Chicago marks shameful centennial
The 1919 race riots left 38 dead, 520 injured, and almost 1,000 homeless
By Ted Cox
Chicago marks the 100-year anniversary of one of the most shameful incidents in its history Saturday.
Give the city credit for facing it.
The 1919 Chicago race riots began on July 27 when 17-year-old Eugene Williams drifted on a raft south of an unmarked, but rigidly observed racial boundary at 29th Street on the Lake Michigan shoreline. African Americans, who’d moved into the city throughout the decade (especially during World War I) as part of the Great Migration — with the city’s African-American population rising from 44,000 in 1910 to 110,000 in 1920 — were primarily jammed into a section called the “Black Belt” between 22nd and 29th streets on the city’s South Side, and whites had already thrown stones to enforce the 29th Street boundary on the beach that hot 90-degree day 100 years ago.
Williams was either hit by a stone or forced underwater by a hail of rocks when he crossed that invisible line in the water. Either way, his body was soon pulled lifeless from the lake after drowning, although the official coroner report later found no sign of injury. When police in the area failed to arrest those white citizens African Americans believed were responsible, that set off rioting that raged across the city, but primarily on the South Side, well into August.
Make no mistake, though: African Americans caught the worst of it. Of the 38 dead, only 15 were white, and those left homeless were mostly African Americans. The Illinois Reserve Militia had to be called in by Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson, to restore order and to protect African-American neighborhoods and residents.
It’s an honor to be able to cite the work of a couple of colleagues who’ve helped lay bare this part of the city’s history for the centennial.
Patty Wetli did a comprehensive overview for Block Club Chicago. It not only recites much of the history, but it also links to the online version of the 1922 report prepared by a racially balanced commission put together by Gov. Frank Lowden, “The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot.” It also links to the Newberry Library’s yearlong series of events on the riots, under the heading “Chicago 1919: Confront the Race Riots.” That includes a portion of the annual Bughouse Square Debates devoted to the issue at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Washington Square Park in front of the library at 901 N. Clark St. in Chicago. Things actually get started at noon with readings from Carl Sandburg’s reporting on the riots. (The Newberry is also holding its annual used-book sale this weekend, if you need additional incentive to attend.)
In a three-part series, Wetli went on to tell of the work of photographer Jun Fujita, a Hiroshima, Japan, native who emigrated to Canada and then the United States and Chicago shortly after the turn of the century. Fujita shot the race riots, the 1915 Eastland disaster, and the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, to name just the high points of the city’s infamous history, over a career that spanned decades before he died in 1963.
Wetli went on to interview poet, activist, and University of Chicago Assistant Professor Eve Ewing, who was so stunned by reading the 1922 aftermath report that she basically “sampled” snippets from it, including first-person accounts, to inspire the poems in her newly released collection, “1919.”
Robert Loerzel performed the journalistic equivalent with an article in Chicago magazine, “Blood in the Streets,” basically putting together a day-by-day oral history of the riots drawn from firsthand accounts of the day and from historical sources.
The Chicago Sun-Times published a story Friday by Maudlyne Ihejirika on a bicycle tour that runs through Bronzeville on the city’s South Side tracing some of the key sites in the rioting. The same tour sets off at 8:30 a.m. Saturday from the Chicago Transit Authority Green Line stop at 31st Street and State Street, finishing with the annual Eugene Williams Libation Ceremony at 10.
Chicago author and journalist Lee Bey speaks on the riots at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Illinois Institute of Technology, 3201 S. State St.
There are events starting at noon at 31st Street Beach, peaking with 100 people basically re-enacting the incident that sparked the riots at 4 p.m., but leading immediately into a “Peace Beach” party running into the night.
That’s a welcome if sometimes painful lesson, that history has to be confronted in order to be addressed so that essential reforms are made.
Are race relations in Chicago better than they were 100 years ago? Certainly. But, as Wetli pointed out, there are numerous uncomfortable parallels between the 1922 report on the race riots and the Chicago Urban League’s report “The State of Black Chicago,” published only a month ago. The more things change, the more some things unfortunately stay the same.
South Side Irish gangs were blamed for inciting and encouraging much of the 1919 street violence, including Ragen’s Colts, “sponsored” by Police Commissioner Frank Ragen, and the Hamburg Social and Athletic Club, whose members at the time included future Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who, like Williams, was 17 that summer, and who went on to serve as president of the club from 1922 to 1929.
Daley’s suspected involvement in the riots has long been questioned. His biographer Joe Draper, author of “American Pharaoh,” wrote: “Daley always remained secretive about the riots and declined to respond to direct questions on the subject.”
Racism has to first be acknowledged to be confronted, and that’s the lesson of the riots’ centennial. Yes, there might be an overt racist in the White House, stirring up dark impulses in the American electorate, but that too has been confronted and will continue be countered, while in Chicago the top two political executives, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board Commissioner Toni Preckwinkle, who’s also head of the county Democratic Party, are both African-American women elected by overwhelming majorities.
So there is progress, but much more needs to be made, and that’s the main point to be taken from the 1919 centennial of Chicago’s infamous “Red Summer.”