By Professor Damon L. Fordham, MA
During a recent episode of Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ PBS documentary series “African Americans-Many Rivers to Cross,” Dr. Gates discussed the race riots that swept through many cities in the United States between 1919 and the famous Tulsa and Rosewood Massacres in 1921 and 1923. He casually mentioned that these violent conflicts began with a riot in Charleston in 1919, but did not go into detail. Here is that story, which is largely forgotten today.
On the night of May 10, 1919, a group of white sailors from the local Navy Yard stood angrily outside of the corner of King and George Streets, where the Sottile (formerly the Gloria) Theater stands today. According to several accounts, they had given a black man twenty dollars to buy some bootleg liquor, and the man never returned. The sailors angrily searched a nearby black restaurant for the man and this led to fights and the soldiers throwing everything they could pick up in the restaurant during the melee.
The Charleston News and Courier of May 11, 1919 continued to say that the rioting sailors went up King Street randomly attacking black residents, dragging them off of street cars, and beating them in the streets. Two local black men, Isaac Doctor and William Brown, were known to have been shot to death by the sailors and W. G. Firdie, an African American who owned a barbershop on 305 King St, had his shop destroyed by the growing mob. The Courier added, “Persons in a fashionable restaurant were unwilling spectators of all this.”
Legendary Charleston Civil Rights activist and educator Septima Clark was 21 years old and living on Henrietta Street near Marion Square (then Citadel Square) at the time. She told interviewer Peter Wood in 1981, “We had trolley cars then, and these sailors got on and started beating every black they could find. They killed one or two of them. That Sunday night, nobody could go out, you had to stay in.
The Citadel Square was filled with screaming and hollering and we ran back into the house.”
However, many black Charlestonians retaliated against this violence. James Hollaway, a local black resident, told interviewer Augustus Ladson some twenty years later, “When the news went out in the Negro Community what was happening, armed men came running through the streets with knives, hammers, hatchets, guns, razors, and sticks, and wholeheartedly joined the fight. On every street in that section, blood was shed. Negroes and white boys who were eager for excitement entered and fought until they were beaten and exhausted.”
As soon as Charleston’s Mayor Tristian Hyde learned of these events, he called the United States Marines to send men to detain the sailors, send them back to the Navy Yard, and restore order along with the local police. Mr. Holloway also recalled that when one officer was asked if he did not search and disarm cars that were filled with blacks for guns as ordered, the patrolman responded, “Yes, sir, but every car I stopped was filled with either revolvers or guns-which were pointed directly at me!”
The swift actions of Mayor Hyde, The Marines, and the local police stopped the riot by the next morning. The Interdenominational Minister’s Union along with the Charleston Branch of the NAACP which included Edwin Harleston of the Harleston-Boags Funeral Home, Avery Institute Principal Benjamin Cox, and Dart Library founder Susan Dart Butler, met with Mayor Hyde to discuss the riot. They demanded black policemen in Charleston, compensation for blacks who lost property in the riot, punishment of the sailors, and a biracial committee to prevent such violence in the future. Mayor Hyde agreed to some of these demands. Blacks were repaid for their losses, the murderers of Isaac Doctor and William Brown were arrested and served sentences, and a biracial committee was eventually formed, although Charleston would not have black policemen serve for another thirty years.
However, the forgotten events of the Charleston Race Riot of 1919 are important in that they showed the resistance to the racial violence of that time and provided the local civil rights movement with some of its first small victories.
Damon L. Fordham, MA teaches history at several local colleges and is the author of three books, including “True Stories of Black South Carolina” which includes a discussion of this event. He may be reached via email at [email protected] for questions or speaking events.