Your Ancestors Had Their Issues to Protest

Sometimes, especially during the Summer 2020, there are many things that have upset and frustrated Americans – race relations, police wrong-doings, wearing a facial mask, Presidential Rallies; business closures, social distancing, unemployment, Covid-19, beach closings, etc. Yet, all we need to do is look at our own past history to see Americans we know for their protests (including your ancestors) no matter what the issue was.

Here are a few more unusual examples:

Straw Hat Riots

Your great grandfathers at the end of each summer season during the early 20th century — generally around September 15 (called ‘Felt Hat Day) — they would swap their straw Panama hats (straw hats) for more distinguished, though less breathable, felt hats. If you didn’t make the switch, you were reportedly ridiculed and even risked having your straw hat stolen and stomped on. In September 1922, people finally revolted against the fashion policy. Riots broke out for days in major neighborhoods of New York City and thousands of people fought, over the right to wear the hat of their choosing. Several people were even injured and numerous arrests. It became known as the ‘Straw Hat Riot’ and last several days. Over the next few years there continued with protests mainly in the form of smashing straw hats. Even President Coolidge was shown wearing a straw hat on September 18, 1924 and it was so scandalous it made the front page of newspapers. By the 1930s, straw hats were out of fashion and the protest of switching hats based on the season of the year died out.

Bread Riots

During times of war, there have been many protests. One example was on April 2, 1863 during the American Civil War. Hundreds of hungry women gathered outside of the Richmond, Virginia Capitol building in protest over the sharply rising costs of bread and other food due to the war, inflation, drought and expensive complementary goods like salt. The women wanted to speak of this issue with the Governor. He sent a message he was too busy to see them. He eventually does appear before the growing crowd of women, dismissed their demands, causing full-fledged fury, a fury that escalated quickly, since the crowd was armed. The protesters then went to the market areas and began breaking into stores and the looting the contents. While doing so, they yelled “Bread or blood!” Confederate President Jefferson Davis arrived on the scene and tried to calm the protesters. He then threatened to have guards fire their weapons into the crowd if they did not disband. Officers next arrested many of the protesters and kept them in jail. But they had to be released within a few days since there was not enough food to feed the prisoners.

Zoot Suit Riots

In 1943 during World War 2, ‘fashion riots’ occurred again. These were called ‘The Zoot Suit Riots’ a series of violent clashes during which mobs of U.S. servicemen, off-duty police officers and civilians brawled with young Latinos and other minorities in Los Angeles. The June 1943 riots took their name from the baggy suits worn by many minority youths during that era, but the violence was more about racial tension than fashion. This men’s fashion style first became popular in New York with young men in the late 1930s. This style was totally and truly an American civilian suit. By the early 1940s the style was very popular with Latinos in California. Even with the war-time fabric restrictions, there were tailors still making these fabric-demanding suits in Los Angeles, New York and other locations in America. Servicemen and many other people, however, saw the over-sized suits a flagrant and unpatriotic waste of resources. By the summer of 1943, many Americans saw wearers of the zoot suits even as draft dodgers, even the ones actually too young for the military. From May 31 into June there were several attacks on military personnel and civilians – those wearing the zoot suits in Los Angeles. The arrests were about 500 people. By June 8th military personnel were ordered to remain on their bases and ships. The Los Angeles City Council banned the wearing of zoot suits. Not just Los Angeles, but similar riots and protests occurred in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia that summer.

Just a few examples of some possible protest s your ancestors may have witnessed or been part of.

Photos: Straw Hat Riots in NY; the Bread Riots in VA and the Zoot Suit Riots in LA.

Related Blogs:

Strange Practices Done by Our Ancestors

Fashions Can Date Photos

Your Ancestors and Their Story

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