Ben and Carrie Johnson peered out the second-story window of their brick rowhouse at 220 G St. NW. On the sidewalk below, dozens of white men clustered around the glowing street lamp, pointing up at them. Trapped and surrounded, the Johnsons feared for their lives.
It was the night of Monday, July 21, 1919, and the city of Washington was engulfed in racial combat. In expectation of trouble, Ben, a 52-year-old African American man, had obtained a .38-caliber revolver. With his 17-year-old daughter Carrie, he watched the chaotic scene outside, where black residents, taking refuge on the roofs of their houses, were hurling rocks at the gathering whites.
An African American musician returning from a late-night gig heard someone shout, “Get the n—–!” A flying brick struck a police officer in the head, dropping him to his knees. Gunshots sounded from the houses across the street. A car full of white men came roaring up the alley next to the Johnsons’ rowhouse. More gunfire rang out. Two Metropolitan Police patrolmen approached, and bystanders told them the shots had come from the second floor. The patrolmen sent for reinforcements. Within minutes, two Army trucks disgorged two dozen armed Marines who surrounded the rowhouse, ready for orders.
James Weldon Johnson — poet, activist and field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — called it the Red Summer, a season of blood in America: From April to November 1919, the United States experienced a rolling series of race wars that might be described as a neo-Confederate offensive. Fifty-four years after Appomattox, riots broke out in at least 26 cities. Lynchings spread; by year’s end, 76 black men would be lynched, the most in a decade. Everywhere, the story was the same: White mobs, often encouraged by newspaper attention, mobilized to attack their African American neighbors for crimes real and imagined.
In Washington, mobs of white men — led by soldiers and sailors who had recently returned from the Great War in Europe and were living in the Marine Barracks on Capitol Hill — began attacking people of color on Saturday, July 19. Incited by sensationalistic, sometimes false stories about black rapists, the soldiers started randomly assaulting men in Southwest, the black neighborhood south of the Mall. On Sunday, the attacks spread to the downtown area along Pennsylvania Avenue. The underpaid police force stood aside, and the mobs were soon joined by women and children shouting encouragement. A black man was beaten outside the White House.
Much to the surprise of the whites, black men started fighting back. The nation’s capital was also home to hundreds of black soldiers who had served in the Separate Battalion, a logistical support unit that drove trucks and supplied kitchens. Others had fought in the all-black 367th and 369th Infantry Regiments in France. Historian C.R. Gibbs reports that when the city threw a parade for returning veterans in early 1919, these men had been told they could not march. Having served their country only to be snubbed, they were bitter, and bitterly determined to defend their rights.
They feared that white men were working themselves up for a lynching. For African Americans in Washington, the spectacle of a mob determined to kill a black man was a not-so-distant memory: Less than two years before, a black man had nearly been lynched at Fort Myer, across the river in Arlington, Va., saved only by the personal intervention of the Virginia governor.
At a community meeting in June, black veterans had listened to Osceola McKaine, a lieutenant who’d fought with the 367th regiment at Argonne. “No Negroes anywhere in the United States should ever let white mobs take a black man to lynch him without using all the force possible to prevent it,” McKaine declared. “The only thing with which to meet force is force.”
When the white mobs started to rampage downtown, word spread north to U Street. Black men converged at the intersection of Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW, the heart of the African American community. With concealed guns, knives and clubs, they defied white police officers who ordered them to disperse. Men and women watched from the roofs of nearby buildings, shouting at the police. The Washington Bee, the city’s African American weekly newspaper, reported that men on bicycles rode from house to house, warning “colored householders who roused themselves to meet the invaders.”
About 10 blocks south, the Johnsons’ home on G Street was in a racially mixed neighborhood with a view of the Capitol. A Jewish grocer sold goods on the corner, and an African American lawyer plied his trade down the street. Ben Johnson, for his part, was a laborer and a member of the Masons, the ancient secret society whose adherents believed in science and racial equality.
Around 11 o’clock on that Monday night, a squad of police officers arrived at the Johnsons’ home with badges prominently displayed. A couple of detectives went around the house to cover the rear door. With guns drawn, detectives Pat Grant and Harry Wilson forced the front door and entered. The 29-year-old Wilson had just made detective seven months earlier. He was married with an infant child.
