In the summer of 1919, the First World War was over but simmering racial tensions, some say inflamed by local newspapers, boiled over into a violent race riot.  This was not Washington’s first such riot (1835), and it was not to be the last as this historically fractionalized city would erupt in racially motivated tumult.[1]  Violence between blacks and whites in racial rioting occurred in no less that twenty other American cities that summer with Chicago being the worst.

There was speculation as to what the true spark was.  Many blamed it on white soldiers who were drunk and roaming around looking for trouble. Others believed that white anger had been inflamed by erroneous reports of African American men assaulting white women. Whatever the initial cause, the city spun out of control for three days as whites and blacks engaged in mob violence against one another.  Shots were fired at people on the street, people were pulled from street cars and killed, and buildings were used as sniper posts.  Carloads of men with guns and roving bands set out to attack members of the opposite race.  The city descended into chaos as the police, who were thought to be less than impartial, tried to contain the violence that sprang up in spots all over the city.

A member of the Home Defense League, Isaac Halbfinger, which had been mobilized during the unrest, was shot and killed at 9th and M Streets, Northwest, and his partner was seriously wounded.  (Newspaper report July 22, 1919 Evening Star)

An African American Detective John T. Jackson was shot and wounded, while Detective Sergeant Harry Wilson was shot and killed.  It is unknown how many people were killed during the three days of rioting.  Official accounts reported fifteen deaths, but some have indicated that the toll was twice that.  The police and the Home Defense League were supplemented by the military, which on the third day set up check points and cordons to control the movement of the mobs and access to certain neighborhoods.  This plus a steady rain seemed to help calm things.[2]


[1] Law and Order in the Capitol City, A history of the Washington Police 1800-1886, by Kenneth Alfers NO.5 G.W. Univ.

[2] Lost Riot, Washington City Paper, vol.18, NO13 April 3-9, 1998, p.20-27