Race Riots in America: A Genealogy?

And I just stand and wring my hands and cry,

And I just stand and wring my hands and cry, Oh Lord! 

Ed Ware (1920)

America is enraged by the killing of Minneapolis’ George Floyd and the racial problems that it has revealed.  Opinions, protests, and riots abound, but regardless of the nature or motivation of one’s involvement, I think that most of us can relate to the sentiment expressed in the song composed by Ed Ware, one of the defendants in Arkansas’ 1919 Elaine Race Riot trial.

I don’t have anything new to offer in the way of my opinion of the George Floyd case itself, but I do think it’s interesting to view the riots from a genealogical perspective.  That is, what is the history of group violence related to perceived racial injustice, and how is each iteration impacted by the preceding ones?  For example, my stepmother recently discussed how a present-day activist’s speech reminded her of “Malcolm and Martin” and the movements that they led.  Indeed, many have drawn comparisons between the civil unrest now and that of previous generations. You can read for yourself some of the examples of how people are thinking about events today, both supportive and critical

The clearest, most similar episode of this kind of “civil unrest” in my recent memory (beside the Michael Brown-Ferguson, Missouri case just a few years ago) was the 1992 Rodney King-Los Angeles riots. But, did you know that there have been many more race riots that have spanned the history of our nation?  I can think of just two off the top of my head – the Camp Logan Mutiny (1917) in Houston, Texas and the Opelousas Massacre (1868) in Louisiana. BlackPast, however, has compiled an extensive database of incidents of racially motivated, group violence in the United States. It provides a sort of genealogy of race riots in America over a 300-year period. As enlightening as the information is, it also gives the sense that these kinds of problems just won’t go away without a fundamental and pervasive change in the way we do things.

No matter how anyone feels or what anyone thinks about the news that has been dominating the headlines for the last two weeks, it’s not new.  Americans have decried and fought over racial injustice for a long time, but human nature, with its propensity toward the vices of stealing, killing, and verbal aggression, has existed since even longer.  Even the rioting and looting that have occurred in the wake of the protests over George Floyd’s death seem like novel events, but the feelings – the root of them – are as old as mankind is.  The genealogy of racial conflict goes way back and across cultures and continents. In the family research that I’ve done, I’ve seen tragedies like these over and over again. And, no matter how many times I read about or witness it, it still is disheartening, to say the least.

My heart is overwhelmed with sorrow.

My eyes are melted down in tears;

But I have called to the God of Heaven,

And I know He always hears.

Ed Ware (1920)


“Ring Leaders in Houston Mutiny Made Confession,” The Houston Post, 20 September 1917. Digital Images. http://www.newspapers.com, 2020.

Ware, E. (1920). I Stand and Wring My Hands and Cry. In I.B. Wells-Barnett (Ed.), The Arkansas Race Riot (pp. 5-6). Chicago: Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Retrieved from  https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/ webbin/book/lookupid?key=olbp42351

Published by GenealogyGriot

Tameka Miller is a genealogist, psychologist, and full-time homemaker and homeschool educator. She has been a genealogy researcher and family historian for over 20 years.

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