On July 27, 1919, a hot summer Sunday 100 years ago, Chicago’s beaches were packed with people trying to beat the heat. Some black youths were playing on a makeshift raft launched from the 29th Street Beach, which was popular with the African-American community.
As the raft drifted over an imposed “invisible line” that separated black swimmers from the white beachgoers who swam from the 26th Street Beach, a crowd of whites noticed the black teenagers and grew angry. Some of them started throwing rocks at the young men.
George Stauber, a 24-year-old white man, was among those in the crowd of angry whites. He hurled stones at the boys until he hit 17-year-old Eugene Williams in the head. Williams, who couldn’t swim, fell off the raft and drowned.
Police were called. Daniel Callahan, the first police officer to arrive, refused to arrest Stauber, which angered the black crowd that had gathered. Instead, Callahan arrested one of the black men present, based on a minor complaint from a white man.
The black teen’s death and the lack of police response triggered what remains the most violent episode in Chicago history, the 1919 Race Riots. The riots were part of a string of nationwide outbreaks of racial and labor conflicts that year, which collectively came to be known as “Red Summer.”
By the time the violence stopped seven days later, 38 people were dead: 25 of them black, and 13 white. Two-thirds of the 520 Chicagoans who were injured were black. Two-thirds of the 138 people indicted for riot-related crimes also were black, even though white citizens were the ones who started the attacks. Some 4,000 troops from the National Guard were called in to quell the violence.
But it would take the black community a long time to recover. Fires and vandalism left more than 1,000 black families homeless. White gangs even laid down steel cables over streets so fire trucks could not get to burning homes in black neighborhoods. And the segregation that separated white and black communities in the city, long a cultural norm, deepened and is ingrained to this day.
Those involved in a history project marking the anniversary point out that the conditions that sparked the riots—the segregation, the attitudes, and the police inaction—are as prevalent in 2019 as they were in 1919.
Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots is a year-long initiative revolving around the history of the riots. The project is holding events throughout the city all year to teach current Chicagoans about the history that few of them know. The effort is being funded primarily by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is being led by the Newberry Library with support from 13 other local institutions. Partner organizations include the DuSable Museum for African American History, the Chicago History Museum, and many others.
Chicago was a major destination for thousands of black people from the South during the first part of the Great Migration in the early 1900s, as whole families moved to Midwest and Northern cities. Chicago also was a destination for European immigrants, many of whom arrived at the same time. The groups settled in different but sometimes adjacent neighborhoods and competed for housing as well as jobs in the stockyards and meatpacking plants. The city’s population grew from 1.6 million in 1900 to 2.7 million by 1920.
The unrest started the night of July 27, 1919. Fights broke out between black residents, angry about the lack of an arrest for Williams’ death, and nearby whites, especially those from the city’s South Side Bridgeport neighborhood, home to many Irish immigrants. Soon, the fights erupted into rioting.
One of the white ethnic gangs active in attacking black residents was the Irish Hamburg Athletic Club in Bridgeport, named specifically in a post-riot report as an instigator of violence. The club had a 17-year-old member who would become famous: Richard J. Daley, the long-time mayor of Chicago from 1955 until his death in 1976. Daley never acknowledged whether he was part of the violence.
A Chicago Sun-Times story recounted Newberry’s historical summary of the riots:
After the beach confrontation, “Whites loaded into automobiles and sped through black streets, firing indiscriminately at African Americans and their homes. As whites attacked, black people fought back in unprecedented numbers: a street-level expression of the growing race consciousness catching fire across the country.
“… The riots were terrible,” the summary continues. “So was their aftermath and expulsion from history. Only a handful were tried or saw any prison time — most of them black. Many of the riot’s most vicious offenders were whites protected by law enforcement and local politicians.”
The DuSable is one of the partner institutions in the initiative, and Director of Education Erica Griffin sees an invisible arc connecting Eugene Williams and Laquan McDonald — the 17-year-old shot 16 times by police officer Jason Van Dyke, triggering days of mass protests.
In the aftermath of the 1919 riots, Illinois Gov. Frank Orren Lowden sought to investigate the city’s race relations. Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson charged the Chicago Commission on Race Relations with the task.
Led by black sociologist Charles S. Johnson, the commission issued a 672-page report 2 1/2 years later, “The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot.” Its findings of systemic racism came with 59 recommendations for municipal reform that went nowhere.
A 2017 video from Decades TV explains what led to the riots, what the culture of the city was leading up to them, and the aftermath. The video is narrated by longtime Chicago and national newsman Bill Kurtis (you might recognize his voice from NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me) and features commentary from Peter Alter, historian and director of the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History at the Chicago History Museum.
