BRONZEVILLE — Before Laquan McDonald, before Emmett Till, there was Eugene Williams.
In the summer of 1919, the murder of Williams, a black teenager, at the hands of a white man and the subsequent refusal of police to arrest Williams’ killer touched off the fiercest and deadliest rioting Chicago has ever seen.
Over the course of five days, 38 people were killed, 520 were injured and nearly a thousand left homeless — a shocking wave of violence the city has rarely talked about, much less reckoned with.
A coalition of organizations and institutions, led by the Newberry Library, has coalesced around the 100th anniversary of the violence, producing “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots,” a year-long citywide program of events.
Historian Brad Hunt, vice president for research and academic programs at the Newberry Library, has coordinated much of the programming, including a bike ride through many of the key 1919 sites.
The goal, he explained, is both simple and complex: to spark conversation among Chicagoans about an ugly past in order to understand the present and chart a better way forward for the city’s future.
“Difficult history makes people uncomfortable,” said Hunt, but ignoring events like the riots — in which the majority of the victims were black and the majority of the aggressors were white male youths — means “we’re not doing the healing work.”
“We all have a responsibility to know and understand this past,” Hunt said. “There’s so little discussion. I want people to understand that where we are today didn’t just happen.”
A line in the sand
On July 27, 1919 — a scorcher of a day with temperatures in the 90s and no such thing as air conditioning to mitigate the misery — 17-year-old Eugene Williams did what a lot of Chicagoans do to beat the heat: He headed to Lake Michigan.
Williams and his friends hit the water at 26th Street because they were black and that was the stretch of waterfront assigned to people of color. The 29th Street side was for whites; and though there may not have been a literal line in the sand, the boundary was strictly observed, not just on land but in the water, too.
Whites had already defended their turf earlier in the day by hurling rocks, so they were ready when Williams and his pals, floating on a makeshift raft, drifted in the lake across the arbitrary color line.
A white man on the beach launched rocks at the raft and one either hit Williams and caused him to drown or he floundered under the water, where he’d ducked to avoid the missiles. Regardless, hours later, his lifeless body was pulled from the water. (The official coroner’s report said there had been no injury to Williams, but one of the boy’s friends, also afloat on the raft, insisted Eugene had been struck.)
Word of Williams’ drowning spread, along with the news a white policeman on the scene, Officer Daniel Callahan, wouldn’t arrest the white man, George Stauber, witnesses had identified as the person who’d thrown the rock at Williams.
And that was all the spark it took to ignite racial tensions that had been smoldering in Chicago for years.
Deep roots of discrimination
Williams’ death may have lit the fuse, but the root cause of the 1919 riots ran deep, encompassing economics, politics, housing and the after-effects of World War I.
Between 1916 and 1918, 500,000 blacks fled the Jim Crow South for the North during an exodus known as the Great Migration. For many migrants, Chicago was considered the “top of the world,” and the city’s black population grew from 44,000 in 1910 to nearly 110,000 in 1920. Estimates suggest as many as 50,000 of those arrivals occurred between 1917 and 1918.
The newcomers often faced difficulty adjusting. Everything from the climate to the pace of work in the industrial North was different from the agrarian South. A massive gulf in education standards — a later report on the riots would characterize schools for blacks in the South as “lamentably poor” — meant even many professional black migrants, such as teachers, were ill-equipped to pursue the same line of work in the North.
That left a large number of migrants to compete with Chicago’s poor whites for jobs as laborers, particularly in the stockyards, where management’s use of blacks as strike breakers only exacerbated whites’ views of the migrants as “invaders.” (This from a white population in Chicago that was itself 30 percent foreign-born at the time.)
“It’s xenophobia, essentially. Black migrants were seen as dirty and uneducated,” said Eve Ewing, a poet and assistant professor at the University of Chicago, who’s among the Newberry’s scholarly advisers on the riots.
If conditions for blacks in Chicago were an improvement over the South — the heaviest migration to the North came from southern counties where nearly 2,400 blacks were lynched between 1895 and 1918, what Ewing termed “state-sanctioned racial terror” — they still faced prejudice and discrimination subtle and overt.
