The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The deadly race riot ‘aided and abetted’ by The Washington Post a century ago

A front-page article helped incite the violence in the nation’s capital that left as many as 39 dead

Members of the 3rd U.S. Cavalry answering a riot call in Washington in July 1919. (Bettmann/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

The man attacked Louise Simmons in the afternoon, as she was leaving the Washington school where she taught. He had ridden up on a bicycle, leapt off and started pummeling her, she said. He dragged her toward a grove of trees; Simmons fought back until she was able to escape. It’s unclear how good a look she got of his face, but she could tell that, like her, he was black.

On that day, June 25, 1919, there were four major newspapers in the nation’s capital competing for readers. The Washington Herald published a small item about the attack on Simmons on page two, under the headline “Negro attacks negress.” The Washington Times ran a longer story but buried it in the back of the paper. The Evening Star and the smallest paper of the four — The Washington Post — didn’t mention it.

Five days later, a white woman said she was attacked by a black man, and the response was complete fury.

What followed was weeks of hysteria ginned up by the media, the arrest of hundreds of innocent black men, a riot that left as many as 39 dead and 150 injured, and put two black men in prison for decades for crimes they most likely did not commit.

The white woman, Bessie Gleason, said she was walking through the woods near her Takoma Park home when a black man leapt from the bushes, beat her with a club and choked her until she lost consciousness.

Police told newspapers another white woman had been accosted the same day. Different papers gave varying descriptions of the incident. In one, she merely saw a black man and ran away screaming. In another, the man “embraced” her, and she screamed until she was rescued by a white soldier.

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Soldiers crowded the city that summer, both white and black. Most had just been demobilized after returning from fighting in World War I, but they were allowed to continue wearing their uniforms while they looked for work. Some were still active-duty servicemen who suddenly didn’t have much to do.

The lines between soldier and citizen were blurred, but white residents were anxious to reestablish the order of white rule over any black veterans who may have forgotten “their place,” according to historian David F. Krugler in the journal “Washington History.”

Plus, while the men had been overseas, the District had gone dry, its prohibition on alcohol preceding the rest of the country. White soldiers looking for a drink ventured into the rough Southwest neighborhood of Bloodfield, where, according to Krugler, “black entrepreneurs controlled the illicit liquor trade.”

On July 5, newspapers reported the serial attacker struck again. Another white woman, Mary Saunders, said she was assaulted by a black man just over the District line in Maryland near Chevy Chase Circle.

The District’s chief of police told newspapers he was sure the crimes were all committed by the same perpetrator. He assigned 40 officers to investigate. Then 60 more. Then he authorized hundreds of volunteers from a wartime amateur patrol called the Home Defense League to join in the manhunt.

Over the next week, hundreds of black men were rounded up by police and league volunteers as possible suspects. According to Krugler, many were taken from their homes without warrants.

“Negro fiend pursued by 1,000 posse,” a Herald headline read. Days later, the paper reported “a group of white-hooded figures” were “riding at night, keeping undesirables indoors and spreading the fear of justice through the community.” The Ku Klux Klan “of reconstruction days” had been “revived,” the Herald declared.

On July 9, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sent a letter to the four newspapers, pleading with them to tone down the rhetoric, and warning that they were “sowing the seeds of a race riot by their inflammatory headlines.”

The warning was justified. Already that summer, race riots had erupted in Charleston, S.C., Longview, Tex., and New London, Conn. By fall, there would be two dozen more — in Chicago, Omaha, and Elaine, Ark. In addition, by mid-September, white mobs had lynched at least 43 African Americans, according to a Department of Labor report. Seven black veterans were lynched in their Army uniforms.

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The morning the NAACP sent its letter, Louis Randall, a 22-year-old deacon in a black Baptist church, was walking across the Connecticut Avenue bridge in Northwest Washington when he was spotted by detectives. He ran, was caught and struggled to break free.

