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Langston Hughes: "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943"

Hughes Beaumont to Detroit
Common Ground, Autumn 1943
View this Poem

tags: activism group violence poetry & literature

type: Poem

In the spring and summer of 1943, widespread racial violence broke out in major urban centers across the United States.1 In response to this rash of riots and racist attacks, poet Langston Hughes2 wrote "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943." It is a powerful example of his ability to give insightful artistic commentary on the events of his day. In this poem, Hughes draws a comparison between the oppression of Jews under Nazi rule and Black Americans living under Jim Crow.3 This theme was familiar to readers of Black newspapers at the time.4 Hughes' poem—published in the left-wing journal Common Ground that autumn—was one of many literary reflections on the parallels between the struggle against fascism in Europe and the campaign against racism in the United States.5

In the early 1940s, cities like Beaumont, Texas, and Detroit, Michigan—both manufacturing centers during the war—saw a great influx of people 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 Black workers and white workers in closer proximity than ever before, and competition for jobs added to interracial tensions. In these circumstances, Black workers often became the targets of racist aggression and violence.7 

On June 15, 1943, a false rumor circulated in Beaumont that two white women had been raped by Black 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 people armed with hammers, axes, and guns—descended on the city's Black neighborhoods. The mob looted and burned homes and businesses, and they assaulted many Black people. Two people were killed, and a third died later from wounds sustained during the riots. 

The violence only came to an end when the Texas State Guard, the Texas Rangers, and the state police arrived in Beaumont later that night. The city was placed under martial law and a curfew was 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 city's Black neighborhoods, he said, had been "literally stomped into the ground."9

Just days later, widespread racial violence erupted in Detroit. On June 20, fights between Black youths and white youths sparked a city-wide race riot in Detroit. More false rumors—that Black men had raped a white woman and that white rioters had thrown a Black woman and her baby into the Detroit river—fueled further confrontations. The violence came to a crescendo as armed white mobs traveled to the city's Black neighborhoods to destroy property and assault individuals. 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. Two-thirds of the victims were Black.

In Beaumont's aftermath, a military tribunal reviewed 206 arrest cases. Twenty-nine people were found guilty of unlawful assembly, assault and battery, or arson. The remaining cases were dismissed for "lack of evidence." Detroit city offiicials, state prosecutors, and special investigators blamed the violence almost exclusively on the city's Black residents.

German and Japanese propagandists quickly seized on the riots as evidence of inequality and discord in American society. Propaganda was created specifically targeting Black soldiers, suggesting that they would enjoy better treatment behind Axis lines.10

That summer, riots erupted 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 a leader of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and he is remembered today as one of America's major poets. Beginning in 1941, Hughes also wrote a popular column for one of the most influential Black newspapers, The Chicago Defender, in which he gave voice to the social, political, and cultural concerns of Black Americans. For more on Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, see Nathan I. Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973); and Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume II: 1914-1967, I Dream a World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

"Jim Crow" refers to a legal system designed to create and sustain racial hierarchy in American society. For more information, see the Jim Crow Museum website. 

During the 1930s and 1940s, Black newspapers regularly compared the United States to the Third Reich. For instance, see "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." For more information on the race-based policies of the US and Nazi Germany, see James Q. Whitman, Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

Other pieces in the Autumn 1943 issue of Common Ground also 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 like this poster advertised Black writers' essays and commentaries on the summer's violence.

Beaumont's population ballooned from 59,000 to 80,000 in the span of three years. Detroit's Black population jumped by 50,000, and roughly 400,000 white migrants came to the city in the early 1940s. Many Black Americans were moving from the rural South to industrial citeis at the time in what has become known as the Second Great Migration. To learn more, see Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010).

Conditions were similar in all the cities where riots occurred. To learn more, 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 16, no. 1 (Jan. 1990): 49-72.

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

The Beaumont Enterprise, June 16, 1943.

 

For more, see the related Experiencing History item, German Leaflet for African American Soldiers

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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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