Hidden History Uncovered: 100th Anniversary of Charleston Race Riot

Local News

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – 100 years ago African Americans were brutally beaten and lynched by white navy sailors in the streets of downtown Charleston. 

It’s a piece of history that is often forgotten. On May 10, 1919 violent conflicts known as the Charleston Race Riots of 1919 took place in downtown Charleston. It was eight hours of chaos between white navy sailors and blacks that started over a liquor sale gone bad. 

“The sailors wanted to buy some liquor and the person who they gave money to never returned to it, so they were already drunk and they began assaulting black people from King street on up,” said Historian, Damon Fordham. 

Fordham has studied the history of the Charleston Race Riot for years. He said after the assaults began, many blacks had to run for their lives. 

“The young Septima Clark, who later becomes a civil rights leader, she ran into her home onto Henrietta street and hid,” Fordham said. 

That’s when blacks began to fight back. 

“African Americans came out in the streets and began to fight back against the assaulters,” Fordham said. “So much so, the mayor had to call the Marines to put down the riot.” 

The Mayor at the time was Tristan Hyde. With the help of Hyde, the Marines and local police the riots were over by the morning of May 12, 1919. Many woke up to several headlines the next day where they learned about the deadly riot. At least two blacks were killed during the violence. According to Fordham, Isaac Doctor and William Brown were shot to death by the sailors. Also, W.G. Firdie, an black business owner who owned a barber shop located at 305 King Street had his shop destroyed during to the riot. 

“The injuries are unknown,” Fordham said. No white sailors were killed but Fordham says, “they were beaten up pretty badly though.”

Fordham says some of the riot went right through Marion Square.

“Sailors basically came through here [Marion Square] on their way to the largely African American community.”

Following the riot, Fordham said an interracial commission met, and soon after, many sailors were arrested. Two were even imprisoned for the murders of the two black men. It’s an act of justice that was unheard of at that time.

“There was a case where justice was actually done after a riot and a lynching at a time when that was very unusual,” Fordham said.

It’s a piece of history that is often forgotten, but Fordham hopes that it will one day be widely known.

“This type of thing has to be better known so that people won’t make the mistake of letting these types of things happen again,” he said.

The Charleston Race Riot was one of the first of more than three dozen race riots that happened in the summer of 1919 across the nation. Fordham wrote an article about the riots that can be read, here

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