“I didn’t do it!” The Post reported him shouting, which detectives said was “strong evidence” against him, for how could he have known what he was denying unless he had actually done it?

Police Inspector Clifford Grant, like the chief of police, told the press only one man was responsible for all the attacks. But a few days later, when two white boys told police they had seen Forest Eaglen, a 20-year-old country club golf caddie, near Chevy Chase Circle, the inspector changed his story: Randall was the culprit for the attacks on Simmons and Gleason, and Eaglen had assaulted Saunders.

Then, on July 18, a young white newlywed was walking home from her job at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing when she encountered two black men. The four newspapers wrote wildly different versions of what happened — from verbal insults to a violent robbery — but she told police some kind of confrontation occurred.

Her husband, a civilian working for the Navy, overheard police say they had questioned a black man named Charles Ralls and became convinced of his guilt, the Evening Star reported. The next day, a Saturday, the husband enlisted more than a hundred friends, soldiers and veterans to hunt for Ralls. When night fell, they marched across the Mall toward Bloodfield armed with clubs and lead pipes, vowing to “clean it up.”

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They found Ralls walking with his wife and beat them both. The couple fled into their home, and the mob surrounded it, firing shots, pushing at the door and assaulting anyone else unlucky enough to pass by. One man was hospitalized with a fractured skull.

Officers from three police stations, a provost guard and a Marine detachment finally dispersed the crowd, but according to retired Post journalist Peter Perl, who researched the riots in the 1980s, police “arrested more blacks than whites, sending a clear signal about their sympathies.”

The next night was worse. The mob grew — emboldened by the halfhearted response from the authorities — and spread throughout the city, yanking black men, women and children off streetcars for beatings. One man was assaulted in front of The Post, another in front of the White House.

Down Pennsylvania Avenue, a brand-new dean at Howard University, historian Carter G. Woodson, narrowly escaped harm by hiding in the shadows as a white mob approached.

Others weren’t so lucky. Woodson later recalled what he witnessed: “They had caught a negro and deliberately held him as one would a beef for slaughter, and when they had conveniently adjusted him for lynching, they shot him. I heard him groaning in his struggle as I hurried away as fast as I could without running, expecting every moment to be lynched myself.”

The next morning, the city executive — Washington did not elect a mayor at the time — condemned the rioters and sensationalist coverage, saying “it is the duty of every citizen to express his support of law and order by refraining from any inciting conversation or the repetition of inciting rumor and tales.”

Then came an item on the front page of The Post, under the headline “Mobilization for Tonight.” “Every available service man” had been requested to meet on Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 8th streets, it read. “The hour of assembly is 9 o’clock and the purpose is a ‘clean-up’ that will cause the events of the last two evenings to pale into insignificance.”

Later, the NAACP blamed this article more than any other for the mayhem that followed. In his 1977 book about the history of The Post, legendary reporter Chalmers Roberts called it “highly provocative and shamefully irresponsible.”

An estimated 500 guns were sold that day, but it turns out they were bought mainly by black residents. And when the police forced gun dealers to stop selling, black organizers arranged an “underground railway” of firearms and ammunition from Baltimore, according to Krugler. A black citizens group distributed leaflets urging “our people . . . to go home before dark and to remain quietly and to protect themselves.”

White cavalry and Marine units were deployed across the city, but it was unclear whether they would be fighting the mob or joining it; some of the servicemen who were called in had rioted the night before.

Black residents suspected the target that night would be LeDroit Park, the prosperous black neighborhood next to Howard University. Two thousand black veterans and their compatriots formed a line of defense down Florida Avenue/U Street from 6th to 14th streets, facing south. They were armed.

As the sun set, Krugler wrote, skirmishes broke out. A white mob chased a black delivery driver; a band of black men boarded streetcars and assaulted uniformed Marines.