Among the examples of the former, cited in a 1922 report on the riots: Foundry foremen would assign white molders standard patterns, allowing them to build up speed, which led to greater productivity that in turn translated to more money on a job that paid by the piece. Blacks, by contrast, were given patterns that changed frequently, resulting in lowered speed and yields, and thereby income.
But nowhere was racism more apparent than housing.
Chicago’s black population was largely shoehorned into a narrow strip known as the Black Belt — roughly 22nd Street to 29th Street, Wentworth Avenue to the lake — and the addition of tens of thousands of newcomers only increased pressure on already inadequate housing stock.
How serious was the overcrowding? At the time, the Chicago Urban League reported in a single day 664 blacks applied for housing and only 55 dwellings were available.
Those who attempted to test or stretch the boundaries of the Black Belt met with strong resistance and even violence. In the two years before the 1919 riots, 27 black homes were bombed.
Fifty years after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, it was clear “total equality was a bridge too far for most white Americans,” said historian Peter Cole, professor at Western Illinois University.
Between April and November 1919, race riots erupted in 15 states and the District of Columbia. White mobs were the instigators in most instances.
In what came to be known as the “Red Summer,” Chicago stood out for its brutality, which was only quelled when state militia troops were called in to protect black citizens and their homes.
And yet many Chicagoans, if not the majority of them, remain ignorant of such a significant, and horrifying, period of the city’s history.
Cole, who’s taught history at Western Illinois for nearly 20 years, said, “I feel I have a decent gauge on the typical Illinois student and I can say with confidence no one knows about the Chicago race riots of 1919, and their parents don’t, either.”
Even a scholar like Ewing, born and raised in Chicago and educated at North Side College Prep and the University of Chicago, admitted she wasn’t familiar with the 1919 riots until she began researching the era for a book.
“People know about slavery and the Civil Rights movement, but in between is a mystery,” she said.
For those who have learned of the riots, the knowledge frequently has been passed down through family members.
Tamela Chambers’ great-grandparents came to Chicago around 1920, and her grandmother was born in Bronzeville.
Stories of the riots, of the “dividing line” between black Bronzeville and white Bridgeport — Wentworth Avenue, now buried under the Dan Ryan Expressway — were very much a part of her informal education.
“It depends on your life frame of reference, if you’re disproportionately affected,” said Chambers, a librarian at Woodson Region Library, formerly on staff at Chicago Vocational Career Academy.
But with each passing generation, memories grow dimmer.
In 2018, Chambers teamed up with arts educator Charity White on a project, “Look Back to Move Forward,” delving deep into the events of 1919 with a group of students at Chicago Vocational, which sits in the shadow of the Chicago Skyway.
“Some of the students had a passing knowledge, but it wasn’t great,” Chambers said.
A broad explanation for what’s been termed a sort of collective amnesia regarding the riots has to do with the nature of history itself.
“The root of history is story,” Cole said. “And we want to tell stories that make us feel good about ourselves.”
Chicago’s narrative is heavy on those feel-good moments: The city’s scrappy recovery from the Great Fire, the grand plan of Daniel Burnham, the birth of the skyscraper, Michael Jordan.
Darker chapters also have a place in Chicago’s story when the central figure is a singular monster, like John Wayne Gacy, or the tragedy — such as the Eastland disaster or the Our Lady of the Angels school fire — features sympathetic victims and blame that can be easily assigned.
Yet when it comes to the 1919 riots, “the white power structure, they don’t want to talk about it because it looks horrible,” Cole said.
It looks horrible that whites dragged blacks off street cars and beat them to death. It looks horrible that whites sped through black neighborhoods, indiscriminately shooting and terrorizing people of color.
It’s also a bad look, for the same white power structure, that blacks — bolstered by the presence of African-American soldiers just returned from WWI — stood their ground, fought back, defended their homes and stayed. This awakening of black resistance and demand for equality planted the seeds for the later Civil Rights movement.
“I’m very interested in who shapes history and how and why, what’s central and what’s peripheral,” Ewing said. “Why do 5-year-olds have to know who George Washington is but not Cesar Chavez or Sally Hemmings?”
