1919 Race Riots in Chicago: A look back 100 years later

CHICAGO — This year marks 100 years since the Chicago Race Riot—a tragic event that has shaped politics and race relations in the city.

Many Chicagoans do not know the whole story, but there is a push to educate and explore solutions to problems today that are similar to that very difficult period in the city's history.

The year 1919 was a year of racial uprisings. It was dubbed the “Red Summer” by author James Weldon Johnson.  There were more than three dozen race riots in cities across the country, but none were as violent or as deadly as the one in Chicago.

At the time, Chicago was a tinderbox of a racial tensions. White soldiers returning from World War I were afraid they wouldn’t get their high pay jobs in the stockyards and meatpacking plants back. Meanwhile, blacks who had been recruited from the South to fill them, feared they would be fired. Black soldiers returning from the war refused to put up with racial discrimination after they had risked their lives for their county.

Union differences also fueled the anger. Whites were in favor of the better pay and job protections unions could provide, while blacks worried about discrimination.

Politically, whites were staunchly Democratic while blacks were Republicans, the party of Lincoln who freed the slaves. Overcrowding and poor housing conditions in the black community contributed to the divide.

In short, Chicago was a city just waiting to explode—and it did on July 27, 1919. It was sparked by an incident at 29th Street Beach. A group of black teens were playing on a raft and didn’t realize they had drifted over an invisible line and into the white part of the beach. A white man became infuriated and started throwing rocks. Eugene Williams, 17, ended up drowning, either from being hit by one of the rocks or from being too afraid to swim back to shore.

Anger began to build when a white police officer refused to arrest the man accused of throwing the rock, and false rumors quickly spread throughout the community as the story became distorted about who died and why. There were beatings and bombings.

Thirty-eight people ended died and more than 500 were injured. It caused millions of dollars in property damage, while leaving about a thousand families, mostly black, homeless.

Peace was eventually restored when the governor called in the National Guard and a hard driving rain forced people inside. It was later determined Irish American gangs from nearby Bridgeport were the main instigators of the rioting. One 17-year-old gang member in particular, Richard J. Daley, went on to become the long-time mayor of Chicago.

Daley never confirmed nor denied whether he took part in the rioting, but his supporters have said he had no involvement.

In 1922, the Chicago Commission on Race relations was formed to take a deep dive into the cause and consequences of the riot. It released a 672-page report titled “The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot.”

According to author Claire Hartfield, “It was a call for the community as a whole to take ownership and responsibility and be accountable for what was going on broadly in our city and to come together and to do something about it.”

Now, the Chicago Urban League is one of 14 cultural institutions across the city, including the Newberry Library taking part in a year-long exploration of the history and legacy of the 1919 Race Riot.

Log on to view the 2019 Community Conversations Events surrounding the 1919 Chicago Race Riot.

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