Charting the History of Racial Violence in Chicago

Chicago is known for many things, including its skyscrapers, creative architecture, beautiful lakefront, extreme weather, cultural institutions, and musics. Long viewed as one of the most segregated cities in the country, Chicago’s contemporary realities were shaped by its contentious past and the deliberate policies instituted after the devastating 1919 Race Riots during what observers have termed “The Red Summer.” Many people today know little about the widespread racial violence during that summer, but historian Peter Cole, of Western Illinois University, is working to create markers throughout the city that will memorialize the victims.

The Red Summer emerged against the backdrop of the First Red Scare, a period of anti-communist hysteria and racial tension. This situation was exacerbated by the increased presence of African Americans in the nation’s cities, competition for jobs and space, and the return of Black WWI veterans seeking justice and equality. Chicago, like other American cities, was a tinderbox. Tensions grew and eventually mushroomed into race riots in dozens of cities making the summer of 1919, one of the most violent summers the country has experienced.

In Chicago, what started out as a hot summer day on July 27, 1919 where hundreds flocked to the beach to cool off, turned into a week of violence and mass destruction.

There was an unwritten racial demarcation of beaches on Lake Michigan. Eugene Williams, an African-American teenager, drifted over to the “white” side of the 29th Street Beach. This resulted in a melee in which whites threw rocks at him. Struck by a rock, Williams lost consciousness and drowned. Williams’ death, coupled with a lackluster police investigation and failure to arrest the responsible party caused an already tense situation to escalate into a disaster. Riots broke out throughout the South Side neighborhood surrounding the stockyards. Within a week, by August 3rd a total of 38 people had been killed --15 whites and 23 blacks. Over 500 people were injured and more than one thousand black homes were destroyed by fires, looting, and vandalism.

In order to understand today’s issues, it is important to study the past. The 38 people who died in the 1919 racial riot need to be remembered. Cole envisions individual markers, in the form of small plaques with the name of each victim, installed at the locations where each was killed. The idea is inspired by Germany’s stumbling stones,” which mark include the names, date of birth, date and place of death outside the houses.

Although the United States and Germany have different histories, both countries have experienced significant violence against specific targeted groups of people. Distrust, misunderstanding, and division between groups need to be healed in order to come together as one country. “The placement of the stones with the names of the victims placed throughout the city could lead to any number of other projects rippling outward to deal with other chapters in Chicago’s history of racism,” said Professor Cole. “We also can imagine this spreading to other American communities. After all, the first twenty stones installed in Berlin, Germany in the mid-1990s, have increased to over 70,000 in more than twenty European countries.” Recognizing victims of hate-based violence, can humanize the atrocities, lead to discussion and possible reconciliation.

The year 2019 is the centennial of the pivotal summer. In order to remember, reflect, and mark the riot that still has long-standing ramifications for contemporary Chicago, numerous activities were organized for July 27th by the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration (CRR19) Project. The events that took place across the city to commemorate this fateful week included a bike tour, libation ceremony, lectures, beach party, and panel discussions. Other remembrance projects include an interactive map created by the University of Chicago and an audio drama called “City on Fire: Chicago Race Riot 1919” by Natalie Moore and Jeremy McCarter.

After the Chicago riot, a study was conducted by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations and a 650+-page report was produced in order to study the origins and suggest solutions to the problems that caused the riot. Some suggested keeping the races separate as the best way to alleviate tension. The practice of redlining and restricted covenants became standard practice in Chicago, which resulted in racial divides between neighborhoods and sections of the city. The long-term effects has been the underdevelopment of “Black neighborhoods,” which has caused almost a century of inequality in transportation, neighborhood schools, healthcare facilities, access to healthy food, public safety and more.

Just as the phrase “never again” is associated with the Holocaust, Chicago and the rest of the country can adopt or develop a similar saying to reflect the seriousness of the effort and what it is commemorating. Cole said, “the country needs to remember the troubled past first, in order to move toward justice.” As a country, we can not only pledge that this type of atrocity will never happen again, but also memorialize and honor the victims of the racial violence.

The estimated budget for the creation and installation of the commemorative markers Chicago totals $30,000. To date a little over 25% of the funds necessary for the stones has been raised through crowdfunding. The organizers hope to also gain support through increased individual participation as well as grants.

The various activities and programs hosted by the CRR19 created dialogue that highlighted the connection between the violence of 1919 and the racial inequality that exist today in Chicago. Racial divides can lessen and equity can increase through the implementation of policies, public honors, and recognition of the injustices that have occurred. By placing markers, Chicago can be a leader in creating tangible ways to “never forget” the 1919 Race Riot victims.

About the Author

Michelle Duster is an award-winning author, speaker, and educator. Her professional background includes two decades of writing in advertising and marketing communications. Since 2008 she has written, edited and contributed to nine books and dozens of articles. She is active with several committees to develop city, state, and national public history projects that focus on the contributions African Americans and women made to the United States, including her paternal great-grandmother, civil rights icon Ida B. Wells.