Last night, a few of us commemorated what many consider to be the final violent acts of the ‘Red Summer’ of 1919, when hundreds of African Americans were killed by mobs in Elaine, Arkansas on October 3rd. In her welcoming remarks to the performance, Pastor Goede reflected on the importance of remembering the Red Summer and why Augustana is hosting the Blood Lines installation:
Good evening, and welcome to Augustana.
I want to thank you for coming to this live performance of “Blood Lines,” which tells the story of the Chicago race riots of 1919 in sound. We’re here to experience a work of art, but most importantly, we’re here to commemorate those who suffered through that Red Summer one hundred years ago.
One of the most disturbing aspects of 1919 is that so few people know about it today. I’ve brought hundreds of people into this space in the last few months to see this installation, and almost no one has said, Oh, yes, I know about the Chicago race riots. Almost everyone says, I’ve never heard of that.
We cannot remember what we never knew in the first place. We cannot draw lessons from our history if we’ve never even heard of it. Commemoration is the act of publicly gathering to remember, to reflect and to resolve to take action. Commemoration and remembering and acting cannot happen without a knowledge of our history. Once we know our history, commemoration is the way in which we claim it and use it.
We’re here tonight to commemorate a string of incidents throughout 1919 which culminated in the mass murder of African American sharecroppers in and around Elaine, Arkansas, a tiny community in the Mississippi Delta. What’s telling about that massacre is that it’s impossible to say with any certainty how many people were killed over at least three days. One hundred is the low estimate, 850 is the highest I’ve heard. Most of the victims remain nameless.
The killers did their work with impunity. They didn’t fear local or state officials stopping them. But they did not want the wider world to know what they had done, so they shut the lid tightly on information about what happened at Elaine. This conspiracy of silence is one of the reasons so few people know Elaine or about the Red Summer.
In 1919, there were outbreaks of antiblack violence in at least three dozen cities, most in the South and Northeast. In all, there were more than 55 separate incidents that year, in almost every Southern state, but also in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, Illinois and Nebraska and Arizona.
Hundreds were killed, but thousands more were injured, 537 here in Chicago alone. During the week of violence in our city, 1,000 African American families were left homeless, and dozens of African American businesses and institutions were looted and destroyed. At the same time that widespread riots broke out, 43 individual African Americans were lynched across the country. No state showed any ability or interest in trying to intervene in this violence or prosecute anyone for it.
Tonight, we remember, and we look ahead. There is a lot of silence during the performance of the score of “Blood Lines.” It gives us time and space to pray, to meditate, and to think especially about our future. You might have seen the timeline that leads to 1919, and away. I invite you to imagine what a different and ideal and common future might look like.