To Remember the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, Commemoration Project Looks to Public Art

The Windy City was just one place that went up in flames that summer

Race Riot Image
Chicago History Museum

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project is currently raising money to install public works of art around the city to commemorate where 38 people were killed during a racially motivated massacre 100 years ago.

The anniversary of the start of the violent racial conflict came and went on Friday, July 27. It was the beginning of one bloody incident during a period many Americans have never heard of, or intentionally forgot, the Red Summer Race Riots. Over the course of several months, 10 major racial conflicts erupted across the United States, from Texas and Arkansas to Chicago and Omaha, as well as dozens of smaller incidents. The violence left at least 150 people dead, many injured and race relations across the country on edge.

While the popular image of the end of World War I in November 1918 includes ticker tape parades and jubilant celebration, the reality was far different. As Christina Maxouris at CNN reports, soldiers returned home to a country gripped by the deadly Spanish flu. Employment was hard to find for returning soldiers, there were strikes and Americans' fears about the potential rise of communism pervaded. At the same time, before and during the war, African-Americans had begun moving North to cities where factory workers welcomed cheaper labor and where African-Americans were treated “slightly better” than in the South.

Chicago, for one saw a doubling of the population of African-Americans in the 1910s, from about 44,000 to 110,000, reports Madeline Fitzgerald at TIME. But as black employees began taking jobs at the slaughterhouses and factories in the city, white resentment rose. During 1919, the homes of two dozen black residents were bombed, raising tensions. Then, on July 27, during the hottest weekend of the year, a group of black teenage boys went swimming at the 29th St. Beach on Lake Michigan. While not formally segregated, black and white bathers stayed on their own side of an invisible line, NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates and Jason Fuller report. When 17-year-old Eugene Williams drifted over that line while playing on a raft, 24-year-old George Stauber began chucking rocks at him. Williams fell off the raft and drowned. While a black police officer tried to arrest Stauber, he was stopped by a white officer. Word of the conflict spread and a group of about 1,000 distraught black citizens gathered. One pulled a gun and fired at the police. He was shot dead by cops.

That night, gangs of young Irish-American men began roaming black neighborhoods, attacking people. The violence escalated from there, with arsonists setting homes on fire and bands of white vigilantes attacking any black person they saw. Even though the Illinois Reserve Militia was called in to restore order, 38 people—23 black, 15 white—were dead, more than 350 reported injuries and 1,000 black homes had been burned down.

According to Timuel Black Jr., a historian, educator and activist, who came to Chicago as an infant just months after the incident, it’s believed one reason the riots finally came to an end was that a group of black veterans broke into an armory and armed themselves to protect their neighborhoods. “I understand that this was the first time these Northern [African-Americans] fought back from an attack and been successful,” he tells NPR. “From what I've been told by my family who was here, the riot was soon over, because the Westside rioters felt they were in danger, now that these [African-American veterans] returning from the war had weapons equal to their weapons.”

The Windy City was just one place that went up in flames that summer. In July, 1919, in Washington, D.C., after a black man suspected of sexually assaulting a white woman was released, 1,000 white veterans wearing their army uniforms invaded the black sections of town, clubbing any black person they saw and pulling some out of streetcars. Some African-Americans also fought back, according to David F. Krugler, author of 1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back. “There were pockets of resistance [by African-Americans]," Krugler says. “And that’s another reason why the backlash was so harsh.”

In September, in Omaha, Nebraska, a white mob stormed a courthouse and dragged out Will Brown, a black man accused of assaulting a white girl. He was beaten, shot and lynched. In Elaine, Arkansas, on September 30, when sharecroppers met to vote on unionizing, shots were fired, setting off days of unrest in which white people from surrounding counties and states came to the area to put down the “sharecropper uprising.” In total, 200 African Americans were killed, including 20 who were shot while trying to surrender to National Guard troops.

The period of violence is a relatively forgotten moment in America’s past, though its legacy persists to the present. Peter Cole, of Western Illinois University, tells Fitzgerald at TIME that in the aftermath of the riot, Chicago began using legal tools, like covenants keeping African-Americans from owning property in certain areas.

Currently, Arionne Nettles of WBEZ Chicago reports, there’s only one historical marker erected in the city to mark the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. It’s located near where Eugene Williams drowned after his raft drifted to the “white side” of the lake around 29th Street.

Cole, who is the founding director of the new commemoration project, said that he knew that more needed to be done to get people to reflect on what happened in Chicago 100 years ago. Ultimately, the project wants to create different works of public art to the 38 who died during the race riot that summer. "Young people — whether they're from downstate, suburbs or the city of Chicago — are unaware of this history," Cole tells Nettles. "And that's because no one in Illinois actually thinks about or remembers the Chicago race riot of 1919, let alone its legacy."

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