A story about the history project in the Chicago Tribune recounted how the riots led to even more segregation. This is from Adam Green, a University of Chicago history professor and an adviser to the project:
Before 1919 there was tension over blacks moving into “white” neighborhoods and even some racially motivated bombings as the black population grew in the Great Migration, Green explained.
But after the riots, the city — meaning white Chicago — essentially decided to separate the races officially. “The city's response to the cataclysmic events of the riot in many ways was to double down on segregation as a solution to keep the peace,” Green said. “So restrictive covenants, for instance, were first drafted and implemented by the Chicago Real Estate Board, the governing (industry) group in the city, in 1925. … Housing segregation of course has been a dominant shaping factor within the city and has largely structured it as a dual and unequal city in relation to whites and blacks.”
The Chicago Sun-Times also interviewed an eyewitness to the riots, Juanita Mitchell, who was 8 years old at the time and had just arrived in Chicago with her mother and sister. Mitchell was 107 at the time of the interview in March 2019 and still lives in the Chicago area. Here’s some of what she remembered:
“My father had died. My uncle was a doctor, and my aunt had gotten permission from him to take in her sister and her two daughters. We had just gotten to their home on 35th & Giles,” Mitchell told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“We met my aunt. We were in the living room. That’s when I saw my uncle at the window, and I heard him in a gruff voice say, ‘Here they come!’ I didn’t know what he meant. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ My uncle said, ‘The race riot. The white people are coming down 35th Street with loaded guns.’ ” …
“My Uncle Cesar said, ‘Here they come!’ That’s when he grabbed us and hid us in the living room behind the piano. I saw him go in his pocket and come out with the longest gun I’d ever seen. I was a little girl, so it was big to me,” she said.
“My mother began to cry. We stayed hiding with my Aunt Iona behind that piano ’til things quieted down on 35th Street. So that was my introduction to Chicago.”
Besides the violence, the deaths, the injuries, the arrests, and the loss of black residents’ homes, many African-American businesses and workers were affected. The majority of black people who worked in Chicago’s stockyards were non-union, and white union members had long been resentful of their hiring. After the riots, white stockyard workers threatened to strike if black workers were allowed back on the job. The African-American workers were able to return only under the protection of special police and militia members.
Among the new books about the riots is 1919, a collection of poems by Eve L. Ewing, an acclaimed author and a professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. The book is published by Haymarket Books and is available from Amazon and elsewhere. As Ewing told the Chicago Tribune, the poems in this book show how history repeats itself. The poems cover all the aspects of the riots and the events leading up to it, including the Great Migration and the racial tensions.
“It’s not about commemorating this thing that happened 100 years ago,” Ewing told the Tribune in a phone interview. “It’s about asking more critical questions about what we’re going to do over the next 100 years.” Ewing also is serving as one of the scholarly advisers to the Newberry Library helping to coordinate the year-long programming effort remembering the riots.
Another new book describing the riots and the aftermath was written specifically for young adults. A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, by Claire Hartfield, recently won the Coretta Scott King Author Book Award. The book is published by Clarion Books and is available from Amazon. The title comes from a Carl Sandburg poem about the incident, “I Am the People, the Mob.” Sandburg wrote the poem after he covered the riots as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News.
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember.
When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.
The “Chicago 1919” events started in February and will continue all year to help people learn more about the riots. On the actual anniversary itself, July 27, 2019, there are two events. The Chicago History Museum and the DuSable Museum of African American History are co-sponsoring an event at Margaret S. Burroughs Beach, 3100 S. Lake Shore Drive. (The artist and writer Dr. Margaret Burroughs founded the DuSable Museum in 1961.) The same day, Newberry Library will sponsor an afternoon of public performances, debates, and events in Washington Square Park, known as Bughouse Square for its long history as a space for free speech.
A few days later, a large-scale bicycle tour along the South Side lakefront will take riders throughout parts of the city affected by the riots. The tour is sponsored by Blackstone Bicycle Works, a community bike shop and youth education program that provides educational and vocational opportunities to youth from some of Chicago's most underserved neighborhoods. The tour will start at the only marker of the riots in the city, located at 28th Street and the lake. It reads: “Dedicated to All the Victims of the Race Riot That Began Near This Place.”
Other upcoming events include film screenings, spoken word poetry slam performances, a program about the role of law enforcement in racial violence, and readings from many of Chicago’s black writers and poets.