Lightfoot draws parallels between 1919 race riots, today

Chicago mayor commits to ‘expanding opportunity for all people’

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at an event memorializing the 1919 race riots Monday. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at an event memorializing the 1919 race riots Monday. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot led speakers Monday in drawing parallels between the 1919 race riots and the “institutionalized inequity” of the present day 100 years later and committed the city to “expanding opportunity for all people.”

Lightfoot led a Chicago commemoration of the 1919 riots under the theme that “Past Is Present” Monday at Dunbar Vocational High School in the Bronzeville neighborhood only blocks away from where the race riots began a century ago on July 27.

Calling it “a bitter and shameful chapter in our city’s history,” Lightfoot said, “For an entire week our city was consumed in a conflagration of racial hatred and violence at a level not seen before or since.”

She cited that 38 people were killed, more than 500 injured, and more than 1,000 left homeless from bombings and arson before National Guard troops were called in to restore order.

“It was in many ways our second Great Chicago Fire,” Lightfoot said, but she also drew parallels with how Chicago reformed and rebuilt after that first Chicago fire, and did the same after the 1919 race riots, although she emphasized that that process of healing and reconciliation goes on today.

“The riot of 1919 is our present,” Lightfoot said, “because it’s a touchstone in our city’s difficult and painful history of racism and institutionalized inequity.” She said the city continues to try to address segregation and unequal education and economic opportunity today, and the 1919 race riots have to continue to inspire change.

“Learning from our history is possible only by knowing our history,” Lightfoot said. “We have to keep these events alive.”

She praised the unprecedented attention the riots received on the centennial over the weekend, adding that Chicago Public Schools would be teaching students about that painful part of the city’s history in classrooms and through research guides, while the city would enhance the plaque at the site of the riots’ origin at 29th Street on the Lake Michigan shore with a structure meant to memorialize the riots.

Lightfoot criticized the “systemic disinvestment” that has left the South and West Side behind ever since, and committed the city to “expanding opportunity for all people,” adding, “Our time to do that is now.”


“The riot does not come from nowhere. It also does not conclude simply with the riots.”

Simon Balto (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Claire Hartfield, author of “A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riots of 1919,” drew parallels with the nationwide rioting that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King in 1968, and the Ferguson, Mo., riots that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown five years ago, while pointing toward Chicago’s civic unrest after the Laquan McDonald police-shooting video was released in 2015.

“Chicago has not gone untouched,” Hartfield said. “Are we destined to repeat this history til the end of time?”

She said the hard lessons of the past must have a lasting effect, adding, “We must undertake the hard work of shaping a better future.”

Simon Balto, an assistant professor of African-American history at the University of Iowa, spoke on the riots’ origins, when 17-year-old Eugene Williams drifted across an invisible racial boundary at 29th Street on the Lake Michigan shoreline on a hot day in 1919 and was killed by a rock-throwing white man identified as George Stauber. A Chicago Police officer named Daniel Callahan refused to arrest Stauber, sparking the riots.

The result was “a week of bloodshed that killed 38 people in total,” Balto said.

“The riot does not come from nowhere,” he added. “It also does not conclude simply with the riots.” Balto cited dozens of racial bombings that took place in the city between 1917 and 1921, adding that city officials did their best to legalize segregation afterward through “redlining” realty practices beginning in the 1930s. The second wave of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities took place in the ‘40s and ‘50s, he added, and resulted in Chicago in renewed bombings, killings, and beatings. He called that “a miniature version of what happened in 1919.”

“Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation,” Balto said. “We need to figure out how to reckon with this history.”