Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive
While I was scanning the pages of American newspapers published 100 years ago one headline caught my eye:
RACE WAR IN SOUTH IMMINENT: National Guard Rushed to Oklahoma Town One–Negro Is Lynched and Two Others Are Shot–Negroes Mustering Fight Force [Medford Mail Tribune (Medford, Oregon) Oct. 23, 1911, page 5]
The article below gave few details of the events that led to the \”troublesome negro\” being lynched. Coweta, Oklahoma was, according to the first paragraph, under virtual martial law as the National Guard had been called out due to \”threatened manslaughter on the part of the negro element.\”
My first thought was that the editor/publisher of that particular newspaper was overreacting to a vague report of unrest in Oklahoma. I decided to keep my eyes open for more news on the same story as I looked through the other newspapers. It turned out that in most cases, it would have taken more effort to miss the story than to find it.
The Arizona Republican put the same story above the fold on the front page:
SENDS CALL FOR TROOPS: National Guard Will be Needed in Ending Race War Which Broke Out Last Night in Black Belt of Oklahoma: NEGRO WHO RAN AMUCK WAS KILLED: Trouble Occurred at Coweta in Heart of District Which is Populated Largely by Blacks From Far South [October 23, 1911, page 1]
[NOTE: In 1911 it was the fashion of many papers to have nesting banks of headlines which told as much of the story as many of the public would ever read.]
The particular details of the case are repeated, in more or less the same words, across many of the newspapers. An African-American shoved a white women off the sidewalk. The white man who had been walking with the woman, along with another white man then assaulted the African-American (Ed Ruse.) The next day Ruse returned to the town armed with a knife and looking for the man who had helped in the assault. According to the town officials (all white as far as one can tell) Ruse shot the Marshall when he was ordered to hand over his knife and then another African-American man, Ed Suddeth, rushed out of a nearby house and shot and killed the Marshall. From this point on the story becomes a confusing one of Suddeth being captured by a mob, hung, rescued before he was dead (for fear that his lynching would lead to a race riot) and then later shot at least fifty times.
There is no way of verifying exactly who started things and who did what to whom in what order. What is clear from the various accounts as that the officials (and much of the white populace) of the area viewed all African-Americans as monolithic group that were liable to rise up at any moment, violently assault any white people they came upon and destroy the town they lived in.
Geographical distance did not seem to lessen the fear that the African-Americans of Oklahoma were poised to begin an armed assault on the white population of the state. The Times Dispatch of Richmond, VA, was another newspaper that ran the story on the front page above the fold
BLACKS THREATEN TOWN Of COWETA: White Men Are Patrolling Streets and Guarding Homes.
The Call of San Francisco managed to suggest by its headline (front page, above the fold):
Fearing Attack Lynchers Cut Rope and Hide Captive in Vacant Building
that stopping an extra-judicial killing was a symptom of breakdown of social order.
What I realize as I read one newspaper after another is that any individual act of violence/resistance by an African-American was seen as a potential assault on the social order and that any group of African-Americans males larger than 1 was a mob that threatened the safety of white Americans. All African-Americans were suspected of working towards an armed rebellion and the overthrow of the existing government.
The question I ask myself as I read these articles is \”why were the white authorities so sure that all African-Americans would rebel violently if given a chance.\” The answer is, of course, \”because they were well aware of how African-Americans had been treated in the past and were still be treated — and would themselves if treated the same way rebel violently against those who oppressed them.
The best evidence we have of how badly African-Americana had been treated was how much white Americans feared their vengeance.