Soldiers of the 369th Infantry who won the Croix de Guerre French medal for gallantry in action in World War I. During the first half of the 20th century, black veterans were frequently targeted for racial violence and assaults by white mobs. (National Archives)
After World War I, many black veterans became leaders and activists in the struggle for freedom and equality at home. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in a 1919 editorial: “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.”
By the early 1920s, NAACP membership nationwide had grown more than tenfold, and many black people were moving to the North and West searching for work and safety from widespread lynching and Jim Crow segregation in the South. Black veterans especially were targeted by white mobs and police who used racist violence to maintain the racial hierarchy.
During what became known as the Red Summer of 1919, anti-black riots erupted in 25 major American cities, including Houston, Texas; East St. Louis and Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Omaha, Nebraska; Elaine, Arkansas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charleston, South Carolina. White mobs intent on protecting their economic and social dominance from growing communities of black workers attacked black communities, destroyed property, and killed or injured hundreds of black people.
Newspapers reported that black veterans stood “on the front lines” to defend themselves and their communities from these attacks. One of the first victims of Red Summer in Washington, D.C., was a 22-year-old black veteran named Randall Neal.
In the fall of 1919, a report on the causes and scope of Red Summer concluded that “the persistence of unpunished lynching” contributed to a mob mentality among white men and fueled a new commitment to self-defense among black men emboldened by military service.