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White residents of Wapato instigate a "miniature race war" on July 9, 1938.

HistoryLink.org Essay 9252 : Printer-Friendly Format

Around 10 p.m. on Saturday, July 9, 1938, a mob (estimated by the local paper to be 200 strong) of white residents of Wapato, located in the Yakima Valley, instigated what the Yakima Morning Herald termed a “miniature race war.” For two hours, the mob rioted with clubs, hammers, sticks, and rocks with the aim to drive the African American population out of town.    

An Influx of Labor

A union activist report on the riot attributed the root of the violent upsurge to the changing demographics of the region. Throughout the 1930s, the Yakima Chamber of Commerce advertised job opportunities available in the Yakima Valley to the Dust Bowl-plagued Midwest.

This resulted in an influx of labor, including a handful of African Americans who migrated to the valley to work in the beet fields. The sudden -- though slight -- increase in the black population antagonized some local whites; many adopted vigilante tactics including mob violence.  

The Riot

A few days before July 9, a rumor circulated in Wapato that a black man had sexually assaulted a white woman. Though the woman “victim” was later described as a well-known prostitute, the mob gathered that night and initiated the riot.

The majority of African Americans in Wapato were able to escape the mob. A few, however, were injured. The 24-year-old Earldine Young was struck by a rock while fleeing in her nightgown. The blow resulted in a severe cut on her eye. Others, according to the union report, were clubbed into submission, including a pregnant woman. The mob broke furniture and burned a pile of bed mattresses.   

The Lawsuit

In the weeks following the riot, local lawyer J. P. Tunkoff represented five of the African Americans victims, including Earldine Young. Young filed suit against the local marshal, the deputy marshal, and the county sheriff for failure to enforce the law though they were cognizant of the illegal violence that aimed to “drive all colored residents from the city.”

The town's three law-enforcement officers were asked where they were during the mob attack. All three stated that they were called out of town on business.

Sources:
Folder 41, Box 2, Robert E. Burke Collection, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle; Thomas Heuterman, The Burning Horse: Japanese-American Experience in the Yakima Valley, 1920-1942 (Cheney: Eastern Washington University Press, 1995); “City Officers, Sheriff Defendants in Suit,” Wapato Independent, July 14, 1938; “Negroes Routed by Wapato Mob,” Yakima Morning Herald, July 10, 1918; Trevor Giffey, "The Ku Klux Klan and Vigilante Culture in the Yakima Valley," in The Washington State Klan in the 1920s, Civil Rights and Labor History Project website accessed December 2009 (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/kkk_yakima.htm).


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