1919: The Year that Changed America Summary

Martin W. Sandler

1919: The Year that Changed America

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1919: The Year that Changed America Summary

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Aimed at young adults, American author Martin W. Sandler’s history book 1919: The Year that Changed America (2019) is divided into six chapters, each one devoted to a paradigm-shifting event from 1919. These include Boston’s Great Molasses Flood, the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that granted women the right to vote, the racist attacks on African Americans during the Red Summer, the anti-Communist Red Scare movement, widespread labor unrest, and the onset of Prohibition. For 1919: The Year That Changed America, Sandler received a nomination for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

The first chapter is devoted to the Great Molasses Flood, which took place in Boston on January 15, 1919. The disaster began at the Purity Distilling Company, where millions of gallons of molasses were fermented to create ethanol for use in alcoholic beverages. As the normally-frigid winter temperatures soared rapidly to an unseasonable forty degrees Fahrenheit, a fifty-foot tall tank containing as much as 2.3 million gallons of molasses burst under the increased pressure. This caused a twenty-five-foot-tall wave of molasses to flood Boston’s North End neighborhood, injuring 150 and killing 21 people.

According to a contemporary report in the Boston Post, “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage…Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was…Horses died like so many flies on sticky flypaper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise.”

Sandler writes that although the disaster devastated the neighborhood in the near-term, it resulted in much-needed regulations and precedents surrounding building codes, municipal oversight, and corporate liability.

The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited states and the federal government from denying women the right to vote. Despite the fact that many early American colonies granted all adults the right to vote, the United States formally prohibited women from voting in any state or federal election in 1807. Though first introduced in 1878, the Nineteenth Amendment had failed to amass sufficient support within Congress and the executive branch. Finally, in 1919, suffragists applied pressure to President Woodrow Wilson, causing him to call a special congressional session. Although the amendment passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate by June, it would take more than a year before the required number of thirty-six states ratified it. States that refused to ratify the amendment included Alabama, North and South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

Public attitudes toward woman’s suffrage shifted in large part due to American women’s roles in World War I, during which they made indispensable contributions on the home front in manufacturing and agriculture. During and after World War I, suffragists began to argue that it was hypocritical for the United States to fight for democracy abroad while falling short of its own democratic principles at home.

Though referred to as the Red Summer, widespread anti-black white supremacist violence took place throughout almost the entire year of 1919. Particularly with the return of so many African-American veterans from World War I, racial tensions across the country became elevated. These conditions were worsened by an economic slump and increased competition for jobs between white Americans, European immigrant Americans, and black Americans. In more than three-dozen cities, whites carried out terrorist attacks against black Americans, resulting in murders by lynching and massive property damage. The worst of the year’s attacks took place in Elaine, Arkansas, when the town’s sheriff organized a posse to put down an imaginary “black insurrection.” The posse grew into a lynch mob totaling more than five hundred people. Over the course of September 30 and October 1, an estimated 237 African-Americans were killed, along with five whites.

The year 1919 also saw a rise of fervent anti-Communist sentiment known historically as the First Red Scare. In the wake of hyper-nationalist movements that emerged during World War I, along with the rise of Marxist Bolshevists during the Russian Revolution of 1917, vast numbers of Americans began to fear a rise of communism and anarchism in the United States. Under the controversial Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the US government carried out illegal search-and-seizures along with extralegal arrests and deportations, particularly against European immigrants suspected of communism or anarchism. The movement had a strong anti-immigrant undercurrent, fed by the economic slump and increased competition for jobs between European immigrants and native-born Americans.

These economic pressures led to a great deal of labor unrest in 1919. The most emblematic example of this unrest was the widespread steel strike. Under the guise of the Red Scare, authorities began to crack down on local and national labor unions, particularly the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, or AA. The unions responded by organizing a series of strikes around the country. Clashes between strikebreakers and unionists became so violent in some cases that in Gary, Indiana, for example, the US Army took over the city and declared martial law. By the end of the strike in early 1920, the unionists were so demoralized that virtually no labor organizing took place in the steel industry for roughly the next fifteen years.

Finally, the book examines the onset of Prohibition. Though the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages didn’t pass until 1920, state legislatures had been shutting down brewing industries across the country over the previous three years. Sandler writes that this came about in large part due to the vastly diminished influence of the German communities who ran these industries in the wake of World War I.

According to Publishers Weekly, 1919: The Year that Changed America is “an engrossing resource.”