Thursday, October 3, 2019

President Wilson's Strokes and Persistent Race Riots made 1919 a Tense Year

With the heart and health of a major presidential candidate in the news, and the character and capacity of the current President also constantly in the news, it is a little interesting to consider the way President Wilson's strokes were framed and presented in the news.

It is also interesting, but also terrifying and dispiriting, to see the ways "race riots" and what amounts to ethnic cleansing were framed at the same time.

There isn't much on transportation and the City today for the blog, so here's a historical quick bit on national stories as they appeared in Salem newspapers. Maybe we'll come back later and see if there are meaningful differences in coverage between Salem's two papers, or see if we can drill into more detail on the way these two big stories were received in Salem itself.

But also, for as awful as 2019 sometimes seems, 1919 was worse - though perhaps Salemites did not actually feel this way at the time. It's not clear how awful they perceived all this.

In late September, Wilson had a mini-stroke, and it was big news.

Woodrow Wilson's mini-stroke of September 26th, 1919
Though they didn't know it at the time, it was a prelude to the much larger one he had in October

Morning paper: October 3rd, 1919

Afternoon paper: October 3rd, 1919
We know now that Edith Wilson exercised disproportionate, non-elected power in the White House as the scope of Wilson's diminished capacities was hushed up. (It may be interesting to follow this in the Salem headlines over the fall.)

Also in 1919, there was wave of "race riots." Earlier in July the SJ published online what appeared to be a free article picked up from the AP, "Hundreds of black Americans were killed during 'Red Summer.' A century later, still ignored."

It was very much worth reading. Though it appeared that it was part of a series, I saw no further part published by the SJ, alas.
America in the summer of 1919 ran red with blood from racial violence, and yet today, 100 years later, not many people know it even happened.

It flowed in small towns like Elaine, Arkansas, in medium-size places such as Annapolis, Maryland, and Syracuse, New York, and in big cities like Washington and Chicago. Hundreds of African American men, women and children were burned alive, shot, lynched or beaten to death by white mobs. Thousands saw their homes and businesses burned to the ground and were driven out, many never to return.

It was branded "Red Summer" because of the bloodshed and amounted to some of the worst white-on-black violence in U.S. history....

"Ethnic cleansing was the goal of the white rioters," said William Tuttle, a retired professor of American studies at the University of Kansas and author of "Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919." ''They wanted to kill as many black people as possible and to terrorize the rest until they were willing to leave and live someplace else."
While "red" refers to blood, there is also a thread of red-baiting. The IWW and Bolsheviki are criticized also, often without evidence, and this shows something of the nexus between using "communist" as an label and insult for people of color and more generally as an insult for anyone who articulated dissent or critique. We still see this in contemporary disparaging rhetoric around "socialism."

Here are pieces on the front page in Salem mostly from the Capital Journal 100 years ago.

July 21st, 1919

July 22nd, 1919
An editorial inside from the second day uses vile, racist language, praises Birth of a Nation, and says "the colored man of the south...has no patriotism."

Racist editorial, July 22nd, 1919
This went on over the summer and into fall. The episode in Elaine, Arkansas was in October.

Afternoon paper: October 2nd, 1919
 (it's weird to see hobo as a serious font)

Morning paper: October 3rd, 1919
From a longer note in the NY Review of Books:
In America’s bloody history of racial violence, the little-known Elaine Massacre in Phillips County, Arkansas, which took place in October 1919, a century ago this week, may rank as the deadliest. The reasons why the event has remained shrouded and obscure, despite a shocking toll of bloodshed inflicted on the African-American inhabitants of Phillips County, speak to a legacy of white supremacy in the US and ruthless suppression of labor activism that disfigures American society to this day....

The African Americans of Phillips County, like those throughout the South, were subjected to segregation and disenfranchisement, those twin pillars of white supremacy. But the black sharecroppers and tenant farmers there were also the victims of a particularly harsh form of repression known as “debt peonage.”....

Given the magnitude of the Elaine Massacre, its absence from standard narratives in American history is striking. But unlike better-known episodes of racial violence, such as the riots in Chicago and Washington, D.C., that same year, the events in Phillips County took place in a rural backwater of the South, far from the spotlight cast by on-the-scene reporting from big-city newspapers, including important African-American publications such as The Chicago Defender and The Washington Bee. Equally important was the concerted effort of local white authorities to suppress the real story and to promulgate their counter-narrative: that a large-scale black uprising had been suppressed by prompt action befitting the circumstances.

In addition, the United States military was steadfast in its insistence that few people had died in Elaine. Remarkably, more than forty years after the event, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, a respected Arkansas scholarly journal, was still disseminating the official story of the local white elite that a black insurgency had been put down with minimal violence.

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