A Chicago Tribune cartoon published while the 1919 riots were still raging depicts the flashpoint at the 29th Street Beach.
It began 100 years ago with what might, under other circumstances, have been passed off a teenage rough house when a boy from another neighborhood wandered into waters of a Lake Michigan beach and the local rascals pelted him with stones. By all accounts 24year-old George Stauber threw the rock that ultimately caused 17-year-old Eugene Williams to drown. When the Chicago police arrived at the chaotic scene they arrested a youth who pointed out the assailant. A melee erupted. It spread over the afternoon and evening into the city streets.
Not much to see here, move on. Except that the incident set off eight days or deadly rioting across the South Side that ultimately left at least 38 dead and more than 535 treated by local doctors and hospitals or held injured by the police. Probably additional dead were uncounted and hundreds of the injured did not seek medical help for fear of arrest. Did I mention that the original victim, Williams, was Black and his attackers were all White.
Violence spilled from the 29th Street Beach over this pedestrian overpass and rapidly spread through the South Side.
In the midst of one of the city’s suffocating heat waves on July 27 the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 was off and running. That term can be confusing because to modern ears it evokes the bloody uprisings of despair of the 1960’s and ‘70’s when enraged Blacks in Chicago and other major cities fought police and often burned down their own neighborhoods. But in 1919 the rioters were mostly White mobs roaming the streets and indiscriminately attacking Black men, women, and children they encountered; burning black residences, schools, and churches; and looting not only Black businesses, but white-owned shops and stores that sold to them.
The Chicago Defender, the city's Black newspaper of record reported more accurately on the events than the downtown dailies while trying to calm the situation.
Here and there Blacks individually and in small groups fought back—notably ex-Doughboys back from France—some times with gunfire. But the statistics of the known victims tell the tale. Thirty-eight people were killed—23 Black and 15 white with some White likely the victims of their own indiscriminate fire. 537 were officially reported wounded, with 2/3 injured being Black. The 1000 to 2000 who lost their homes to arson and frenzied demolition were virtually all Black. Hundreds were arrested by the Police or held by the Illinois National Guard after it was finally mobilized. The records are incomplete but the majority of those were also Black. In fact Police often turned a blind eye to racial attacks and sometimes joined them.
Stoning a Black victim to death. The man with the raised arm is in what looks like a Chicago Fire Department uniform.
1919 was another one of those pivotal years in American history, a paradigm shift. World War I was over and “a million men in khaki suits” were returning home to a devastating post war recession and high unemployment. Around the world revolution was in the air while at home a massive strike wave that included a national steel strike, coal mining wars, and the defiant radicalism of the energized Industrial Workers of the World actions out West in the lumber, metal mining, agricultural industries. War-time anti-labor actions pivoted into a full blown Red Scare with nationwide raids, mass arrests, show trials, and incarcerations. Temporary war-time prohibition was becoming permanent under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and the enabling Volstead Act.On the other hand 19th Amendment for women’s suffrage passed both houses of Congress and was in the process of being ratified in the States and empowered women were ditching cumbersome, heavy garments for clothes they could move comfortably in. And Black culture was beginning to go mainstream as jass or jazz escaped New Orleans to Chicago and the New York stage.
But things were particularly bleak for African-Americans. Hope had been high that the service of Blacks in the War to End All Wars and on the home front would earn respect and gratitude which would improve their daily lives and prospects. Hundreds of thousands had escaped the Jim Crow South to the major northern industrial cities to work in defense and other heavy industry in a movement known as the Great Migration. Now, with unemployment raging white workers saw Blacks as job thieves who undercut wages. Blacks had also been used as strikebreakers. Tensions were on the rise.
Meanwhile in the South Black veterans were seen as threat to the Jim Crow system of White supremacy. The new Ku Klux Klan that arose in the afterglow of the 1914 release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and other secret night riders were spreading widely. Lynching’s surged including executions of Black veterans still in uniform.
In what became known as the Red Summer, race riots erupted in more than 25 cities including Indianapolis, Indiana and Washington, DC. While the Chicago riot lasted the longest and did by far the most property damage, Blacks in the South suffered even greater losses, often with scant attention by the press.
An Omaha lynch mob gleefully posed with the burning body of their victim in one of the many Red Summer riots.
