On a cold April morning in 1919, hours before sunrise, three white University of Maine freshmen broke into the dorm room of two African-American brothers named Roger and Samuel Courtney in an attempt to “haze” the two students. Around 60 other white students gathered in front of Hannibal Hamlin Hall, on the Orono campus, waiting for their classmates to deliver the Courtneys to the mob.
There are varying accounts of what happened next, but the Chicago Defender reported that the Black students “refused to submit to humiliation” and knocked the three assailants out cold. The brothers then escaped down a rope ladder and fled the town. Shortly thereafter, the white students discovered their unconscious classmates and flew into a rage. The mob quickly grew to several hundred men from all classes — including at least one faculty member, according to one account — and broke into groups to search the Bangor area for the two young men.
The mob eventually found them four miles away, in Old Town. The white students then placed horse halters around the young men’s necks, like nooses, and led them back to campus “for the biggest hazing party ever held at the university.” Despite the efforts of some bystanders to dissuade the white students, the mob formed a ring around the Courtneys in the campus Stock Judging Pavilion (now known as the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre) and boiled a vat of molasses down to the consistency of tar. The brothers insisted they had merely fought off the three assailants in self-defense, but their pleas were ignored.
At around five or six in the morning, the brothers were forced to strip off all their clothes and slather themselves in the hot molasses. As they stood naked and shivering that early spring morning, they were covered in feathers and compelled to pose for photographs to document their humiliation. As one reporter noted, “feeling ran so high that it was regarded as fortunate that there were no more serious casualties than bruises and scalp wounds.”
Bangor police and the local sheriff showed up just as the students were dispersing. They made no arrests. The New York Herald reported that the Courtneys intended to file a criminal complaint against the ringleaders of the “hazing party,” but it’s not known if one was ever submitted. The Herald also reported that the university and local authorities “made extraordinary efforts to keep the hazing from the newspapers,” but eventually UMaine President Robert J. Aley was forced to issue a formal statement.
Aley claimed the university welcomed Black students and denied the incident was racially motived. He said the white freshmen were retaliating against the brothers for an earlier hazing incident, and that one of the Courtney brothers had previously been asked to leave campus for violating university rules. He added that while the school did not condone the affair, this kind of “hazing” was “likely to happen any time at any college.”
But some news outlets described the incident as a “race riot,” and Orono residents, including a clergyman, told a reporter “the elements of a race and religious war are discernible in this and other disturbances at the university.”
In the wake of the incident, at least one of the Courtney brothers was expelled, according to one newspaper, and neither returned to UMaine. None of the leaders of the white mob faced any consequences.
The Courtney brothers were two of the first victims in the reign of terror that came to be called the Red Summer of 1919, when white-supremacist violence exploded across the country. White mobs, some comprising thousands of men, carried out a series of attacks against African-Americans and burned down Black-owned homes and businesses across the country. From North to South and the far West, between 180 and 300 Black Americans were lynched, beaten, stoned or shot to death in brutal race riots.
The attack on the Courtney brothers was largely forgotten until historian Karen Sieber, a researcher at the McGillicuddy Humanities Center at the University of Maine, recently discovered it. Historians had been aware of between 26 and 29 Red Summer attacks, but thanks to Sieber’s exhaustive research, there are now nearly 50 documented incidents.
On her website, Visualizing the Red Summer, Sieber has created a map and timeline of all the known Red Summer assaults, along with an archive containing over 700 documents and images she’s collected to make this history more accessible to students, researchers and the public. Sieber found that the UMaine incident was never covered in any local Maine newspapers, and it was barely mentioned in The Maine Campus, UMaine’s student newspaper.
“Other than a handful of news articles in African-American newspapers and this single photograph found in the papers of a former student named Seth Pinkham, this was just swept under the rug,” said Sieber.
The Red Summer was, in many respects, a backlash against Black empowerment and progress. It happened amid the Great Migration, when millions of poor Blacks moved from the Jim Crow South to northern cities for better economic opportunities and to escape oppressive segregation laws. As they settled in these new places, they competed with white workers for jobs and housing, which inflamed racial tensions. A post-war recession also contributed to this socio-economic malaise.
More than 350,000 African-American soldiers, including the Courtney brothers, had also recently served in World War I, and many returned from Europe with a new sense of pride. Having served overseas, where they were regarded more humanely, Black soldiers came home demanding better treatment, which infuriated whites. This may also have emboldened more Blacks to fight back against the racist mobs that summer.
Sieber observed that one of the similarities between the UMaine attack and other Red Summer assaults was the lack of response from law enforcement. “There was a mob of between 400 and 600 people roaming the streets for hours and leading these African-American men back to campus. Yet the police show up a half hour after everything is done,” she said. “We see this time and time again. If there was any police response at all, it was either after the fact or the police actually supported or allied with the mob rather than the victims.”
The Red Summer also happened during the Red Scare, when newspapers routinely ran sensational headlines about Bolshevik plots against America, and the U.S. government ran a massive campaign to persecute and arrest leftists. As has been true in subsequent, including very recent, eras of American history, white political leaders conflated demands for equality with radical Marxism. President Woodrow Wilson stated, “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.”
It’s unlikely that the Courtney brothers were leftists, but they were smart, moneyed, handsome, excellent athletes, and popular with the women on campus. Rage at Black men for dating white women inspired many of the Red Summer acts of violence. Given all the Courtneys’ enviable attributes, it’s not hard to imagine why white students might have harbored anger and resentment toward them. Perhaps reflecting this seething white rage, one news account stated that white students perceived the brothers as “domineering” and “ill tempered.”
The Courtney brothers came from a very prominent Black family in Boston. Their father, Samuel Courtney Sr., was born into slavery, but graduated from Harvard and become a prominent Boston physician. A close associate of Black leader Booker T. Washington, Samuel Courtney believed the best way to achieve Black empowerment was through business development and entrepreneurship. Courtney and Washington founded and began operating the National Negro Business League out of Courtney’s home in 1900. Samuel Courtney was also very active in Republican politics and became the first Black resident elected to serve on the Boston School Committee.
As a leader in the Black community, Courtney was known for speaking out against racism and injustice. Two years before the attack on his sons, he led a campaign to stop theaters from showing the racist film The Birth of a Nation, which glorified the murderous Ku Klux Klan as valiant protectors of white womanhood.
Sieber has yet to find any documentation describing Samuel Courtney’s reaction to the UMaine incident. Both brothers died very young: Samuel Jr. at 31 and Roger at 29. A news article attributed Roger’s death to an illness he contracted during the war.
Perhaps the most important lesson of the UMaine incident is that though Mainers had been active in the anti-slavery movement, Maine has never been immune to the virulent racism that has infected American culture for the past 400 years. A few years after the UMaine attack, tens of thousands of Mainers joined the Ku Klux Klan.
But since the nationwide Movement for Black Lives reached even small, predominantly white Maine towns last summer, it appears more Mainers are willing to confront and try to understand racism in our history, our institutions, and our communities. In September, when news of Sieber’s discovery reached the university’s administration, UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy addressed it in a lengthy statement.
“Both personally and as president of our university, I am appalled by this egregious event in our history,” she wrote. “I extend my deepest apologies to the family of Roger and Samuel Courtney. We should all be alarmed by how such abhorrent local violence resonates not just with similar and widespread events in the past, but also with recent events in contemporary America. There is much in UMaine’s past for which we all can be truly proud. But we cannot shy away from confronting and atoning for our university’s more painful moments.”