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

  • By Catherine Roth
  • Posted 12/27/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9252

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, instigate what the Yakima Morning Herald terms a "miniature race war." For two hours, the mob riots with clubs, hammers, sticks, and rocks, aiming to drive the African American population out of town.

An Influx of Labor

A union activist report on the riot attributed 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 and on area railroads. 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 the riot, a rumor circulated in Wapato that a black man had sexually assaulted a white woman. The subsequent union report suggested that the alleged victim was a well-known prostitute who may have been patronized by some black workers at a labor camp, angering local whites who sought to "protect" her from black men. On the night of July 9, a mob of whites gathered and initiated the riot by attacking black workers at the camp.

The majority of African Americans in Wapato were able to escape the mob. A few, however, were injured. A 24-year-old woman, 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 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.


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 Griffey, "The Ku Klux Klan and Vigilante Culture in Yakima Valley," in The Washington State Klan in the 1920s, Civil Rights and Labor History Project website accessed September 13, 2017 (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/kkk_yakima.htm).
Note: This essay was corrected and revised on September 13, 2017.

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