The “who” that shaped the history of Chicago, the power elites, she noted, were among the same people who perpetrated acts of violence in 1919, specifically the young, white male members of ethnic social clubs. These groups included Ragen’s Colts, a notorious Irish street gang “sponsored” by police commissioner Frank Ragen, and the Hamburg Social and Athletic Club.
In 1919, Richard J. Daley, a 17-year-old like Eugene Williams, was a member of the Hamburg club and would serve as its president from 1922 until 1939.
In her just-published book of poems about the 1919 riots, Ewing pointedly quotes from “American Pharaoh,” the 2001 biography of Daley: “Daley always remained secretive about the riots and declined to respond to direct questions on the subject.”
The past is the present
Why dredge up this ancient history, particularly when Chicago has plenty of pressing challenges in the here and now?
That’s the same question Chicago Vocational students asked: “Why do we have to learn this?”
And then they started connecting the dots between 1919 — when blacks were arrested at twice the rate of whites despite being the majority of those killed and injured — and 2019.
“A big part of our conversation was ‘What has changed in the last 100 years?'” recalled White.
“Some students were like, ‘Nothing’s changed.’ Others said that it has changed, it [racism] just looks different now, and some said it’s worse.”
Indeed, many of the issues the city faces today can be traced back to 1919, said Calmetta Coleman of the Chicago Urban League.
Compare the Urban League’s 2019 report “The State of Black Chicago” with 1922’s “The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Riot,” produced by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, convened in response to the 1919 riots.
The inequitable distribution of municipal resources, lack of equal access to education and employment opportunities, mistrust in police, an unjust justice system, segregated neighborhoods — the story is the same from one century to the next.
“If you talk about barriers that have been removed, no, this is not 1919, but what we really are not seeing are communities being given opportunity,” Coleman said. “There are deserts of opportunity, lacking the things that play into building a high quality of life.”
Education and awareness about the 1919 racial violence and its aftermath, in which whites hardened the lines of segregation and discrimination, is necessary on both sides of Chicago’s racial divide, Coleman said.
On the one hand, she said, there are members of disadvantaged communities who lack historical perspective on how they became trapped in certain areas of Chicago. And then there are others who question, “Why don’t they just move if it’s so bad?” she said.
“They don’t understand there were limitations like red lining and restrictive covenants,” Coleman said. “People aren’t choosing to live this way. There’s a history behind it. There was a reason this happened. These problems don’t get fixed without talking about it.”
If not now, when?
Not talking about 1919 has been the Chicago way for 100 years and that “complicity of silence” has hampered the city, Cole said.
“It’s like a splinter that digs deeper into your chest,” he said.
Cole pointed to Germany’s handling of the Holocaust as a relevant model for Chicago.
It wasn’t until youth began asking relatives “What did you do in 1944?” that Germans stopped denying and started talking about the Holocaust, he said.
Today, Germany is dotted with museums and monuments devoted to the country’s most atrocious deeds, including 75,000 stepping stones placed at points where victims of the Nazis last lived. (Cole is seeking funding for a similar project to commemorate 1919 victims.)
“The contrast between the U.S. and Germany is striking. You will not find a large monument to slavery on Pennsylvania Avenue,” Cole said.
The Newberry and its coalition of artists, academics and cultural institutions have set the stage for a long-delayed discussion, which is the first step in building a movement for dismantling institutional racism.
“Where do people have power? It’s in numbers,” Cole said. “How do you move the ball forward? You get more people on your team.”
The question is whether Chicagoans have the will to look squarely at the city’s past and reckon with 1919 and its ongoing fallout.
“You have the sense the city is ready for change,” said the Urban League’s Coleman.
The election of Lori Lightfoot as mayor is one cause for hope, she said, if for no other reason than Lightfoot’s establishment of an Office of Equity.
“We’re going to have to decide whether we want to make Chicago fair for everybody,” Coleman said. “We can’t call ourselves a world-class global city if we don’t have equal access.”
On Saturday, a host of events will be held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the race riots.
- “Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919,” by William M. Tuttle
- Interactive map of 1919
- “Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America,” by Cameron McWhirter
- “The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Riot,” produced by The Chicago Commission on Race Relations,
- 1919 stone marker commemoration project, CRR19
- 1919 bike route
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