americans were the second minority group (next to African Americans) most likely to be lynched.[citation needed] One of the largest lynchings in US history occurred in New Orleans in 1891, when eleven Italians were violently murdered in the streets by a large lynch mob. In the 1890s a total of twenty Italians were lynched in the South. Riots and lynchings against Italian Americans erupted into the 20th century in the South, as well as in New York City, Chicago, and Boston.

19th century events

Like lynchings, race riots often had their roots in economic tensions or in white defense of the color line.


Political cartoon about the East St. Louis massacres of 1917. The caption reads, "Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?"

In 1887, for example, ten thousand workers at sugar plantations in Louisiana, organized by the Knights of Labor, went on strike for an increase in their pay to $1.25 a day. Most of the workers were black, but some were white, infuriating Governor Samuel Douglas McEnery, who declared that "God Almighty has himself drawn the color line." The militia was called in, but then withdrawn to give free rein to a lynch mob in Thibodaux. The mob killed between 20 and 300 people.[citation needed] A black newspaper described the scene:

" 'Six killed and five wounded' is what the daily papers here say, but from an eye witness to the whole transaction we learn that no less than thirty-five Negroes were killed outright. Lame men and blind women shot; children and hoary-headed grandsires ruthlessly swept down! The Negroes offered no resistance; they could not, as the killing was unexpected. Those of them not killed took to the woods, a majority of them finding refuge in this city."[1]

These events also targeted individuals, as in the 1891 mob lynching of Joe Coe, a worker in Omaha, Nebraska. Approximately 10,000 white people reportedly swarmed the courthouse when Coe was torn from his jail cell, beaten and lynched. Reportedly 6,000 people visited Coe's corpse during a public exhibition at which pieces of the lynching rope were sold as souvenirs. This was a period when even officially sanctioned executions were regularly conducted in public, such as hangings.[2]

20th century events

Labor conflict was a source of tensions that catalyzed into the East St. Louis Riot of 1917. White rioters killed an estimated one hundred black residents of East St. Louis, after black residents had killed two white policemen.


A white gang looking for blacks during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919

White-on-Black race riots include the Atlanta Riots (1906), the Omaha and Chicago Riots (1919), and the Tulsa Riots (1921). The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 grew out of tensions on the Southside, where Irish descendants and African Americans competed for jobs at the stockyards, and where both were crowded into substandard housing. The Irish descendants had been in the city longer, and were organized around athletic and political clubs.


Buildings burning during the Tulsa race riot of 1921.

A young black Chicagoan, Eugene Williams, paddled a raft near a Southside Lake Michigan beach into "white territory", and drowned after being hit by a rock thrown by a young white man. Witnesses pointed out the killer to a policeman, who refused to make an arrest. An indignant black mob attacked the officer.[3] Violence broke out across the city. White mobs, many of them organized around Irish athletic clubs, began pulling black people off trolley cars, attacking black businesses, and beating victims with baseball bats and iron bars. Black people fought back. Having learned from the East St. Louis Riot, the city closed down the street car system, but the rioting continued. A total of 23 blacks and 15 whites were killed.[4]

The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot grew out of black resistance to the attempted lynching of 19-year old shoeshiner Dick Rowland. Thirty-nine people (26 black, 13 white) were confirmed killed. Recent investigations suggest that the actual number of casualties could be much higher. White mobs set fire to the black Greenwood district, destroying 1,256 homes and as many as 200 businesses. Fires leveled 35 blocks of residential and commercial neighborhood. Black people were rounded up by the Oklahoma National Guard and put into several internment centers, including a baseball stadium. White rioters in airplanes shot at black refugees and dropped improvised kerosene bombs and dynamite on them.[5]

By the 1960s, decades of racial, economic, and political forces, which generated inner city poverty, sparked “race riots” across America. The beating and rumored death of cab driver John Smith by police, sparked the 1967 Newark riots. This event became, per capita, one of the deadliest civil disturbances of the 1960s. The long and short term causes of the Newark riots are explored in depth in the documentary film Revolution '67 .

Timeline of events

Nativist Period 1700s-1860

for information about riots worldwide, see List of riots.
Rioting against African-Americans results in thousands leaving for Canada.

