The man attacked Louise Simmons in the afternoon, as she was leaving the Washington school where she taught. He had ridden up on a bicycle, leapt off and started pummeling her, she said. He dragged her toward a grove of trees; Simmons fought back until she was able to escape. It’s unclear how good a look she got of his face, but she could tell that, like her, he was black.
On that day, June 25, 1919, there were four major newspapers in the nation’s capital competing for readers. The Washington Herald published a small item about the attack on Simmons on page two, under the headline “Negro attacks negress.” The Washington Times ran a longer story but buried it in the back of the paper. The Evening Star and the smallest paper of the four — The Washington Post — didn’t mention it.
Five days later, a white woman said she was attacked by a black man, and the response was complete fury.
What followed was weeks of hysteria ginned up by the media, the arrest of hundreds of innocent black men, a riot that left as many as 39 dead and 150 injured, and put two black men in prison for decades for crimes they most likely did not commit.
The white woman, Bessie Gleason, said she was walking through the woods near her Takoma Park home when a black man leapt from the bushes, beat her with a club and choked her until she lost consciousness.
Police told newspapers another white woman had been accosted the same day. Different papers gave varying descriptions of the incident. In one, she merely saw a black man and ran away screaming. In another, the man “embraced” her, and she screamed until she was rescued by a white soldier.
Soldiers crowded the city that summer, both white and black. Most had just been demobilized after returning from fighting in World War I, but they were allowed to continue wearing their uniforms while they looked for work. Some were still active-duty servicemen who suddenly didn’t have much to do.
The lines between soldier and citizen were blurred, but white residents were anxious to reestablish the order of white rule over any black veterans who may have forgotten “their place,” according to historian David F. Krugler in the journal “Washington History.”
Plus, while the men had been overseas, the District had gone dry, its prohibition on alcohol preceding the rest of the country. White soldiers looking for a drink ventured into the rough Southwest neighborhood of Bloodfield, where, according to Krugler, “black entrepreneurs controlled the illicit liquor trade.”
On July 5, newspapers reported the serial attacker struck again. Another white woman, Mary Saunders, said she was assaulted by a black man just over the District line in Maryland near Chevy Chase Circle.
The District’s chief of police told newspapers he was sure the crimes were all committed by the same perpetrator. He assigned 40 officers to investigate. Then 60 more. Then he authorized hundreds of volunteers from a wartime amateur patrol called the Home Defense League to join in the manhunt.
Over the next week, hundreds of black men were rounded up by police and league volunteers as possible suspects. According to Krugler, many were taken from their homes without warrants.
“Negro fiend pursued by 1,000 posse,” a Herald headline read. Days later, the paper reported “a group of white-hooded figures” were “riding at night, keeping undesirables indoors and spreading the fear of justice through the community.” The Ku Klux Klan “of reconstruction days” had been “revived,” the Herald declared.