As the detectives reached the second floor, Wilson said to his boss, “Pat, I am younger than you. Let me pass in front.” Wilson entered the middle bedroom with another officer. “There is nobody here, I don’t believe,” the officer said. “Let me see,” said Wilson, getting down on his hands and knees to search under the bed. A gunshot flared in the darkness, striking Wilson in the left breast, passing through his heart and coming out the right side of his chest. “Under the bed,” Wilson gasped. “Under the bed.”
Other officers rushed into the room firing wildly. A woman screamed. More officers arrived with torches. They found Carrie Johnson crouched in the corner with a bullet wound in her thigh. Next to her lay a blue steel revolver, three chambers empty. Ben Johnson emerged from under the bed with a bullet wound in his shoulder.
The burst of gunshots in the dark had stilled the fervor of the white men. Several policemen carried Wilson out and laid him in a waiting patrol car that sped off, only to slam into a passing firetruck on Pennsylvania Avenue. The wounded officer was put into another car, but at the hospital, Wilson was declared dead on arrival. Ben and Carrie Johnson, bloodied but alive, were taken to a city jail.
Washington in 2019 is a city transformed. The corner at Seventh and Florida where black men gathered in self-defense 100 years ago is today occupied by a CVS Pharmacy. The boom-pocka-pocka thump of go-go, the District’s indigenous funk music, blasts from a speaker outside the cellphone store on the opposite corner. Howard University students gather in an Afrocentric teahouse, while tourists visit the renovated Howard Theatre.
Seven blocks away, at 14th and U, a public history sign proclaims “From Riot to Renaissance.” It’s an upbeat civic tale — referring not to the white riot of 1919 but to the black riot that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. That riot left the U Street corridor devastated for decades, but in the 1990s, the neighborhood began to revive with construction of a new municipal office building and the opening of the Metro’s Green Line. U Street is now an urban entertainment destination, with ethnic restaurants, jazz clubs, sports bars, vape shops, nail salons and beer gardens, along with new condominiums and renovated apartment buildings. It’s ground zero for the capital’s gentrification, which has spread to virtually every neighborhood and led to a construction boom, higher rents, new stores, new libraries and new schools.
Like most simple historical stories, the riot-to-renaissance narrative of the U Street neighborhood is both true and incomplete: It politely undersells the degree to which racial conflict is baked into D.C. history. One hundred years ago this month, Washington erupted in a white riot that can be reconstructed from newspaper headlines, personal correspondence, police reports and judicial decisions. Yet to most Washingtonians today, the events of July 1919 are utterly unknown.
Violent race relations were nothing new to the nation’s capital. Before the Civil War, Washington was home to one of the largest slave-trading syndicates in the upper South, with numerous “Georgia pens” for human chattel, including one in the Centre Market at Seventh and Pennsylvania. At the same time, the District of Columbia was a mecca for black achievers — a haven for African Americans who had been manumitted by their slave owners in Virginia or had otherwise escaped slavery. As of 1830, a third of Washington’s 30,000 residents were black, and more than half of them were legally free.
In August 1835, black aspirations provoked a white backlash. As abolitionists blanketed the capital with anti-slavery pamphlets, a young enslaved black man was arrested for attacking his white female owner with an ax. A mob of angry white men sought to lynch him. Thwarted by Marines called in from the Navy Yard, the rioters spread out across the city. From Capitol Hill to Pennsylvania Avenue to Foggy Bottom, they attacked the homes, schools and businesses of free African Americans. No one was killed, but some of the most successful black residents departed for Canada, which welcomed free people of color.
After the Civil War and the founding of Howard University in 1867, Washington became the center of black education in the United States. In 1872, Frederick Douglass, the most famous black man in America, moved to a big house overlooking the Anacostia River. A black business class was emerging, exemplified by hotelier James Wormley, whose downtown establishment was the site of negotiations that settled the disputed presidential election of 1876 between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden.
