The summer of 1919 brought about some of the worst racial violence in American history. We talk with the author of Red Summer, a new book that explores a deadly year of race riots and lynchings that swept the nation on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.
The following is an excerpt from Red Summer by Cameron McWhirter.
[T]here has been nobody suffered in this matter like I have. I did not do nothing at all to cause that riot.
April 13, 1919, was perfect for a celebration. As Joe Ruffin set out to do his morning chores that Sunday, the sky was cloudless and blue. The temperature was in the high 70s—normal for spring in east Georgia.
The sixty-year-old man started the day at his barn, rushing to feed his pigs, cows, and horses so he would not be late. He had sent his children ahead to the Carswell Grove Baptist Church in one of the family’s two cars, a Buick Six. Ruffin would follow later. The church festival was to mark its fifty-second anniversary. Preachers from several counties were coming to deliver sermons. The choir would give a special performance. More than three thousand people would be on hand for a gala cookout of roast pig and fried chicken. Though Ruffin was not a Carswell Grove member, he had been asked to speak as a prominent black Mason and treasurer of another black church.
Ruffin had lived his entire life amid fields of cotton and sugar cane east of Millen, the seat of Jenkins County. The land he tilled was once part of the plantation where his parents worked as slaves. Ruffin remained on good terms with the Daniel family, the former slave owners. Ruffin owned almost 113 acres.1 He ran five to seven plows a season—a substantial operation for anyone in that part of Georgia at the time and a major accomplishment for a black farmer. Unlike many blacks in the area, he could read and write, though census records did not report him having any formal education.2
Many of the years had been tough. Several times Ruffin had to mortgage tracts of land. He even took out loans on his mules and horses to cover debts.3
He had a large family. The 1910 census recorded three sons and four daughters living with him, plus another son and his family down the road. Ruffin was a widower.
Two sons—John Holiday, twenty-six, and Henry, thirteen—lived at home. Louis Ruffin, in his late twenties, farmed nearby.4 A fourth son, Joe Andrew Ruffin, twenty-four, served with the U.S. Army in France. He was due home in time for the fall harvest.
Whatever Ruffin’s past struggles, 1919 was shaping up to be profitable. Cotton was fetching extraordinary prices, averaging more than 35 cents per pound, the highest ever.5 The Great War, which the United States entered in April 1917, was a boon for cotton. Textile mills needed tons of it for uniforms and other goods. The war’s end the previous November had opened a broader market for cotton; mills across the world needed it for civilian clothes. Supply was limited as the ineluctable spread of the boll weevil reduced production in many parts of the South, including Georgia. Higher prices, fueled in part by cotton scarcity, helped farmers. The previous month, Congress boosted the price of cotton further by passing an amendment to the federal Cotton Futures Act, making it easier for speculators to make bids.6 As global demand for cotton increased, futures skyrocketed. This spike was a windfall for Ruffin and millions of other southern farmers from Virginia to Texas.
Jenkins County, Georgia, lay in the lower third of a swath of cotton farmland that extended from eastern Virginia into southern Alabama. From colonial days, the region had evolved into a network of plantations, cotton storehouses, and small towns grouped along a major road that later supported a railroad running south from Augusta to the Atlantic port of Savannah. Jenkins was rural and poor, like most counties in the region. Blacks accounted for almost two-thirds of its population.7 Many blacks in the county were illiterate, and election records indicate that only a handful were allowed to vote. All county government officials, from commissioners to police, were white.
Most blacks in Jenkins County were sharecroppers renting land from white landlords, but a growing number owned property, a phenomenon occurring all over the South. In the first decades of the twentieth century, despite the legal barriers imposed by Jim Crow, the number of acres owned by black farmers rose. In Georgia, black ownership jumped by 75 percent from 1899 to 1919.8 These landowners formed the “respectable” classes of black society in southern towns. They sat on church boards and led social groups. They generally had good relations with white business owners and politicians, serving as go-betweens when racial friction erupted. In the late morning of this particular April Sunday, Joe Ruffin was the embodiment of this new class, having spent a lifetime navigating the racial restrictions of southern life. Through luck and hard work, he had prospered and never gave “offense to any white man in the county.”9
By the late afternoon of that April 13, however, almost every white man in Jenkins County wanted Joe Ruffin dead.
