A community under siege: the Summer of 1919

I wonder
Is there anybody here
who late at midnight
sheds briny tears
all because you didn’t have
no one to help you along the way
and oh Lord?

And if there’s anyone
Lord Let me tell you,
let me tell you what I’ve done
I’ve achieved
to be a fence around me
but take me everyday
I told him

So what Jesus be a fence all around me
When I get burned
So Jesus I wanted you protected me
as I travel all alone

Sometimes it will hurt to your heart
to see no one, no one to the bar
But all you’ve been dead
dead to no stranger to anyone
and oh Lord?

But just the Lord as you stay in the foul
you never have to worry
when death know on your door

That’s our Jesus to be a fence around me
and you never have to worry anymore
Just burn down

So what Jesus be a fence all around me
When I get burned
So Jesus I wanted you protected me
as I travel all alone

When you get no land

So what Jesus be a fence all around me

Oh Jesus be a fence
as I travel on my way

— “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me”
By Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers

One hundred years ago this country basked in the light of victory over fascism, that political system which seemingly posed a direct threat to the ideals of democracy. Supposedly, citizens in a democratic society would be able to advance socially and economically as far as their talents would take them. I guess the operative word is “citizen.”

Those Africans that initially appeared on the shores of the James River 400 years ago were not seen as citizens. It would be another 246 years before their descendants would be “free” from slavery. Sadly, 54 years after that the black community still found itself outside of American society. Even after participating in every conflict fought by this fledgling nation, those sacrifices were minimized and in most cases ignored in the history. For example, future president Teddy Roosevelt completely diminished the role played by black soldiers in Cuba and saved his highest praise for the white members of his famed Rough Riders. Like Blackjack Pershing cautioned foreign leaders not to treat black servicemen as equals during their time in Europe. This was after their valiant service with Pershing in pursuing Pancho Villa in Mexico.

The end of WWI in 1918 meant a return of servicemen from Europe and they found their world had changed. White servicemen, particularly those from northern urban communities, found minorities, particularly black men and women, occupying their jobs and living in their neighborhoods. Black servicemen returned home to an even greater hostility than that which they faced before serving their country in uniform.

The public reappearance of the Ku Klux Klan signaled a return to a nativist hostility throughout this country. As a result, the summer of 1919 saw riots and violence to an embarrassing degree. Many of those black servicemen that fought for democracy in Europe were viciously attacked, and many killed, upon their return home. How sad that they could not enjoy the freedoms they fought for.

The history of what happened 100 years ago is sometimes discussed, but often in the context of bigotry and racism, as it should be. But what is often overlooked are the numbers of those in the white community who knew of the attacks on black communities and did nothing to intervene to stop them. Decades later, Martin Luther King, Jr. would assail white clergy for not speaking out against bigotry and racism. He believed they were not living up to their supposed religious convictions by remaining silent.

Such events as these race riots should serve to remind us that in many ways our society has come a long way in how we deal with each other. However, it also reminds us, given our current racial climate, that we still have a long way to go. It’s “only” been 100 years. How much should we expect to be different? Many folks today live in gated communities for protection from “undesirables.” I wish the black communities in 1919 had similar gates to keep out the “undesirables” who cloaked themselves in the Stars and Stripes of the American flag.


Protection – The act of shielding someone or something from danger, harm, or destruction.