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Bronzeville, Near South Side

Get A History Lesson On Two Wheels About The 1919 Race Riot — And Its Impact On Modern Chicago

With visits to riot sites and other important parts of Chicago Black history, organizers of a weekend bike ride want to give context to the racial violence of a century ago.

Bicyclists with the Major Taylor Cycling Club raise a Black power fist under the Green Line tracks at 35th Street last July, to commemorate the 101st anniversary of the 1919 race riot. The land, which also nears Chicago Police Department headquarters, was an epicenter of violence during the riot.
Barry Feldman
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BRONZEVILLE — Chicagoans can learn more about how a “red summer” of racial violence and Black resistance more than a century ago continues to shape their communities at a historical bike ride this weekend.

The opening ceremony for the third annual bike tour of sites linked to the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 begins 10 a.m. Saturday at the Chicago Military Academy, 3519 S. Giles Ave. in Bronzeville.

The 5.5-mile bike ride takes place 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., with stops at the Chicago Defender and Chicago Bee offices, the newly unveiled Ida B. Wells monument, the Victory Monument and other locations in Bronzeville and Bridgeport.

Following the ride, organizers will unveil a prototype for the markers they plan to install at the sites where more than three dozen people were killed during the 1919 riot. Boxed lunches from Ain’t She Sweet Cafe will be provided.

Riders must bring their own bicycle and helmet. To register for the event, click here.

“The mission of the project is to increase awareness” on the riot and its impact on Chicago a century later, said Franklin Cosey-Gay, co-director of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project.

The riot began July 27, 1919, after a white man murdered 17-year-old Eugene Williams. Williams was killed while swimming in Lake Michigan, as white people threw rocks at him for floating across an imaginary racial dividing line. Police refused to arrest the killer, sparking racist violence that left 38 people dead.

Two policemen standing over a victim of the race riots in Chicago, Illinois, 1919.

The riot is “an origin story for segregation” in Chicago, as it stigmatized Black communities as violent and played a role in the city’s current housing divide, Cosey-Gay said.

Organizers “don’t want to only talk about the history of 1919” on the bike ride, project co-director Peter Cole said. “We want to put it into the context of what was happening at that time and its legacy.”

Guest speakers include writer Eve Ewing; professor Lance Williams; Ida B. Wells’ great-grandson, Dan Duster; DuSable Museum education director Kim Dulaney and Bright Star Church pastor Chris Harris. They’ll link the violence of 102 years ago to events that followed and present conditions in Chicago.

For example, when riders stop at the Chicago Bee branch library — formerly home to the Black newspaper that gives the branch its name — Ewing will speak on the push to rename the former “Black Belt” to Bronzeville.

“Black” was a pejorative at the time, and neighborhood leaders wanted to give the community a name that reflected its strengths while distancing itself from the struggles and racial violence of its past, Cosey-Gay said.

Elsewhere along the route, Williams will challenge the misconception that gangs are unique to people of color. He’ll highlight the role white “social athletic clubs” played in inciting the 1919 riot — like the Hamburg Athletic Association, to which former Mayor Richard J. Daley belonged most of his life.

Tour organizers picked speakers who “we believe [to be] awesome because of the work that they do on the issues we care about” — like historical memory, public art and the fight for racial equality, Cole said.

The bike ride will end with the unveiling of artistic markers created through Firebird Community Arts, a Garfield Park-based studio that teaches glassblowing to youth healing from violence and trauma. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle will introduce the marker project.

The riot commemoration project is working with the city’s cultural affairs and transportation departments to install the markers along Chicago’s sidewalks.

“A major part of our work is trying to get this public art project completed,” Cole said. “It’s the most complicated part, but also the most enduring. [The markers will be] there every day of the year … as opposed to the occasional opportunity for us to do an event” like the bike tour.

A longer historical bike tour and another unveiling ceremony for a marker prototype are tentatively scheduled for the fall, organizers said.

This spring, the project partnered with the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder on a program uniting high school students in South Shore and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Oklahoma teens learned about the 1919 riot while Chicago students studied the 1921 Black Wall Street massacre, then held a roundtable discussion with NBA players.

University of Chicago doctoral students Zoya Sameen, Kirsten Lopez, Esther Isaac, Nikki Grigg and Madeline Adams also made drastic improvements to the project’s website.They wrote biographies of riot victims, created an interactive map of where the historical markers will be placed and filmed an introductory video for the project, among other efforts.

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