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The Man Behind The Powerful, Disturbing Images Of The 1919 Race Riots Emerges From Obscurity

Like the 1919 riots, the story of Jun Fujita has long been buried. The pioneering photojournalist is now emerging from the shadows of history.

Chicago 1919 Race Riots
Jun Fujita, circa 1930. Credit: Graham and Pamela Lee Collection
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BRONZEVILLE — It’s one of the most viscerally powerful images from Chicago’s 1919 riots: a black man, beaten unconscious, lies on the ground inches away from the bloodied brick used by his assailants.

In the bottom of the frame, a barely visible shadow of the observer’s hat creeps into view. The photographer has inadvertently entered his presence into the historical record.

RELATED: It’s Been 100 Years: Is Chicago Finally Ready To Reckon With the City’s 1919 Race Riots?

Now, 100 years later, along with the renewed attention being paid to the Red Summer, the story of Jun Fujita, the man behind the camera, is also being revisited.

Fujita’s emergence from obscurity began in 2017, with an exhibit of his work, aptly titled “Oblivion,” at the Poetry Foundation.

“I feel like he’s kind of slipped between the cracks,” said Graham Lee, Fujita’s great-nephew, who’s played a role in rescuing the photographer from anonymity.

Credit: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-065480; Jun Fujita, photographer
Policemen stand over a victim of the 1919 race riots. The shadow of Fujita’s hat looms in the bottom of the frame.

In 1919, photojournalism as a profession was still in its infancy. Yet Fujita, who worked for the Chicago Evening Post and the Chicago Daily News, had already established himself as a master, albeit a somewhat accidental one, of this developing medium.

It was Fujita who captured on film the 1915 sinking of the SS Eastland in the Chicago River, his photos documenting the disaster that cost nearly 850 lives. And Fujita would be first on another gruesome scene in 1929, pointing his unflinching lens at the corpses of the victims of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — an image that came to symbolize Chicago at its lawless worst.

There would be other brushes with the famous and infamous. In a career that was almost Forrest Gump-ian in the way it intersected with the biggest stories and personalities of the day, Fujita counted Al Capone, murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb and Albert Einstein among his subjects.

“A lot of his well known photographs are of these horrific moments. I think there’s more to him,” said Lee, who’s forthcoming book, “Jun Fujita: Behind the Camera,” aims to paint a more complete portrait of the photographer’s life. “For all the dark stuff he covered, there’s so much more light.”

Born in 1888 near Hiroshima, Japan, Fujita was an unlikely chronicler of major U.S. events.

He emigrated to Canada in 1906 and eventually made his way to Chicago, where he initially only picked up a camera to earn money for engineering school.

In some ways, Fujita’s story paralleled those of the African Americans arriving in Chicago at the same time as part of the Great Migration from the South.

Counted among the Issei, the first generation to leave Japan, Fujita was one of the more than 400,000 Japanese who settled in the U.S. and U.S.-controlled lands between 1886 and 1911, the vast majority putting down roots in Hawaii and the Pacific Coast.

By the time Fujita set sail for North America, movements were already afoot in the U.S. to limit the number of Japanese immigrants. California would eventually bar all “aliens” from obtaining citizenship or owning land, and a number of states enacted anti-miscegenation laws that included a ban on marriage between whites and Asians, among other non-white groups.

In Chicago, where the tiny Japanese community numbered only in the hundreds, Fujita made a home for himself among the creative class.

He soon fell in love with Florence Carr — Graham Lee’s great-aunt, the sister of his grandfather — who would remain Fujita’s partner until his death.

“[My mom’s] recollection was that Florence was a student at the University of Chicago, studying social work, and she was looking for love. She met Jun and they were immediately smitten,” said Lee.

Though Fujita died in 1963, two years before Lee was born, Carr kept his memory alive.

“His pictures were on the walls and we were always telling stories about Uncle Jun,” Lee said.

Fujita and Carr would have recognized themselves as a mixed-race couple, and they even opted not to have children out of concerns over how a biracial child would be perceived, Lee said.

Lee, who inherited boxes of Fujita’s negatives and prints (a number of which can be viewed on Instagram), noted images from the 1919 race riots are among the few photographs Fujita actually saved of his own work, an indicator of their significance.

While Lee said Fujita typically let his images speak for themselves, in the case of the photograph of the man beaten during the riots, there’s more to the story.

According to Lee, Fujita’s original, unedited obituary states the photographer took the injured man to the hospital, where he later died, and only then rushed back to the newspaper offices with his film of the murder.

“You can only imagine how that would have struck a deeper chord with him,” Lee said of the riots.

Still, Fujita and Carr, who married in 1940, escaped the worst of the kind of prejudice and hatred leveled at blacks and other “aliens.”

“Jun and Florence were really insulated,” Lee said. “They were in an artsy crowd, part of this bohemian lifestyle.”

Indeed, Fujita was something of a minor celebrity among Chicago society, even working as a silent film actor for the city’s Essanay Studios.

“He was funny, thoughtful, sexy — he had this charisma,” Lee said. “He loved classical music, he loved the opera. He had this red velvet cape he would wear to the opera.”

Gradually Fujita transitioned away from photojournalism toward arts photography (the Art Institute of Chicago owns some of his work) and increasingly focused on writing poetry. High-placed connections helped spare Fujita from an internment camp during WWII, and he and Carr retreated to their home near the Indiana Dunes — one of his favorite photographic subjects — throughout the conflict.

Legislation passed by Congress in 1952 reversed previous immigration statutes and allowed Issei to apply for naturalization. In 1954, Illinois Sen. James Hamilton Lewis pushed through a bill granting Fujita citizenship on the grounds of his contributions to American society.

Ultimately, Lee views Fujita’s story as one of triumph, the type of narrative that illustrates the best of what immigrants bring to the U.S.

“Look at this range of talents and skills he had. Here’s this immigrant who developed into this celebrity, who led such a full life,” said Lee.

“He started out wanting to be an electrical engineer and became a poet,” Lee said. “I feel like it’s the journey is what Jun is about. You start off at Point A with one goal and by the time you’re at Point Z, it changes. Your path emerges.”

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