The police ordered the line of black veterans to disperse; they refused. Officers jabbed at the veterans with bayonets; it didn’t work. Then the police drew their weapons, and shots rang out — perhaps from the black sharpshooters stationed on the roof of the Howard Theater. An officer fell to the ground. The police opened fire; the black veterans returned it as they retreated.

It continued like this through the short summer night. A black veteran shot into the crowd chasing him and killed a man. A white conductor stopped his streetcar and shot at a black passenger. A 17-year-old black girl shot a police officer dead after he entered her family’s home without a warrant. A vigilante in the Home Defense League shot and killed the son of a beloved black messenger for the House Speaker. He had come back from the war only 10 days earlier.

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The next day, President Woodrow Wilson, an avowed segregationist who had been sick for days with severe diarrhea, took decisive action, ordering thousands of troops from surrounding bases to descend on the city.

Mobs gathered again that night, but something finally happened to dampen the rampage: a heavy summer rain.

Nine people were killed in the rioting; 30 more later died from their wounds, according to Perl’s account. Of all the race riots to erupt that summer, the one in Washington holds a peculiar distinction — it’s believed to be the only one with as many white casualties as black, or more.

A week later, with headlines now fixed on rioting in Chicago, more than a thousand black residents packed into the Howard Theater to form a defense fund for people of color arrested during the riots. The Post quoted an organizer named William T. Ferguson saying he believed the police, city leaders and “the reporters of Washington newspapers were aware of the approaching riot and aided and abetted it.”

It’s unclear if the defense fund was ever used to help Forest Eaglen or Louis Randall, who spent the four days of the riot in the D.C. jail. If it was, then it didn’t work.

Early in the investigation, Grant, the police inspector, told newspapers that Eaglen’s alibi — he claimed he was playing pool downtown at the time Saunders was attacked — had checked out “in part.” And Grant had “readily admit[ted]” to reporters he was “skeptical” of Randall’s guilt. All three women were initially uncertain when asked to positively identify Eaglen or Randall.

But by the time of the young men’s respective trials that winter, the uncertainty was gone. The women identified Eaglen and Randall as their assailants.

Eaglen, who was tried in Maryland, was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years.

Randall was convicted in two separate trials; for the attack on Simmons, the black teacher, he was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. For the attack on Gleason, he was sentenced to death. He was twice given an execution date before President Wilson commuted his death sentence to 30 years, to be served consecutively with his other term.

Seven months after the riot, a music teacher named Gertrude Mann was found beaten to death in the woods near Connecticut Avenue. A year after the riot, a police officer noticed a 22-year-old black man named William Henry Campbell testing doorknobs in Columbia Heights in Northwest Washington. Detectives searched his home and found $2,000 worth of women’s jewelry in a bag tucked into his chimney.

He confessed not only to killing Mann but to dozens of other robberies and assaults, including those on Saunders, Gleason and Simmons. When investigators suggested he was lying about the other attacks to do Eaglen and Randall “a favor,” he offered to go to the scene of each crime to explain how he committed them, according to the Washington Times.

Campbell recanted his confessions once he was provided with an attorney. He was convicted of killing Mann and hanged.

When Campbell was first arrested, the Times said Eaglen and Randall’s attorneys planned to file paperwork requesting pardons.

Two years after the riot, on August 19, 1921, the Times had an exclusive: Gleason was now unsure if it was Randall or Campbell who had attacked her.

That’s the last time Eaglen or Randall made it into a local paper.

Census records show that in 1930, Forest Eaglen was still in the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore. An archivist for the Maryland State Archives was unable to find a record of his release, pardon or death, which he called “puzzling.” No other records that could shed light on what happened to him have yet been found.

In 1930 and 1940, the last year for which census records are publicly available, Louis Randall was in federal prison in Atlanta. A Social Security record indicates a man with the same name and birth year died in Washington in 1974; it is unclear if this is the same man.

If Randall had served his full 45-year sentence, he would have been released around 1965. It is possible he was back in Washington for the next major riot in 1968.

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