The race riots and the epilogue that resonates today.
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.