* * *
Around 11:30 a.m., Ruffin’s youngest son, Henry, came back to the farm to get his father.10 Masons at the festival had asked for him.11 Ruffin changed into his best Sunday clothes, then got in his second car—a late-model, high-powered Ford touring car—and headed down the road. Henry stayed at the farm. The 15-mile drive from Ruffin’s farm near Billies Branch to the church was cut with swampy creeks and hollows.12 The roads were unpaved. The car drove past acre upon acre of young cotton plants, very low to the ground with thin waxy leaves. Jenkins County is in the middle part of the state near the Savannah River Valley, where Georgia’s Piedmont slopes gradually toward the coast. Georgia’s famous red clay is sandier in this part of the state and a paler shade of orange. Ruffin could see cultivated land for miles, broken up by copses of loblolly pine and scrub oak as well as thickets of holly and cypress. Hawks and buzzards circled the sky.
Sometime after 2 p.m., Ruffin reached Big Buckhead Church Road, the final road leading to the festival. The dirt road had been around since the earliest settlers cut through the forest. As he crossed Buckhead Creek Bridge, Big Buckhead Church—one of the oldest inland white congregations in the South—was on his left. Across the road, mossy obelisk grave markers of Confederate veterans stood in a small cemetery.13 In the closing days of the Civil War, when Ruffin was a young boy, Union and Confederate cavalry battled here.14 The rebels lost; hundreds were killed.15
Carswell Grove was founded two and a half years after the battle in the midst of the social turmoil caused by the Confederacy’s collapse. After the war, whites at Big Buckhead Church kicked out blacks, who for generations had sat in segregated pews. Porter W. Carswell, a white judge who owned nearby Bellevue Plantation, gave black congregants two acres of scrubland to erect their own place of worship just down the road. The congregants named their new church in his honor. By 1919, Carswell Grove Baptist Church boasted more than a thousand members, most of them sharecroppers. The yearly celebration of the church’s founding was one of the largest African American gatherings in east Georgia.
As Ruffin drove up the low ridge, he saw throngs of black men, women, and children milling about the grounds. They were talking and laughing—it was the cacophony of a large, joyous group. Ruffin parked his car and joined them. After a short time, Ruffin remembered that he had left the door to his house unlocked and decided to drive home. He got in his car, but the swelling crowds blocked the road. He drove as far as he could, almost to Big Buckhead Church, when he was forced to stop and wait for people to move along.
As he sat there, an older Ford drove up behind him and then pulled alongside. People scrambled off the road to get out of the car’s way. It stopped abruptly and Ruffin looked over at its occupants: two white lawmen and a distraught black man in handcuffs. Ruffin knew the black man: Edmund Scott, his longtime friend.16 The driver was W. Clifford Brown, a Jenkins County police officer. In the back of the car with Scott sat Thomas Stephens, a Millen police night marshal. When he saw Ruffin, Scott frantically shouted to the white officers, “I can get him to stand my bond.”17
Why the two white officers were at the black gathering is unclear. They had no warrant. Marshal Stephens was not even in his jurisdiction. In all likelihood, they were in search of illegal alcohol. Brown and Stephens were known for going after stills and liquor joints known in many parts of the South as “blind tigers.”18 That spring, the National Prohibition Act was making its way through Congress. It would enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the sale of liquor nationwide. But in Georgia, the ongoing murky contest between police and those who made, sold, and drank liquor was an old game. In 1907, the Georgia legislature, bowing to pressure from Baptists, passed a law banning alcohol.19 The law was enacted partly in response to the Atlanta race riot of 1906, when white mobs attacked blacks for three days. Twenty-five blacks and one white were killed. White opponents of alcohol argued that heavy drinking in downtown saloons had been a catalyst for trouble, which they blamed primarily on blacks. The law, however, did little to suppress Georgia’s thirst. By 1919, a thriving underground network of alcohol manufacturers and distributors operated across the state. The police, who were always white, played a running game of cat-and-mouse with still operators, many of whom were black. Sometimes police destroyed confiscated booze. Sometimes corrupt officers resold it. One newspaper reported that Brown, in only three months on the force, filed more than a hundred cases against gamblers and liquor manufacturers. The same report said Brown suspected Scott and the Ruffins of running a still.20
L. W. Beach, a white superintendent over black sharecroppers at a nearby plantation, told a different story. Beach was at the festival that day, driving impoverished blacks who did not own buggies or wagons to and from the church for one dollar a ride. He said Brown and Stephens were not investigating Scott or Ruffin. The white law officers claimed they arrested Scott, the festival’s marshal of ceremonies, only after he brandished a weapon when they almost crashed into his car.21
Scott, who was driving a minister from another county to the fair, was infuriated by the officer’s wild driving. Beach heard Scott say, “That is the way with some people, they haven’t got a damn bit of manners.” Brown and Stephens then arrested Scott, charging him with possession of an unregistered firearm. They were heading back to the Millen jail with Scott when they passed by Ruffin’s car and Scott shouted for help. Officer Brown stopped his car and called for Ruffin. Ruffin got out of his car, walked over and stood on the running board of the police car.