Decades later, after President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917, Americans black and white flocked to Washington in search of the many good jobs the war effort produced. The city’s population burgeoned to half a million, including 115,000 African Americans. Ben and Carrie Johnson might well have been part of the migration, moving to town sometime after the 1910 Census from Gastonia, N.C., where Ben had joined the Masons and belonged to the Golden Rule Lodge.
Washington’s black newcomers gravitated to Southwest and to the U Street corridor, which was lined with shops and stores owned by African Americans. The True Reformer Building at 12th and U streets NW, where a young sign painter turned piano player named Duke Ellington sometimes performed, was home to the balls, concerts and classes of African American high society. At 13th and T, the Whitelaw Hotel rose up five floors, the first black-owned, black-built apartment residence in the city. (Today, the True Reformer Building is still home to black social organizations. The Whitelaw is a rental building, with affordable apartments for working people. At the nearby Ellington apartment building, the cheapest one-bedroom rents for about $2,300 a month.)
Other black newcomers rented houses along Seventh Street NW, a popular commercial boulevard divided by an electric streetcar line. Many of the shopkeepers were black, or Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Dudley’s Mid-City Theater at N Street boasted of being “the only theater on Seventh Street catering to colored people that does not DISCRIMINATE.” (Dudley’s is long gone. So is the streetcar. On the block now stands a modern apartment building occupied by parishioners of the First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church.)
In 1919, as in 2019, most black residents of the capital regarded the president of the United States as an affliction. Upon taking office in 1913, Woodrow Wilson had ordered the segregation of races at the Treasury Department and the U.S. Post Office, where blacks and whites had worked side by side since the end of the Civil War. Suddenly, men of color were forbidden to enter a room occupied by white clerks. The Treasury, Interior and State departments created separate lavatories for blacks and whites.
Wilson was a Southern racist, and Washington was, in many ways, a Southern town. In 1919, it still had active chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy; every June, the devotees of the Lost Cause turned out large crowds to observe Confederate Memorial Day.
Black success was precisely President Wilson’s target. His unrelenting campaign to impose Jim Crow law in Washington while claiming to “make the world safe for democracy” cost black residents their jobs. White hypocrisy had set them simmering with righteous rage. They were fighting mad.
The first draft of the history of Washington’s 1919 race war was written by two newspapermen: Calvin Chase and Ned McLean. They had virtually nothing in common save their livelihood of selling broadsheet newspapers.
Chase, 65, was the ornery editor and publisher of the Washington Bee. He came from a free black family that had lived in Washington for three generations. Educated at Howard University’s prep school, he skipped college and ventured into both law and journalism as a young man. In 1880, he took over the Bee and for 41 years wrote caustic, civic-minded editorials about black rights and white racism. His motto for the Bee: “Honey for Our Friends, and Stings for Our Enemies.”
Ned McLean was half Chase’s age. At about 30, he was the publisher of The Washington Post, a daily he had inherited upon his father’s death in 1916, along with a vast fortune. Educated by private tutors, McLean likewise had not bothered to go to college. In 1908, he eloped to Europe with Evalyn Walsh, the daughter of a Colorado gold mine owner. Evalyn became famous in 1911 when she purchased the Hope Diamond. She and her husband entertained with vulgar opulence on their 80-acre estate in Northwest Washington (now the site of the McLean Gardens residential complex on Wisconsin Avenue).
In the summer of 1919, McLean sought to exploit the capital’s crackling racial tensions. In circulation, The Post, a morning newspaper, ran a poor second to the Evening Star, the city’s largest paper, which published in the afternoon. In an apparent battle for readers, The Post, along with the Star, the Washington Times and the Washington Herald, played up rumors of white women being sexually assaulted by black men.
On July 9, the D.C. branch of the NAACP sent letters to the editors of The Post and the other three dailies saying that their inflammatory headlines were sowing the seeds of a race riot. The Star acknowledged the justice of the complaint. The other papers ignored the warning.
On July 15, The Post’s front page described an incident at an amusement park in Northeast, where two black men allegedly pulled a gun on a white woman and assaulted her. (The woman later recanted.) Two days later, the Washington Times, an evening paper, carried this front-page headline: “Another Girl Is Attacked Here.”