Civil War Period 1861-1865

Post-Civil War and Reconstruction Period: 1865 - 1889

Irish and German-American indigent immigrants, temporarily interned at Wards Island by the Commissioners of Emigration, begin rioting following an altercation between two residents resulting in thirty men seriously wounded and around sixty arrested.[6]
  • 1870: Eutaw, Alabama
  • 1870: Laurens, South Carolina
  • 1870: Kirk-Holden war: Alamance County, North Carolina
Federal troops, led by Col. Kirk and requested by NC governor Holden, were sent to extinguish racial violence. Holden was eventually impeached because of the offensive.
Violence occurs between striking members of a miners' union in Scranton, Pennsylvania when Welsh miners attack Irish and German-American miners who chose to leave the union and accept the terms offered by local mining companies.[7]
In one of the largest civil disturbances in the city's history, fighting between Swedish, Hungarian and Polish immigrants results in the shooting death of one man and injuring several others before broken up by police.[8]
  • 1887: Thibodaux, Louisiana - Second highest fatalities in a labor dispute - 30 plus African Americans killed

Jim Crow Period: 1890 - 1914

A lynch mob storms a local jail and hangs several Italians following the acquittal of several Sicilian immigrants alleged to be involved in the murder of New Orleans police chief David Hennessy.
10,000 white people storm the local courthouse to beat and lynch Coe, who was alleged to have raped a white child.
Two groups of Irish and Italian-Americans are arrested by police after a half hour of hurling bricks and shooting at each other resulting from a barroom brawl when visiting Italian patrons refused to pay for their drinks at a local saloon. After the mob is dispersed by police, five Italians are arrested while two others are sent to a local hospital.[9]
Much of the violence in this national strike was not specifically racial, but in Iowa, where the employees of Consolidation Coal Company (Iowa) refused to join the strike, armed confrontation between strikers and strike breakers took on racial overtones because the majority of Consolidation's employees were African American. The National Guard was mobilized just in time to avert open warfare.[10][11][12]
Angered towards the recent hiring of African-American workers, a group of between 80 and 100 Arab laborers attack a group of African-American workers near the Freeman & Hammond brick yard with numerous men injured on both sides.[13]

War and Inter-War Period: 1914 - 1945

Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Period: 1955 - 1977




File:Riot 1963 philippe derome.jpg

Riot oil on canvas, by Philippe Derome 1965








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See also


  1. Zinn, 2004; [1], retrieved March 27, 2009.
  2. Bristow, D.L. (2002) A Dirty, Wicked Town. Caxton Press. p 253.
  3. Chicago Daily Tribune,
  4. Dray, 2002.
  5. Ellsworth, Scott. The Tulsa Race Riot, retrieved July 23, 2005.
  6. Riot On Ward's Island.; Terrific Battle Between German and Irish Emigrants. New York Times. 06 Mar. 1868
  7. The Coal Riot. Horrible Treatment of the Laborers by the Miners. - Condition of the Wounded - A War of Races - Welsh vs. Irish and Germans. New York Times. 11 May 1871
  8. A Race Riot In Denver.; One Man Killed And A Number Of Heads Broken. New York Times. 12 Apr 1887
  9. Race Riot In Buffalo.; Italians and Irish Fight for an Hour and a Half in the Street. New York Times. 19 Mar. 1894
  10. Thomas J. Hudson, Iowa Chapter VIII, Events from Jackson to Cummins, The Province and the States, Vol. V, the Western Historical Association, 1904; page 170
  11. The Natioinal Guard - Iowa's Splendid Militia, The Midland Monthly, Vol. II, No. 5 Nov. 1894; page 419.
  12. Service at Muchakinock and Evans, in Mahaska County, During the Coal Miners' Strike, Report of the Ajutant-General to the Governor of the State of Iowa for Biennial Period Ending Nov. 30, 1895, Conway, Des Moines, 1895; page 18
  13. Race Riots In Newburg.; Negroes Employed in Brick Yards Provoke Other Laborers -- Lively Battle Between the Factions. New York Times. 29 Jul. 1899
  14. Larsen, L. & Cotrell, B. (1997). The gate city: A history of Omaha. University of Nebraska Press. P 163.

Further reading

  • Dray, Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, New York: Random House, 2002.
  • Ifill, Sherrilyn A. On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century (Beacon Press, 2007) ISBN 978-0-8070-0987-1
  • Sowell, Thomas. Ethnic America: A History. Copyright 1981: Basic Books, Inc.
  • Zinn, Howard. Voices of a People's History of the United States. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004.

External links

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