BEAUMONT RIOT OF 1943
BEAUMONT RIOT OF 1943. On June 15 and 16, 1943, whites and blacks clashed in Beaumont, Texas, after workers at the Pennsylvania shipyard in Beaumont learned that a white woman had accused a black man of raping her. On the evening of June 15 more than 2,000 workers, plus perhaps another 1,000 interested bystanders, marched toward City Hall. Ultimately the leaderless and disorganized crowd may have reached 4,000. Even though the woman could not identify the suspect among the blacks held in the city jail, the workers dispersed into small bands and began breaking into stores in the black section of downtown Beaumont. With guns, axes, and hammers, they proceeded to terrorize black neighborhoods in central and north Beaumont. Many blacks were assaulted, several restaurants and stores were pillaged, a number of buildings were burned, and more than 100 homes were ransacked. More than 200 people were arrested, fifty were injured, and two–one black and one white–were killed. Another black man died several months later of injuries received during the riot.
Mayor George Gary mobilized the Eighteenth Battalion of the Texas State Guard late that night, and acting Texas governor A. M. Aikin, Jr., declared Beaumont to be under martial law. (Governor Coke Stevenson and Lt. Governor John Lee Smith were both out of the state on official business.) A force of 1,800 guardsmen came to Beaumont, as did 100 state police and 75 Texas Rangers. Most arrived after the violence had subsided. A curfew of 8:30 p.m. was placed on the entire city, and the Texas Highway Patrol quickly sealed off the city by closing all roads. Beaumont was placed off-limits to all military personnel. Local bus services were halted, and all intrastate bus lines were rerouted around the town. Mayor Gary closed all liquor dispensaries in the city and also closed parks and playgrounds. All public gatherings were cancelled, including Juneteenth celebrations. Black workers were not allowed to go to work. The Jefferson County Fairgrounds was turned into a stockade to accommodate the overflow of prisoners from the city and county jails. By June 20 a military tribunal had reviewed the cases of the 206 arrested. Twenty-nine were turned over to civil authorities on charges of assault and battery, unlawful assembly, and arson. The remainder were released, mostly because of lack of evidence. Also on June 20, Aikin ended the period of martial law.
The Beaumont riot had its roots in the tensions of World War II. Beaumont had become a war boomtown when people moved there in 1941 to take jobs in the shipyards and war plants. The population of Jefferson County increased by 56,671 between 1941 and 1948; more than 18,000 of those settled in the city in 1942 and 1943. Rapid population growth brought about forced integration because service facilities were not abundant enough to permit complete segregation. Housing shortages were severe, and the races were forced to live in close proximity. In the factories, blacks began to have access to semiskilled and skilled jobs, a situation that put them in competition with white workers. Tensions between whites and blacks were serious enough that early in June 1943 separate commuter transportation had been put into service to end racial violence on overcrowded buses. There were also food shortages. Food allotments and ration cards had been issued in 1941 in Beaumont. Although the population had drastically increased by 1943, wholesalers' quotas were still based on 1941 population figures–a situation that caused severe shortages of meats and canned goods. Three days before the riot, J. H. Kultgen, head of the regional food administration, wired Washington, D.C., with the message that the food shortages in Beaumont were "conducive to riot."
In addition to these factors, a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was active in the city and was planning to host a regional convention of the Klan on June 29. They hoped to bring 15,000 to 20,000 Klansmen from all over the South to hear William Simmons, "imperial emperor" of the KKK, offer the keynote address. The proposed meeting received an enormous amount of media attention and helped intensify racial tensions. At the same time, the black community was preparing for its annual Juneteenth celebration, scheduled for Saturday, June 19, when hundreds of East Texas blacks were expected to come to Beaumont.
Finally, exacerbating these problems, a rape was alleged to have occurred on June 5. A black man was accused of assaulting an eighteen-year-old Beaumont telephone operator, the daughter of a Louisiana shipyard worker then working in a Beaumont plant. The black man was subsequently shot and killed by Beaumont police while resisting arrest. The incident had elevated racial tensions. When a second alleged rape occurred on June 15, it triggered the violence. Beaumont then joined Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Mobile, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., as sites of bloody race riots in the summer of 1943.
James A. Burran, "Violence in an `Arsenal of Democracy'," East Texas Historical Journal 14 (Spring 1976). James S. Olson and Sharon Phair, "Anatomy of a Race Riot: Beaumont, Texas, 1943," Texana 11 (1973).