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Langston Hughes: "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943"

Hughes Beaumont to Detroit
Common Ground, Autumn 1943
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tags: activism group violence poetry & literature

type: Poem

In the spring and summer of 1943, violent clashes between whites and African Americans broke out in major urban centers across the United States.1 In response to this rash of riots, poet Langston Hughes2 wrote "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943," a powerful example of his ability to express immediate and insightful artistic commentary on the events of his day. In this poem, Hughes draws a comparison between the oppression of Jews by the Nazis and African Americans by Southern whites.3 This theme was familiar as well to readers of African American newspapers.4 Indeed, published in the left-wing journal Common Ground that autumn, Hughes's poem represented but one of many contemporary literary reflections on the parallels between the struggle against fascism in Europe and campaigns against racism in the United States.5

In the early 1940s, cities like Beaumont, Texas, and Detroit, Michigan—both manufacturing centers for munitions during the war—saw a great influx of both black and white migrants seeking work.6 These growing urban centers often struggled to adapt to the scale and pace of change: government allotments of basic rations ran short, a lack of housing placed African Americans and whites in closer proximity than ever before, and competition for jobs worsened the friction. Amidst these simmering tensions, African Americans increasingly became the targets of violence and hostility.7

On June 15, 1943, in Beaumont, after a false rumor circulated that two white women had been raped by African American men, a crowd of approximately 2,000 white workers from the Pennsylvania Shipyard gathered and marched on City Hall.8 When they were turned away, the mob—now numbering close to 4,000 and armed with hammers, axes, and guns—descended on the neighborhoods populated by African Americans. The rioters looted and burned homes and businesses, terrorizing and assaulting residents. The violence subsided only when the troops and police arrived in Beaumont around sunset. The city was placed under martial law and a curfew imposed. In an Associated Press interview the next day, one commander of the Texas State Guard compared the condition of the city to the destruction he had seen in a World War I battle zone. The African American district, he said, was "literally stomped into the ground."9

Just days later, on June 20, brawls between black and white youths sparked a city-wide race riot in Detroit. Another false rumor—this time that white rioters had thrown an African American woman and her baby into the Detroit river—fueled further confrontations. The violence came to a crescendo as groups of armed whites traveled to the city's black neighborhoods to destroy property and assault inhabitants. Black residents retaliated by attacking white-owned businesses. After two days of chaos and bloodshed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dispatched 6,000 troops to Detroit to quell the riots. By the time peace was restored, 36 people were dead, 24 of them African American.

In Beaumont's aftermath, a military tribunal reviewed 206 arrest cases. Twenty-nine persons were charged with unlawful assembly, assault and battery, or arson and found guilty; the remainder were released for "lack of evidence." In Detroit, city offiicials, state prosecutors, and special investigators blamed the violence almost exclusively on African Americans.10

German and Japanese propagandists were quick to seize upon the riots as evidence of inequality and discord in the West, suggesting in leaflets targeting African American soldiers that they would enjoy better treatment behind Axis lines.11

That summer, riots exploded in Harlem, Mobile, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Washington, St. Louis, and Detroit. There was also violence in Los Angeles, where soldiers attacked Latino youths in the so-called Zoot-suit riots.

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, and died in New York in 1967. Hughes was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and is remembered today as one of America's major poets. Hughes placed African American experience at the heart of his writings, pioneering what he called "jazz poetry" that echoed the various cadences of African American speech and musical traditions. His first and most iconic poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was published in 1921 when he was only nineteen in the journal, The Crisis, of which he later would become an editor. In the 1930s, his work began to reflect his growing political radicalism and concern for social justice. As a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Hughes was among those Americans, black and white, who saw earlier than most the looming threat of European fascism. For twenty years, beginning in 1941, Hughes wrote as well a popular column for one of the most powerful of the African American newspapers, The Chicago Defender, in which he gave voice to the social, political, and cultural concerns of African Americans. On the Harlem Renaissance, see: Nathan I. Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

Like other African American leaders, Hughes recognized that the United States' entry into the fight against Nazism held enormous implications for American race relations. See: Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume II: 1914-1967, I Dream a World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 35.

African Americans had long been conscious of the gulf between the stated ideals stated in the founding documents of the United States and the instutionalized racism of the Jim Crow laws. During the 1930s and 40s, African American newspapers regularly expressed this dissonance—and its attendant dangers to American democracy—in comparisons of the United States to the Third Reich. See, for instance: "No Time for Hypocrisy," The New York Amsterdam News, July 27, 1935, and "Nazis Adopt U.S. Jim-Crow Rail system,” Chicago Defender, January 7, 1939." See also: James Q. Whitman, Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

Hughes' was but one piece in the Autumn 1943 issue Common Ground which pursued these themes. Following "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943" was an "Epistle to Negro Soldiers Abroad," while the preceding pages carried a series of editorials by black authors attempting to make sense of the riots. Other media, such as this poster, for example, advertised African American writers' essays and commentary on the summer's upheaval.

Beaumont's population ballooned from 59,000 to 80,000 in the span of three years. Detroit's African American population jumped by 50,000, and roughly 400,000 white migrants came to the city in the early 1940s. The entry of the United States into World War II also coincided with a larger social trend; known as the Second Great Migration, African Americans moving from the rural South to the cities of the North and West in search of a better living conditions and increased work opportunities. See: Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010).

Conditions were largely similar in all the cities where riots occurred; see: Walter White and Thurgood Marshall, "What Caused the Detroit Riot?," a report of their investigation, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, July 1943. For a later assessment, see: Dominic J. Capeci, Jr., and Martha Wilkerson, "The Detroit Rioters of 1943: A Reinterpretation," Michigan Historical Review, Jan 1990, vol. 16, no. 1: 49-72.

The fact that ten days previous, an African American man accused of raping the daughter of a white worker had been pursued and shot by police heightened the tension. Some 20,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan were due in town for a regional convention around the time that the African American community was preparing for its Juneteenth celebration, commemorating the day in 1863 on which African Americans in Texas learned about the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Beaumont Enterprise, June 16, 1943.

 

See note 8 for assessments of the riot's causes.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Common Ground, Autumn 1943
Date Created
1943
Page(s) 1, 100-105
Author / Creator
Langston Hughes
Language(s)
English
Location
New York, USA
Beaumont, Texas, USA
Detroit, Michigan, USA
Los Angeles, California, USA
Document Type Poem
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