In the words of the Navy investigation, “a disturbance which assumed the nature and proportions of a race riot took place in the city of Charleston, South Carolina, on the night of May 10-11, 1919, between the hours of 7:00 p.m., and 3:00 a.m.” Charleston in 1920 numbered 80,000 people, more than half of whom were black. On one side of the conflict were black civilians, and on the other was “a mixed crowd of whites” including mostly sailors, along with civilians, and “a scattering of soldiers and marines.” The incident started when an unidentified black man allegedly pushed Roscoe Coleman, U.S. Navy, off the sidewalk. A group of sailors and civilians chased the man, who took refuge in a house on St. Philip Street. A fight then took place there, with both sides throwing bricks, bottles, and stones. The crowd dispersed when one of the black civilians “drew a revolver and fired four shots without injuring anyone.” There followed “wild rumors and stories of a sailor having been shot by a negro” and general rioting. Beginning near Harry Polices’ Poolroom at the corner of Charles and Market streets, rioting spread to other parts of the city and continued with varying intensity until about 3:00 a.m. Charleston’s Mayor Hyde requested assistance in restoring order. The Charleston Navy Yard sent a detachment of soldiers and marines to help.“Bluejackets” were rounded up by the Marines and either taken back to the Navy Yard or held at the police station. All blacks were told to get off the streets.
During the riot, both sides used firearms. Sailors stole thirteen 22-calibre rifles from the shooting galleries of H.B. Morris and Fred M. Faress. Rioters robbed and vandalized W. G. Fridie’s barber shop at 305 King Street and James Freyer’s shoe shop, both black-owned businesses. Eighteen black men were seriously injured, as were five white men. Three black men, William Brown, Isaac Doctor, and James Talbot, died of gunshot wounds.
The Navy report sets out the final analysis. The riot was “of spontaneous origin and was precipitated by the actions of certain negroes, sailors, and at least one white civilian. . . [A]n active part in this initial disturbance was taken by the following men: G.W. Biggs, Coppersmith, second class, U.S. Navy, USS Hartford; Roscoe Coleman, Fireman third class, U.S. Navy, Machinist Mates School; Robert Morton, Fireman, third class, U.S. Navy, Machinist Mates School, and Alexander Lanneau, white civilian, a resident of Charleston, South Carolina, who . . . was responsible for stirring up strife and inciting others to violence against the negroes. . . . Ralph Stone, Fireman, third class, U.S. Navy, Machinist Mates School, was one of the leaders and inciters of a mob. . . . [T]he wound in the right chest of Isaac Doctor . . . was inflicted by a 22-calibre bullet fired from a rifle in the hands of either Jacob Cohen, Fireman, third class, U.S. Navy, or George T. Holliday, Fireman, third class, U.S. Navy, who are jointly responsible for his death. . . [A]ll property damage, . . except in the case of Harry Police’s poolroom where damage was caused by negroes, was caused by the unlawful actions of mobs, which in all cases were composed principally of sailors. . . [A]ll injuries to negro men. . . were inflicted by mobs composed prinicipally of sailors.”
The Charleston rioting demonstrates a typical characteristic of white mob violence in the United States. Despite a thorough, dispassionate investigation, despite evidence and the naming of culpable individuals, and despite it being well within the purview of the military authorities to do so, very little punishment was exacted. Cohen and Holliday, although the Navy report held them responsible for the death of Isaac Doctor, were eventually sentenced for their involvement in the riot to only a year in Parris Island, South Carolina.
The information comes from these sources: “Race Riots Occur Here: Bluejackets and Negroes in Serious Clashes, Many Men Wounded.” Charleston SC Sunday News. 11 May 1919. Record of Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry Convened at the Navy Yard, Charleston, S.C., by Order of the Commandant, Sixth Naval Dist. National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 80, 26283 – 2588:2, 4 Charleston. “[C]ases entered on the register of the Emergency Room at the Roper Hospital: Nicks Arnold George, 465 Meeting St; US Navy from Chicago… wound of the scalp when hit by a brick… at Market and Charles streets.J.L.Wright, 1 Warren St… lacerated wound of the heel when hit by a bottle … at Charles and Market streets. Ed. Dubin, bluejacket… Philadelphia… hit in the jaw.. in an alley just off King St.Clifford Singleton, colored, 106 King St. , injured at Horlbeck [?] and King streets… lacerated wounds of the head and contusion of the shoulders. Ed. Mitchell, colored, 16 Henrietta, … injured at Meeting and Henrietta streets; incised and contused wounds of scalp; contusions of abdomen, right arm and both hands. Gus Campbell, colored, 97 East Bay; gunshot wound of hip.William Brown, 43 South St., a colored chauffeur, bullet wound in the right knee.Nathan Flowers, colored, 7 America St., … bullet wound in right thigh.” Lee E. Williams II. “The Charleston, South Carolina, Riot of 1919.” Southern Miscellany: Essays in History in Honor of Glover Moore. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1981.
For more information about the riots of the Red Summer of 1919, see Race Riots and Resistance: The Red Summer of 1919, (Peter Lang Publishing Group, 2008) by Jan Voogd. Available from online booksellers, directly from the publisher, or place an order with your local bookstore.