Racial Terrorism


Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four children were murdered following hate violence, 1963 (Anthony Falletta/ © The Birmingham News)

After the Civil War and into the 20th century, Black communities were targeted for attack by white mobs intent on maintaining white supremacy. Devastating acts of vigilante violence often were preceded by Black political and economic progress, allegations of interracial romance, and other perceived breaches of the racial order.

In 1921, after an alleged encounter between a young Black man and white woman in an elevator, whites attacked the thriving Black Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A 16-hour massacre left “Negro Wall Street,” the nation’s wealthiest Black community, burned to the ground, 300 Black people dead, and more than 10,000 homeless and destitute.

Countless Black communities suffered similar fates during this era, including Rosewood, Florida (1923); Elaine, Arkansas (1919); East St. Louis, Illinois (1917); Forsyth County, Georgia (1912); Slocum, Texas (1910); Thibodaux, Louisiana (1887); and Opelousas, Louisiana (1868).

This era of racially-motivated terror also took the form of brutal lynchings, in which mobs of white vigilantes kidnapped and murdered Black people accused of crimes or of the slightest social taboo, those who were in conflict with whites, or who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1866, the morning after racial conflict between Black and white settlers in a refugee camp near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the bodies of 24 Black men, women, and children were found hanging from trees.