On Tuesday Dec. 1, Karen Sieber, the Humanities Specialist at the Clement and Linda McGillicuddy Humanities Center, presented a talk called “Tarred and Feathered: UMaine’s Hidden Connection to the Red Summer of 1919.” The Red Summer occurred during the year of 1919 and was in reference to nationwide widespread violence against Black people, but particularly Black men. Sieber is a historian and specializes in both public history and the digital humanities. This experience combined with her own thirst for knowledge led her to begin to create an archive to document this time in history after a trip to Knoxville, Tennessee.
“I first learned about the Red Summer in 2013,” Sieber said. “I was taking a road trip throughout the South, devouring history, food, music, literature and architecture. I kept a travel blog on the trip, and would add updates on the background of the places I was staying. When I got to Knoxville, I was curious about the history of the neighborhood that my Airbnb was in. While my host didn’t know much, a quick search revealed that the neighborhood was the site of a race riot and suffered a lot of destruction in 1919. As I quickly learned, it was just one in a series of similar events nationwide that year, including [some in] Chicago where I grew up. I couldn’t help but wonder why I had never been taught about a nationwide wave of violence. It felt like a moment in American history that more people should know about.”
Sieber quickly got to work and began collecting as much information she could about the Red Summer and the events that led up to it. Although there was not a lot of information available, she was able to look at fragmented acts of violence against Black people across the nation. She shared that a lot of communities knew about the violence as a local event, but were unaware that their instance of violence was connected to similar events elsewhere during the summer of 1919. Additionally, as she traveled the country in 2015 looking for information about the Red Summer, she discovered that many institutions did not know that the material they possessed was useful to her and a part of the Red Summer violence. Lastly, almost nothing regarding the Red Summer had been digitized, so Sieber took it upon herself to create what she described as a “rogue archive” using her cell phone, flash drives and primary documents to create a comprehensive list of resources on the Red Summer. She explained that she had worked in copyright positions in the past and knew there would be no legal ramifications for photographing something from all the way back in 1919 and publishing it. She was confident in her ability as a historian that would allow her to track down documents and information she needed.
Through her research, Sieber found a number of very disturbing instances of violence against Black men. Many of the victims of the attacks were WWI veterans or Black men who interacted with a white woman. Additionally, the people who engaged in harming the Black people were often operating under a mob mentality. The mobs would round up one to a few Black men, take their weapons away and proceed to overpower them. This was the case with a massacre in Elaine, Arkansas during the summer of 1919 where anywhere between 200-300 sharecroppers were killed for exercising their right to organize for better pay. This union was considered an uprising against white landowners, and justification for the murder of sharecroppers, many the descendants of slaves who worked the same family’s land.
Although a lot of these conflicts which occurred during the Red Summer seem to stem from far away places like Chicago or the deep South, Sieber actually discovered an instance of violence which took place right here at the University of Maine in two buildings that still stand today: Hannibal Hamlin Hall and the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre. On April 29, 1919, a group of 60 first-year students attacked the dorm room of Samuel and Roger Courtney, two Black brothers who were attending UMaine after serving in WWI. They were the sons of a very prominent doctor in Boston who was outspoken about being a member of the Black community and wanted his sons to have amazing opportunities in life.
The brothers escaped the unwarranted attack, fighting back out of self-defense, which sparked a manhunt for the pair throughout Bangor, Old Town and Orono. When they were finally found, the brothers were marched approximately four miles back to campus with livestock harnesses around their necks and led into the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre which used to be used for livestock shows. There they were undressed and forced to slap hot molasses on each other. Then, feathers presumably from pillows in the dorms, were pressed onto the molasses essentially tarring and feathering the men in front of hundreds of people. Unfortunately, the brothers were likely targeted because they were athletic, popular amongst female students, and veterans of WWI. Until very recently, UMaine placed all the blame on the Courtney brothers for this incident and they did not end up graduating. However, President Joan Ferrini-Mundy did reverse this statement in a memo to students and staff earlier this year.
Sieber thinks that this discovery is important to examine further for a number of reasons.
“To start with, this incident was unknown until a few months ago and left out of not just campus histories, but all previous Red Summer data. It is also the only Red Summer incident to occur on a college campus, and the only to include a tarring and feathering. Lastly, it was one of the largest Red Summer mobs in a rural location nationwide. Many other incidents of that magnitude ended in death,” Sieber shared.
Sieber also added that the incident surrounding the Courtney brothers was not a major part of her initial research in 2015 and something she only very recently devoted time to. She believes that campus history should be investigated more so people can discover events like this.
“I clipped a newspaper article about the Courtney brothers attack in 2015, but I had collected so many documents in one sitting that day that I never noticed I saved it to the wrong subfolder on my flashdrive. When I went to compile my database and archive, I thus didn’t include it in my data. When I came across the missing file recently it felt meant to be, as I now work at the University of Maine. The discovery feels more meaningful than others and has revived research that I was convinced I was finished with years ago,” Sieber said.
Her newest endeavor is discovering and preserving lesser-known histories on campus. Currently, Sieber is working with UMaine students Elizabeth Dalton and Luke Miller who are in HTY 311 with Professor Riordran. They are hoping to create a virtual tour of campus highlighting hidden histories including but not limited to women’s history, Black history, Native American history and LGBTQ history on campus.
“The virtual tour will have the capacity to be accessed by phone to take the tour in person, and future iterations will have an audio tour option. We hope to offer an in-person, distanced group tour in the spring once it is safe to do so. More information will be announced in February,” Sieber said.
For more information on the Red Summer please visit Sieber’s website.
Her creation, Visualizing the Red Summer, is the world’s largest database and archive on the topic, and the most used classroom resource on the Red Summer in the nation.