top of page

Eugenics and the Summer of Global Racial Discontent

The headlines spread across newspapers in June 1919 documented the bloodshed, turmoil and racial unrest that saw thousands injured or murdered through white mob violence in U.S. streets. Similar savagery took place across cities in the United Kingdom where Black, Arab, and Asian seamen, newly supplanted in Glasgow, Liverpool, Salford, and Cardiff, became easy targets of white aggressions. Historians often point to competition over jobs and housing, or growing fears over Southern migration, as causal. However, as both nations mark the 100-year anniversary of the eruption of racial violence, a closer examination uncovers the eugenic-latent platforms that labeled African Americans, immigrants, and colonial citizens “enemies of the state,” and fostered white fears of genetic annihilation.

Until 1919, eugenics – the science of better breeding (or the science of being well-born), introduced the agrarian concept of weeding out undesirable human traits to ensure optimum crops to Americans through state fair exhibitions, baby and beauty contests, and public health lectures. The Supreme Court had previously weighed in to make clear the status of Blacks – socially and genetically – in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857).

Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, in his decision for the latter concluded (1857):

“…They were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.”

State and local laws, including those forbidding interracial marriage made unions between whites and non-whites “a social and racial crime” due to the belief such unions corrupted the DNA (then called germ plasm) of whites. So, too, did unions between American whites (sometimes defined as Nordic) and immigrants.

Influential eugenicist, Madison Grant, wrote in The Passing of a Great Race (1916):

“The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a negro is a negro… When it becomes thoroughly understood that the children of mixed marriages between contrasted races belong to the lower type, the importance of transmitting in unimpaired purity the blood inheritance of ages will be appreciated at its full value.”

The theory that non-whites constituted an under-evolved, sub-species went to the heart of racial hostilities and became the crux of arguments against allowing Blacks and immigrants into labor unions, decent housing, professional-class jobs, and access to mainstream public education. In fact, despite meteoric progress made by African Americans from Emancipation until the turn of the century, few white Americans acknowledged the increase in Blacks attending public schools from 10,000 to 180,000, and the establishment of thousands of businesses, benevolent societies, banking institutions, and universities.

With the U.S. entry into World War I, men of color answered the call, serving among the ranks of enlisted both at home and in combat, abroad. Their participation in military service ignited a wave of anti-Black sentiment and demands for segregated units based on what Major General H.E. Ely termed “inferior mentality” and “inherently weak character… as a sub-species of the human family.” Ely offered a decidedly eugenic assessment of African Americans as both citizens and soldiers on behalf of the War

College of America, in a memorandum to the U.S. “Employment of Negro Manpower in War.” Ely writes:

“In the process of evolution, the American negro has not progressed as far as the other sub-species of the human family. As a race he has not developed leadership qualities. His mental inferiority and the inherent weaknesses of his character are factors that must be considered with great care in the preparation of any plan for his employment in war.”

As soldiers charged with protecting, defending, and honoring democracy, the 380,000 Black American enlisted during WWI faced the irony of classification as sub-human and second-class citizens. Similarly, the Senegalese, Algerian and Moroccan troops fighting on behalf of the French, found that white soldiers – had warned French townspeople that black-skinned troops were like monkeys, possessing tails and barbaric sexual propensities towards rape of white women.

However, on foreign soil, these soldiers enjoyed the freedoms afforded white men, including intimate liaisons with French women, who learned quickly that the stereotypes were born from perceived competition. Historian Chad L. Williams writes of the racial precipice caused by Black men as heroes to white womanhood in Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (2010):

“Within the United States, the color line and notions of democracy itself were inextricably bound to the protection of white womanhood. White women functioned as symbols of the nation and an idea of democracy characterized by racial purity. Having sex with white French women, Black soldiers not only consciously violated the most explosive racial taboo in the United States, but made a statement about the fallacy of the color line and the potential of white and Black people to interact with each other on the most intimate of levels…”

Williams notes that racial violence against Black soldiers by white mobs actually began while still in France – and largely under the guise of dispensing justice against rapists. Eight of the eleven American soldiers sentenced to death by court-martial and officially executed in France were Black and all involved charges of rape. Black soldiers recalled these as lynchings and public hangings for sexual fraternizations with French women – each of which took place without a trial.

French Senegalese troops – numbering between 130,000 and 200,000 – fared little better.

British and German troops stereotyped Africans as savages in uniform who collected the ears and heads of those they battled against, in direct “defiance not only of recognized usages of warfare, but of civilization and humanity.” African soldiers were maligned, irrespective of nationalities or colonial affiliations, as having animal passions that made them unsuitable as guards or protectors of white women.

In both the United States and United Kingdom, racial unrest began to take shape at the close of WWI, with the return of soldiers (in the case of Americans) and the settlement of troops (in England). African-American soldiers returning from the frontlines found their pride in securing democracy abroad ruffled by angry white men, who, having heard reports of their sexual freedom abroad, feared they would take similar liberties at home.

