The race ri­ots and the epi­logue that res­onates to­day.

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE -

Sun­day, July 27, 1919, broke warm in Chicago. Bob­bing in Lake Michi­gan as he clutched a rail­road tie for flota­tion, 17year-old Eu­gene Wil­liams drifted across an un­marked but lethal bound­ary that sep­a­rated black and white beach­go­ers. The Tri­bune’s ac­count of what hap­pened next is as chill­ing to read to­day as it must have been 100 years ago:

“One Ne­gro was knocked off a raft at the 29th Street beach af­ter he had been stoned by whites. He drowned be­cause whites are said to have frus­trated at­tempts of col­ored bathers to res­cue him.” A white po­lice of­fi­cer re­fused to in­ter­vene or ar­rest the rock throw­ers, the Tri­bune re­ported. In­fu­ri­ated by the in­jus­tice, black beach­go­ers fought with whites. Word of the episode quickly blan­keted a wide swath of the city: “The ri­ot­ing spread through the black belt and by mid­night had thrown the en­tire South Side into a state of tur­moil.”

In count­less con­flicts over the en­su­ing days, white gangs roamed black neighborho­ods, pro­vok­ing black res­i­dents who fought back.

Con­fronta­tions spread to Loop streets and to Cook County Jail. News­pa­per maps dis­played the lo­ca­tions of fights and ar­sons. In­jured pa­tients all but over­whelmed 10 physi­cians, three in­terns and 15 nurses at the South Side’s Prov­i­dent Hos­pi­tal. The Tri­bune chron­i­cled a scene at the cen­tral po­lice sta­tion that re­flected the fears, and the dangers, caused by Chicagoans war­ring with Chicagoans: African Amer­i­can cit­i­zens “hud­dled in the squad room and awaited their turn to be taken home un­der es­cort.”

More than 1,000 former sol­diers and sailors were re­cruited to pa­trol city streets; some 6,000 state mili­tia troops joined them. Gov. Frank Low­den de­clared that, “They went into a dis­trict where mur­der, ar­son, and an­ar­chy ex­isted for four days and brought peace and quiet.”

‘Bring me some white pris­on­ers’

By then, though, the spasm of vi­o­lence had killed 23 black and 15 white peo­ple. The in­jury toll reached 537, two-thirds of the vic­tims black. About 2,000 Chicagoans, mostly African Amer­i­cans, were left home­less.

There was a sense among fair-minded white Chicagoans — some of whom de­liv­ered food to black neighborho­ods — that jus­tice was be­ing ap­plied un­evenly. One white judge echoed the sen­ti­ment, telling po­lice of­fi­cers, “I want to ex­plain to you of­fi­cers that th­ese col­ored peo­ple could not have been ri­ot­ing among them­selves. Bring me some white pris­on­ers.”

Through­out this year, the New­berry Li­brary and other Chicago in­sti­tu­tions are spon­sor­ing events and ed­u­ca­tional ef­forts to ac­quaint to­day’s Chicagoans with that vi­o­lent week and what sparked it. One place to start is with “The Chicago Race Ri­ots, July 1919,” a col­lec­tion of ar­ti­cles by Carl Sand­burg, then a re­porter for the Chicago Daily News.

Great Mi­gra­tion, great re­sent­ment

Dur­ing World War I, a short­age of la­bor in Chicago had ac­cel­er­ated the Great Mi­gra­tion of African Amer­i­cans from the South. The city’s black pop­u­la­tion more than dou­bled, from 44,000 to 109,000. As de­mo­bi­lized mil­i­tary veter­ans re­turned to Chicago af­ter the war, com­pe­ti­tion for hous­ing and jobs ag­gra­vated fric­tions be­tween the black new­com­ers and the Ir­ish and other Euro­pean im­mi­grants who had ar­rived in the city ear­lier. Sand­burg re­ported bomb­ings at eight dwellings oc­cu­pied (or thought to be oc­cu­pied) by African Amer­i­cans in the five months be­fore the ri­ots.

