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Young artists confront racism 98 years after Chicago’s race riots

CHICAGO -- It was 98 years ago that racial tensions spilled over in Chicago as race riots broke out in the city, and a group of young artists are marking the anniversary with art that confronts the legacy of racism in the city today.

On July 27, 1919 17-year-old Eugene Williams was swimming with friends on a small raft along 29th Street Beach when he inadvertently drifted 75 yards into the segregated white part of the lakefront. A handful of young men pelted him with stones from the beach for his mistake - and Williams ended up drowning just feet from shore.

His death sparked a week of rioting on Chicago's South Side, leaving 15 white men and 23 black men dead, and over 1,000 black families homeless after their houses were torched by rioters.

Young Chicago artists returned to 29th Street Beach Thursday to remember Williams, his death, and the riots that took dozens of lives.

"We can't run from our history," said Tamela Chambers, Chicago Vocational Career Academy. "We have to confront it and that's the only way we move forward."

Tamela and artist Charity White confronted that history by gathering young Chicagoans to create a sculpture of Eugene Williams that would sit along the same beach he was killed at nearly a 100 years earlier.

"When I was in eighth grade, I was told by certain people that if they saw me, they'd kill me. So when they asked me to join, I was happy to do it," said CVCA artist  Djamon Barber.  "This is something that has to do with Chicago. This is something I can relate to - something I've been through."

Despite being removed by a century, the young artists say they couldn't help but be moved by the story of Eugene, a man roughly their age, and practically forgotten by the history books.

"I think that's the main issue. There's this big disconnect with it of who is aware of this story and who is not," White said.

"It actually strengthened my belief that we need to do something about it... spread awareness that it needs to stop," said CVCA artist Shakira Daise.

For months, they used their hands to sculpt and paint the story that seems to keep replaying.

"As we work with the kids, they realize some of the things that happened throughout history are some of the same issues they face today," Chambers said.

This afternoon their work was brought to the same 29th st. Beach where chicago's race riots began so long ago.

"this is something that has been happening for 100 years, so this project was so valuable in exploring what has changed and what still needs to change," White said.

The young artists tagged their project "look back to move forward,"' hoping that through awareness patterns of racism won't continue to be repeated. Their work and the sculpture of Eugene Williams will remain up at 29th Street Beach through August 3rd, marking the full week of Chicago's race riots.