It started over nothing — a graze, a perceived slight or maybe a whiskey deal gone sour.
But it was really about lingering tension, political hostility and festering racism.
No one agrees on what exactly sparked the May 10, 1919, Charleston race riot, but the fallout is a matter of record.
One hundred years ago this week, the city fell into chaos for nearly eight hours. In its wake, three African-American men died, at least 50 people were arrested, two sailors were imprisoned for a year on Parris Island and the city was forced to rebuild destroyed black-owned businesses.
The summer of 1919 saw more than three-dozen race riots across the country, most of them started by whites who felt the world was changing too much. Charleston’s was one of the first.
The world was evolving in the days following the end of the Great War, and African Americans were beginning to stand up for their rights. Here, the NAACP had pressured the Naval Base to broaden its employment practices, and teachers were petitioning the Legislature to hire black teachers for black public schools.
“Charleston’s black community … had already learned from generations of experience that the white establishment was not concerned about protecting their lives and liberties,” says Nic Butler, a historian with the Charleston County Public Library.
As David Krugler recounts in “1919, The Year of Racial Violence,” Charleston native Alexander Lanneau — one of the riot’s ring leaders — was upset because he felt the city’s black residents no longer knew their place. It didn’t take much for those feelings to turn violent.
Sailors from the Navy base started it. Some accounts contend a black man brushed past a group of bluejackets on a Market Street sidewalk, accidentally knocking one of them into the street (in other versions, the man refuses to move out of their way).
Others say an African-American boy sold the sailors a bottle of whiskey filled with tea, or took their money and never delivered their illicit booze.
Whatever happened, the sailors — and Lanneau — began to attack every black person they saw, hurling bricks, bottles or anything they could find. Other white residents joined in the melee, spurred on by the false rumor that a black man had shot a white person.
As the violence spread across the peninsula, most people, and even some police officers, simply hid. But some black residents fought back.
Before long, hundreds of people were rioting, bashing the windows at black-owned businesses and vandalizing them. Sailors broke into two downtown gun club shooting galleries, stealing Winchester rifles and boxes of .22-caliber ammunition.
Two sailors used one of those rifles to shoot Isaac Doctor. Police found them standing over the body.
It was 3 a.m. before police restored order. Dozens had been injured, most of them black residents, and another would die from his injury less than a week later.
The next day, Mayor Tristram Hyde instructed W.G. Fridie, a black barber whose King Street shop had been vandalized, to bill the city for the damage.
“This might set a precedent, but the Negroes of Charleston must be protected,” Hyde declared.
Damon Fordam, a local historian, says Hyde wasn’t particularly progressive, he simply worried his police department couldn’t handle any protest by disgruntled black residents, who comprised half the city’s population.
The riot has been mostly forgotten, Fordham says, because for far too long cities did not address the more shameful chapters in their history. And this story bends preconceived notions.
“The Charleston riot doesn’t fit the traditional narrative in that African Americans in Charleston fought back, organized and went after the lynchers,” Fordham says.
Eventually, the Navy determined that five sailors, along with Alexander Lanneau, started the riot. The two men who killed Doctor were imprisoned on Parris Island.
On Friday, Butler’s popular Charleston Time Machine podcast will feature his look back at the riot. You can hear it at www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine.
“Charleston’s race relations were unequal but relatively stable, as long as the black community kept to their traditional, deferential status,” Butler says. “The riot was a remarkable event, but it inspired no commitment for change among those in positions of authority. Charleston quickly returned to the status quo of separate-but-unequal.”
Today, the riot offers a lesson about the dangers of resentment and the failure to recognize the rights of others. Charleston, and the rest of the country, should never forget that.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com.