Police rounded up hundreds of black men, often far from the scene of the alleged crimes. “There is a reign of terror in this country,” Chase wrote in the Bee. “The colored Americans who have fought and died for this country are no more free today than they were prior to the War of the Rebellion. No matter how loyal he is to his country or what he has done and is doing, the law of oppression continues to exist and operate against him.”
Soon enough, the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk — where today’s tourists snap selfies outside the Trump International Hotel — was a combat zone. “In nearly every block, groups of white men and negroes engaged in fistfights or more serious affrays in which clubs and knives were employed,” The Post reported on the first day of rioting. The police were overwhelmed. “As individual and group fights occurred every few minutes, they were able to do but little.”
In the White House, Wilson was growing alarmed. After a second day of chaos in the streets, the president summoned his secretary of war, Newton Baker, and demanded that he restore order. Baker, a former mayor of Cleveland, was a no-nonsense administrator who did not entirely share his boss’s racism. In the war effort, Baker had relied on African American aides to keep him informed about the grievances and aspirations of black servicemen. Unlike Wilson, he had publicly saluted the black veterans returning from Europe.
Baker wanted to call in federal troops from Fort Meade, but he could act only if D.C. Commissioner Louis Brownlow and Police Chief Raymond Pullman asked for help. Brownlow, a former journalist appointed by Wilson, refused, claiming the police had the situation under control.
The July 21 edition of The Post announced a “mobilization” of all able-bodied men at the Knights of Columbus headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue between Seventh and Eighth streets NW. (That block is now occupied by a memorial plaza honoring the members of the U.S. Navy and the temple-like home of the National Archives.) The mission: a “clean-up” of the city.
Mobs of white men accordingly reassembled on the downtown streets that morning. Calvin Chase described the scene outside his office. “At the corner of 11th and Eye streets northwest, a mob of three hundred assembled, looking for colored citizens to come by in the cars.” (The site of the Bee’s office is now a downtown pocket park surrounded by glassy office buildings.)
A few blocks away, at Seventh and G, a gang of white men tried to wrestle a black man from a passing streetcar. He pulled a gun and fired into the crowd, driving them back. A passing policeman shot him seven times. (The corner is now home to Capital One Arena, which opened as the MCI Center in 1997 and arguably sparked the D.C. gentrification boom.)
But before long, blacks were giving as well as they got. That night, The Post reported, “the negroes began to take vengeance for the assaults on their race in the downtown districts the night before.” When white rioters ventured into the U Street neighborhood, they were “roughly handled.” When white policemen sought to rescue rioters beaten or slashed by black fighters, the assailants disappeared. “Panting detachments of detectives, policemen and soldiers rushed from one scene to another, each time arriving too late,” The Post reported.
Up on U Street, armed and anxious black men patrolled the streets, on the lookout for white interlopers. Willy Marshall, a light-skinned black man, would tell his son Thurgood, the future Supreme Court justice, of his experience in the Washington race war: He was chased from white streets for being too black, and from black streets for being too white.
The rioters were repelled from Southwest, even as they tormented blacks elsewhere. “The colored population held its own [in Southwest],” Chase crowed in an editorial. “Ethiopia reigned supreme in this section, with but one exception. A colored woman was caught in a white neighborhood by four white men who forced her to undress and walk out of the neighborhood naked.”
The Evening Star called it “the most weird and wicked night” in the history of the nation’s capital. By the time it was over, Harry Wilson was dead — and Ben and Carrie Johnson were in jail.
On July 22, city officials caved to reality. Humiliated by the continuing chaos, Commissioner Brownlow acceded to Baker’s demand for federal intervention. The secretary of war gave command authority to a U.S. Army general, who put a thousand more troops into the streets within hours. Even so, another night of mayhem ensued. “Mobs in Race Clash Surge Through Streets, Killing and Maiming,” reported The Post. “Civil War Times Recalled by Wild Night’s Tumult.” The paper’s tally of the injured found that more whites than blacks were hurt in the last night of fighting. The black community had turned the tables. Only the federal troops and a torrential summer rainstorm finally dispersed the crowds and restored what historian Ann Hagedorn dubbed “a savage peace.”