In some three dozen cities across Amer­ica, this was the so-called Red Sum­mer of racial and la­bor strife. White su­prem­a­cists in many of th­ese lo­cales pro­voked black com­mu­ni­ties that re­sisted. Four days be­fore the out­break of vi­o­lence here, the Tri­bune had warned of the need to im­prove race re­la­tions in Chicago: “Dis­tur­bances in Wash­ing­ton be­tween the white and col­ored res­i­dents must re­mind us here in Chicago, where the need for ad­just­ments of re­la­tions is so great that we are headed for trou­ble on a large scale if some con­cil­ia­tory process is not un­der­taken.”

The tur­moil of 1919 did lead to the for­ma­tion of an in­ter­ra­cial and non­par­ti­san Chicago Com­mis­sion on Race Re­la­tions — and to the in­clu­sion of more African Amer­i­cans in gov­ern­ing Chicago. Among them was Os­car De Priest, the city’s first black al­der­man, who in 1928 be­came Amer­ica’s first black con­gress­man elected out­side the South.

As Chicago faces this sor­row­ful cen­ten­nial …

We would like to re­port in 2019 that Chicago’s ex­pe­ri­ence in 1919 in­spired a cen­tury of dwin­dling prej­u­dice and racial har­mony. In­stead, dur­ing the last 100 years Chicago at times has be­haved as if it didn’t learn much at all from 1919. Bias and an­i­mos­ity drove dis­crim­i­na­tory city poli­cies that en­abled the seg­re­ga­tion of hous­ing in black and white neighborho­ods. The un­equal qual­ity of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion in mostly black and mostly white schools doomed many of the city’s chil­dren to life­long dis­ad­van­tage. Black Chicagoans came to view mis­treat­ment by po­lice as sys­temic abuse sanc­tioned by the white ma­jor­ity. And nearly a half-cen­tury af­ter the 1919 ri­ots, the 1968 as­sas­si­na­tion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Mem­phis, Tenn., led to deadly ri­ot­ing — and the im­mo­la­tion of parts of the West Side — in Chicago.

Dis­crim­i­na­tion and di­vi­sion never van­ished — cer­tainly not as thor­oughly as the lead­ing Chicagoans of a cen­tury ago in­tended.

Af­ter the 1919 ri­ots, Gov. Low­den com­mis­sioned a so­ci­o­log­i­cal re­port that would ex­plore race re­la­tions here. “The Ne­gro in Chicago: A Study of Race Re­la­tions and a Race Riot” was edited by Robert S. Ab­bott, owner of the Chicago De­fender, and pub­lished by the Univer­sity of Chicago in 1922.

Near the end of the am­bi­tious re­port’s 672 pages, the 81 mem­bers of the city’s new com­mis­sion on race re­la­tions laid out their rec­om­men­da­tions for Chicago. We’re quot­ing one pas­sage at length — an epi­logue to 1919 that echoes haunt­ingly in 2019:

“Mutual un­der­stand­ing and sym­pa­thy be­tween the races will be fol­lowed by har­mony and co-op­er­a­tion. But th­ese can come com­pletely only af­ter the dis­ap­pear­ance of prej­u­dice. Thus the rem­edy is nec­es­sar­ily slow; and it is all the more im­por­tant that the civic con­science of the com­mu­nity should be aroused, and that progress should be­gin in a di­rec­tion steadily away from the dis­grace of 1919.”

They weren’t ask­ing the un­fath­omable or im­pos­si­ble, those 81 black and white com­mis­sion mem­bers. They wanted an end to prej­u­dice and its pub­lic pol­icy sib­ling, dis­crim­i­na­tion. They wanted, in their words, har­mony and co­op­er­a­tion. At a fraught mo­ment, with fresh mem­o­ries of deadly con­flict over­seas but also in their streets, they wanted a united Chicago whose peo­ples would meet, and master, the fu­ture.

In 2019, as this city con­fronts a sor­row­ful cen­ten­nial, its cit­i­zens and its lead­ers ought to re­flect on the prej­u­dices that linger and the un­fair­nesses that persist. Then all of us can re­dou­ble Chicago’s ef­forts to live up to those achiev­able as­pi­ra­tions born of 1919.


African Amer­i­can men gather in front of Wal­green Drugs at 35th and State streets dur­ing the 1919 race ri­ots in Chicago. Po­lice of­fi­cers stand in front of the crowd.

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