A mob led by White sailors in Charleston, South Carolina killed five blacks including a respected doctor who tried to defend himself with a hand gun and another died later. A white race riot in Longview, Texas led to the deaths of at least four men and destroyed the Black neighborhood in town. Local police in Bisbee, Arizona attacked Buffalo Soldier troops of 10th U.S. Cavalry in the Battle of Brewery Gulch. In Norfolk, Virginia a mob attacked a homecoming party for Black veterans. In Knoxville, Tennessee a lynch mob stormed the court house then They attacked the African-American business district, where they fought business owners, leaving at least seven dead and wounding more than 20 people. In Omaha, Nebraska another lynch mob attacked a jail, seized Will Brown hanged him and burned his body before attacking Black neighborhoods and stores on the north side.
Worst of all a meeting of Black sharecropper trying to form a union near tiny Elain, Arkansas was attacked by armed mob of hundreds of whites who hunted and killed over 100 Black men and women over two days. Then 79 surviving Blacks were tried and convicted by all-white juries, and 12 were sentenced to death for murder. Only the Supreme Court’s ultimate overturn of the convictions for denial of due process saved their lives. No White attacker was ever charged with anything.
Red Summer indeed.
A Tribune map marked flashpoint of the riots.
In Chicago the White rampage was largely led by Irish gangs from Bridgeport including the politically clout-heavy Hamburg Athletic Club which included 19-year-old Richard J. Daley who was the group’s president. Another gang, Ragen’s Colts donned in blackface and set fire to Lithuanian and Polish homes in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in a deliberate attempt to incite the immigrant community to join the riots.
Black-owned Providence Hospital, which was caring for many victims, was threatened by the mob but was turned aside by Chicago Police. In other instances the police stood aside as mobs prevented the Fire Department from responding to arson fires and some officers actually joined attacks on isolated individuals. Street cars were targeted and Black riders pulled off and beaten even in the Loop, miles north of the main unrest.
Chicago Mayor William Hale (Big Bill) Thompson let the rioting go on for days before he was forced to accept National Guard troops.
Republican Mayor William Hale Thompson engaged in a game of brinksmanship with Illinois Governor Frank Lowden. Thompson refused to ask Lowden to send in the Illinois National Guard for four days and gave the impression that he generally supported White rioters as “defenders of their homes. Lowden had already called up the 11th Illinois Infantry Regiment and its machine gun company, as well as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd reserve militia totaling 3,500 men and they were waiting in armories. Lowden had to appeal to President Woodrow Wilson to put pressure on Thompson before he could finally put the troops on the streets.
The Cook County Sheriff also hastily deputized 3,000 recently discharged volunteer white veterans who were haphazardly deployed and undisciplined. Guardsmen were deployed to protect Black property and lives and to keeps the two sides separate. It took four days to fully restore order.
A Black veteran outranked the young National Guardsman he contorted.
In the wake of the Lowden launched a special blue-ribbon investigation and other inquiries were led by the Coroner’s office. The State’s Attorney Maclay Hoyne only brought accused Black rioters to a Grand Jury which rebelled and refused to issue indictments until at least some White rioters were brought before it. A Cook County judge told scolded the Police Department for only bringing charges against Blacks, “I want to explain to you officers that these colored people could not have been rioting among themselves. Bring me some white prisoners.”
The ugly legacy of the riots was a hardening racial division in the city. Both Blacks and Whites sought protection in segregated neighborhoods. Over the years the South Side Black Belt expanded block-by-block resulting in White flight with real estate speculators roiling the pot to make fast killings. Mayor Daley would use massive housing developments and expressways to isolate and contain the Black communities, including those which had spread to the West Side. Poverty festered in those communities leading directly to the riots of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.
For decades there was a semi-official policy of forgetting the 1919 riots. Outside of the Black community, few whites ever encountered much more than a veiled mention of the events. No monuments to the dead were erected, no municipal commemorations held. The DuSable Museum of African American History and the Chicago History Museum (formerly the Chicago Historical Society Museum) have had exhibits, but people had to seek them out.
With a new Black Mayor, Lori Lightfoot official recognition of the 100th anniversary is now underway. On July 27 Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19) is being launched in Bronzeville, the historic Black neighborhood that was the target of much of the violence. Events will include a special exhibition at the Newberry Library including photos captured by Japanese American photographer Jun Fujita during the riots along with a timeline of the violence, and an interactive map of the 38 deaths. Dozens of special programs are planned over the next year.
Tomorrow: Two poets on the Chicago 1919 Race Riots.