For Ned McLean and the editors of The Post, the news that a white policeman had been killed by an African American was sensational and tragic. “The Washington Post Subscribes $500 for Popular Fund for Slain Policemen,” declared a headline in the news pages. The funds, said The Post, would “provide for the needs of those dependent for support on members of the police force who sacrificed their lives … in suppressing the present outbreak of lawlessness.” The first beneficiaries of McLean’s charity were Wilson’s widow and infant child.
Calvin Chase barely blinked. Wilson had clashed with a crowd of black defenders earlier in the day, as if looking for trouble. “The Bee regrets the death of Detective Wilson,” Chase wrote in his next editorial. “He can only blame himself. At the corner of Seventh and Florida, he was vindictive toward the colored people. Did he have the right to invade the home of the person who shot him? Did he see a felony committed? Did he witness a murderous assault?”
“If he did, he was justified in entering and his assailant should be punished,” Chase went on. “If not, he had no right to enter this home. No respectable colored person was safe upon the street. The whites started it and The Bee regrets it. All honor to the white citizens who side with the law-abiding colored citizens.”
Black self-defense was a revelation for all concerned. On Capitol Hill, Congress was in an uproar. Rep. J.W. Ragsdale of South Carolina denounced the rioting as a communist conspiracy, and then dropped dead the next day. The spectacle of armed black men impelled Congress to pass the District’s strongest gun control law ever, requiring the registration of all guns, with penalties for carrying firearms in public.
African Americans deeply resented The Post’s role in instigating the mobs. The local chapter of the NAACP wrote a letter to the Justice Department asking that the paper be charged with inciting a riot. The department responded that there were no grounds for action.
The pain of the week-long carnage was mixed with pride. Five black men had been killed, along with four whites. Hundreds of men and women had been arrested or suffered injuries. Many remained in jail. But the toll could have been much worse. In East St. Louis, Ill., two years earlier, white mobs had burned a black neighborhood, killing at least 40 people. In Chicago, the following week a white riot resulted in 38 deaths, 23 of them black. Nothing like that had happened in Washington, where the white attackers suffered a roughly equal number of fatalities and never pierced the black line of self-defense around U Street.
“Yes, It Was Stopped” shouted the front-page headline in the Bee, which featured a cartoon of a white mob beating a black man in front of the White House, while a policeman stood by and the goddess of justice wept. “The Negroes saved themselves and saved Washington by their determination not to run but to fight — fight in defense of their lives and their homes,” said Johnson of the NAACP.
“The Washington riot gave me the thrill that comes once in a lifetime,” a “Southern Colored Woman” wrote in a letter published in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. “At last our men had stood like men, struck back, were no longer dumb driven cattle.” As she read about the riot, the woman said, she wept tears of “gladness and madness. … [T]he pent-up humiliation, grief and horror of a lifetime — half a century — was being stripped from me.”
Carrie and Ben Johnson were both charged with first-degree murder. They were held in the D.C. jail for the next 18 months as U.S. Attorney John Laskey and his prosecutors prepared for trial. No one could say for certain who had fired the shot that had killed Harry Wilson, but the weight of suspicion seemed to fall on Carrie. Her case would come up first.
In the beginning, the black community rallied to the girl’s defense. From jail, Ben hired a fellow Mason named William Hart to represent her in court. To reporters, Hart described Carrie as “the little heroine” and “our Joan of Arc, our Charlotte Corday,” a reference to the French revolutionary who assassinated Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat. Hart’s dramatic account of the shooting differed from that given by the police and newspapers. “Carrie Johnson faced death like a little rabbit in a corner, fired upon point blank by Officer Wilson and others,” he said. The Pollyanna Club, a lady’s group, sponsored a fashion show to pay Carrie’s legal expenses and raised more than $1,300.
The prosecutor based his theory of the case on one police officer’s statement that, as Carrie was being escorted from the house, she had told him she had fired the fatal shot in fear. Carrie later denied saying any such thing. Meanwhile, Ben, facing the death penalty, apparently agreed to testify against his daughter. The prosecutor dropped the charges against him, and in November 1920, he was released on $200 bond and listed as a witness for the government.