“What is the trouble with Edmund?” Ruffin asked. Officer Brown said they had found a concealed pistol in Scott’s car. Beach, positioned about thirty feet away, saw Ruffin take out a checkbook and offer to write a bond check for his friend. The officer told him he needed cash. Ruffin said he could not get that kind of money, $400, on a Sunday. Brown then said, “God damn it, I am going to carry him in.”
A large crowd immediately gathered around the car, including two of Ruffin’s sons, Louis and John Holiday. People who were there said Ruffin reached in and tried to pull Scott out. Brown became incensed and shouted, “God damn it, get back.” He pulled out his pistol and struck Ruffin in the face. The gun went off, hitting Ruffin on the left side of his head, knocking him to the dirt. Ruffin said later he was unconscious for a few minutes. Others said he got up right away.
One person who was there said Louis, Joe’s oldest son, rushed the car, wrested the gun from Brown and shot the police officer in the head, neck, and body, killing him. Two others said that the father, Joe Ruffin, killed Brown, pulling out his own pistol and firing into the police car. Others said Officer Stephens, a short, heavyset man, stepped out of the car, hunkered down with his pistol drawn. Another round of gunfire erupted. Scott, caught in the middle and handcuffed, was shot to death as he struggled to get out of the way. Stephens was wounded and slumped to the ground.
“It was just like a package of poppers [firecrackers],” said Ed Tancemore, a white man who saw the shooting, adding that it took no longer than a finger snap. In an instant, Brown and Scott were dead, slumped in the blood-smeared Ford. Stephens lay on the ground, bleeding but conscious. Black men in the crowd attacked him. Some said Ruffin’s two sons led the assault. Tancemore watched as Stephens was beaten: “Every time he would get up, they would knock him back until they got him down the side of the car, and one of them placed his foot in his breast and the other handed him an oak limb, and right there they stopped him.”
Police later found a blood-soaked oak branch beside Stephens’s mutilated body. A newspaper account described Stephens as “a shapeless mass.”22 He took as long as two hours to die.
Ruffin said that after he was shot, he “fell to the ground and did not know anything at all until my boy J. Holiday and Willie Williams picked me up off the ground, and went walking with me off to my car.” Ruffin said his friend Williams tried to hand him the checkbook that he dropped when he was shot. Williams also offered him a gun.
“No, keep them,” Ruffin said. “I have got no use for them now at all. I better go to the doctor because I believe I am going to die.”23
Someone, perhaps one of his sons, perhaps Williams, started Ruffin’s Ford. Ruffin sat in the passenger seat, his head gushing with blood, his ears ringing from the gunshots. Smoke stung his nostrils as he looked upon the contorted corpses of a friend he had known his whole life and a white law officer. The other officer, Stephens, writhed on the ground, mortally wounded. Surveying the scene, Ruffin knew immediately he would be lynched when the white mob came for him. And there was no doubt it would come—if he lived that long. Word of the incident spread farmhouse by farmhouse across the county. The word traveled along two distinct vectors: black and white. Blacks hid in their homes while hundreds of white men grabbed their guns and headed toward Carswell Grove.
Excerpted from Red Summer by Cameron McWhirter
Copyright 2011 by Cameron McWhirter
Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved.
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