In the South, an estimated two or three Blacks were lynched each week in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to iconic newspaper publisher Ida B. Wells, who launched a fierce anti-lynching campaign in the 1890s, the lynching of successful Black people was a means of subordinating potential Black economic competitors. Wells argued that consensual sex between Black men and white women, while forbidden, was widespread. Thus, lynching was also a means of imposing order on white women's sexuality. During the summer of 1919, those fears grew to a fevered pitch – resulting in nearly 100 lynchings and hundreds of white race riots.

James Weldon Johnson, field secretary of the NAACP, coined the name “Red Summer,” after witnessing the massacre of somewhere between 100 and 237 people in Elaine, Arkansas. White rampages staggered through Houston, Texas; East St. Louis and Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Omaha, Nebraska; Elaine, Arkansas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charleston, South Carolina – among others. Mainstream newspapers, including The New York Times, blamed Blacks returning from the War or empowered to seek full citizenship having benefited from an economic upturn brought on by wartime employment for the riots. Black servicemen were often lynched, according to The Crisis magazine, in their uniforms before their bars or medals were stripped from them by angry crowds.

“There had been no trouble with the Negro before the war when most admitted the superiority of the white race,” one columnist wrote.

At the height of the white mob violence that plagued the summer of 1919, anthropologist and staunch eugenicist, Lothrop Stoddard sat penning a series of articles that would become the best-selling work, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy. In it, Stoddard attacks the notion of non-white men embracing white ideals – including democracy – as a potential caveat to an end of white supremacy. Stoddard writes:

“Democratic ideals among a homogeneous population of Nordic blood, as in England or America, is one thing, but it is quite another for the white man to share his blood with, or entrust his ideals to, brown, yellow, Black or red men. This is suicide pure and simple, and the first victim of this amazing folly will be the white man himself.”

The mob violence quelled, as Black men began to engage in open battle against their attackers. Spurred in part by leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois, Black communities defended themselves as fully human, and fully citizen. DuBois, addressing returning soldiers wrote in The Crisis:

“By the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over,

we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer,

more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.”

Troops from West Africa and the West Indies faced hostile mobs of a few hundred to several thousand across the United Kingdom during the summer of 1919. Many had settled in port cities and married white British women following the War. In Cardiff, where one of the most brutal riots took place, The Daily Chronicle newspaper lamented the relationship between white women and Black men as the leading cause of rioting – not a lack of jobs. Susan Kingsley Kent notes one writer in Aftershocks: Politics and Trauma in Britain, 1918-1931 saying:

“Sober-minded citizens of Cardiff consider that the coloured men are not alone to blame for the disturbances, although, at the same time, they deplore the familiar association between white women and negroes, which is a provocative cause… The negro is almost pathetically loyal to the British

Empire and he is always proud to acclaim himself a Briton. His chief failing is his fondness for white women.”

Again, attacks against Black men for liaisons or marriages to white women, spoke directly to the fears many white males carried of losing control of their women and their beliefs in race superiority. The Colonial Office engaged in a repatriation scheme in the seven port cities Salford, Liverpool, Cardiff, Glasgow, Hull, South Shields, and London, to return these African men to their homelands, as well as a “policy of prevention” which denied joint repatriation to their British spouses. This forced the married couple apart.

The Eugenics Review, a London-based journal promoting global eugenics, began examining intermarriage and interbreeding more fully in the wake of the riots in Liverpool, Cardiff, and other British cities. Topics of the journal ran the eugenic gamut from Racial Factors in Democracy, and Migration and Emigration, to Race Hygiene. News copy at the height of the riots included notes from vicars and magistrates who victoriously celebrated their refusals to grant marriage licenses to “young British girls and coloured men,” as well as reiterations of the dangers of superior races mating with lesser ones.

“In the newer, countries, such as North and South America, and parts of Africa, the cross-bred races which have sprung up through miscegenation between Europeans and more backward peoples are at a disadvantage from almost every point of view. Physical disharmonies result, such as the fitting of large teeth into small jaws… as regards world eugenics, then, it would

appear that intermixture of unrelated races is from every point of view undesirable, at least as regards race combinations involving one primitive and one advanced race. The more advanced race is diluted and degraded by such intermixture, and primitive mental and moral characters are placed on a level with the more highly evolved.”

This push, at once, denounced interracial unions as socially and genetically disastrous, but also promoted the riots as a necessary response to defending white supremacy. As a result, more than 3,000 African and West Indian men were repatriated to their homelands following the 1919 riots – alone and with as little as £2 compensation.

Much can be learned from the immediate tensions that led to Red Summer; however, the slow rise of popular eugenics as taught through public health tutorials, state fair exhibitions, and school courses, laid the foundations for the violence. Fierce support of segregation often used the frightful language of genetic annihilation, including terms like race suicide and race regeneration.

bottom of page