As Carrie Johnson’s trial finally neared, she could hardly have been more alone. She had been reviled in the press: One headline about Wilson’s death proclaimed that he had died while arresting a “rioting Negress.” Her father had gone free. Attorney Hart had vanished for reasons unknown. The Pollyanna Club’s money was gone. No newspaper reporter interviewed her. There is no photograph of her. In the eyes of the law and of white America, she barely existed.
Only a few sympathizers rallied to her side. The Rev. William Jernigan, a Baptist preacher and president of the National Race Congress, a civil rights group, came to her defense. So did Benjamin Gaskins, a veteran Washington attorney from an elite African American family of doctors, lawyers and professionals. He took over her case before the trial began.
In January 1921, a jury of 12 white men heard the case U.S. v. Carrie Johnson, Murder in the First Degree, with Judge Ashley Gould presiding. The government called a dozen police officers to testify. Ben Johnson, it seems, did not testify.
The decisive moment came when Gaskins argued that Carrie had acted in self-defense. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lucius Vander Gelb objected. The girl had nothing to fear from the armed men invading her home, he said. “In a corner of a dark room, back of a bed, the defendant occupied a position of comparative safety,” the prosecutor explained. “It can hardly be seriously contended that there was anything in the language or conduct of the four detectives in the room, or before they had entered it, to engender in the mind of the defendant a reasonable belief that she was in imminent danger.” Judge Gould upheld the government’s position. Gaskins was not allowed to argue self-defense.
After all the witnesses had testified, the prosecutor pulled one last trick. In the presence of the jury, Vander Gelb announced that the government had dropped the murder charges against Ben Johnson. It was inappropriate to mention another case in front of the jury, but it left the clear implication that if the father hadn’t committed the crime, the daughter must have. Gaskins objected and was overruled.
After a brief deliberation, the jurors convicted Carrie, but not for first-degree murder. In an unusual move, they chose to return a verdict of manslaughter, not a capital crime, suggesting that even the white male jurors had a degree of sympathy for her.
Gaskins asked for bail; the judge set bond at $5,000 (about $75,000 today), which the Rev. Jernigan promptly put up. At a hearing in June 1921, Gaskins moved for a new trial. He cited 14 points of law, echoing, perhaps intentionally, President Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points, the principles for a new world order. Frederick Siddons, associate justice on the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, was persuaded. He allowed Gaskins’s argument that Carrie had “merely acted in self-defense and terror” and ordered a new trial.
The government’s weak case was getting weaker. If Gaskins could argue self-defense, another jury might not even convict for manslaughter. Carrie might well be acquitted. Rather than risk the possibility of losing in court, the U.S. attorney dropped the charges. On June 21, 1921, The Post buried a tiny story on an inside page: “RELEASED IN RIOT KILLING: Carrie Johnson, Colored, Freed in Death of Detective Wilson.”
Carrie Johnson’s release quietly vindicated Calvin Chase’s conviction that self-defense in the face of mob violence was no crime. By then, however, Chase was dead. He had died at his desk seven days before the start of Carrie’s trial. Some 3,000 people, black and white, attended his funeral. “We shall read no more the informative editorials of his trenchant pen,” said one eulogist, “but he leaves a blessed heritage, not only for his family but for his race.” The Bee ceased publication a year later.
Ned McLean was slowly running The Washington Post into the ground and ruining himself. Evalyn McLean found his drinking “insane.” The marriage broke up, and the newspaper went bankrupt. In 1933, The Post would be auctioned off to financier Eugene Meyer, who built it into a serious newspaper that developed an editorial voice on civil rights issues rather closer to Calvin Chase’s than to Ned McLean’s.
Harry Wilson is remembered in the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Judiciary Square, a few blocks from where he was shot in July 1919. The memory of Carrie Johnson, however, is vanishingly faint. A 1922 city directory indicates that she had a job as a janitor. In 1930, her name did not appear in the census. She might have gotten married, moved away or died. Ben Johnson was no longer listed either.
The rowhouse on G Street was razed in the 1960s to make way for the construction of Interstate 395. Today, on the spot of No. 220, where Ben and Carrie Johnson stood their ground, is an office complex that promises its tenants “stunning views” of the nearby U.S. Capitol.
Jefferson Morley is a Washington writer and the author of “Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835.”