Red summer of 1919: Chicago’s darkest days

Stonings in the street, houses aflame, families dispossessed. Spencer Mizen takes us back to Chicago 1919, when institutionalised racism, postwar tensions and mass migration ignited an outpouring of hate against black Americans

National guardsmen confront confront citizens during Chicago's race riots

It’s the weekend. The Sun is shining. Temperatures are soaring. Children are heading to the beach and playing in the water. In normal circumstances, these would hardly be the ingredients for one of the worst outbreaks of violence in a nation’s history. But then, Chicago in 1919 was no normal city.

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For months, tensions between the Illinois metropolis’s black and white communities had been running high. Resentments had simmered, insults had been thrown, fights had broken out. And now, as the mercury topped 30°C, those tensions spiralled out of control.

On 27 July 1919, an African-American teenager called Eugene Williams went for a dip in Lake Michigan, the massive body of water on which Chicago sits. While playing in the water, Williams swum towards a floating railway sleeper taking him towards a nearby beach.

Today, this seems an unremarkable thing to do. But, a century ago, Williams was drifting towards trouble – because the beach he was heading for had been informally declared a ‘whites only’ one. African-Americans were definitely not welcome, and the white occupants of the beach signalled as much by greeting Williams with a barrage of stones.

What happened next turned a flashpoint into a tragedy. A witness recalled seeing a white male standing on a breakwater and hurling rocks out into the water. Williams was struck on the forehead, panicked and lost his grip on the sleeper. Within a few minutes he had drowned.

Bad blood

Williams’s death would have caused serious repercussions even in the most harmonious of cities. In one as febrile as 1919 Chicago, it was like putting a match to a powder keg. An angry crowd of African-Americans soon arrived at the scene, their anger escalating when the police reportedly refused to arrest the perpetrator. A fight erupted – and then James Crawford, a black man, fired into the police officers before he was himself shot by a policeman.

According to a report later published by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, the black mob began venting its fury at what it had just witnessed on the city’s white residents. Over the next few hours, four were beaten, five stabbed, one shot.

A group of children celebrate after setting a black family's home on fire.
A group of children (and a few adults) celebrate their hard work: smashing up a black family’s home and setting it on fire. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

But the report revealed a response of even greater ferocity. “As darkness came on”, it stated, “white gangsters became active. Negroes in white districts suffered severely at their hands. From 9pm to 3am, 27 negroes were beaten, seven were stabbed and four were shot.” These were the opening blows of what Gary Krist, author of a book on Chicago’s tragic summer of 1919, described as an “orgy of violence that was really revolting in many ways. The police seemed incapable of doing anything about it”.

What happened next would arguably become the worst outbreak of civil disorder in the Red Summer of 1919, when the US was convulsed by race riots and fears of communist revolution. By the time the violence in Chicago fizzled out on 3 August, 38 people had died and more than 500 had been injured.

The Chicago Race Riots may be remembered as a visceral, spontaneous expression of rage. But this was a disaster with many roots, encompassing institutionalised racism, depredation, the mass movement of people, and the impact on American society of World War I.

Perhaps the best place to start when examining these roots is not Chicago itself but the network of roads and railway lines linking the city to a patchwork of mainly rural communities in the American south. For decades, these communities had been home to more than 90 per cent of America’s black population. That statistic was to change dramatically in the first decades of the 20th century, thanks to something now known as the Great Migration; an exodus that saw millions of African-Americans heading to towns and cities in the north, east and west – many fleeing segregation, discrimination, disenfranchisement and lynchings often perpetrated by a resurgent Ku Klux Klan.

It was, in the words of the American academic Nicholas Lemann, “one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements in history”, and the impact on large industrial cities like Chicago was significant. Between 1909 and 1919, the city’s black population rose from 44,000 to more than 100,000, and the vast majority of the new inhabitants congregated in the cramped streets and dilapidated houses of the city’s south side, subsequently known as the ‘Black Belt’.

Black soldiers in World War I

If anyone deserved his nomination for a Medal of Honor, then surely it was Sergeant William Butler. In the trenches of France, the African-American soldier singlehandedly took on an enemy raiding party, killing 10 Germans, taking a German lieutenant prisoner and freeing a number of American prisoners. Butler was clearly a remarkable soldier, but he wasn’t alone. Of the 380,000 African-Americans who served their country during World War I, many did so with distinction. One example was the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’, which was posted to the front line for six months – longer than any other American unit in the war. In recognition of its efforts, a grateful French government awarded the entire unit the Croix de Guerre, its highest military honour.

Many of the black soldiers who enlisted did so on the advice of black intellectual WEB Du Bois, who believed that a sizeable African-American contribution to the conflict would advance the cause of civil rights back home. As it turned out, these hopes were largely frustrated. Black soldiers were forced to train in segregated camps, banned from the Marines and – as many military leaders doubted they had the physical, mental or moral character to withstand warfare – were widely relegated to labourintensive service positions. This perhaps explains the observation, made by Joel Spingarn of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, that “every colored soldier that I have talked with in France, Germany or America has a grievance”.

The price of war

In many ways, Chicago must have appeared an appealing destination for black migrants. Institutionalised racism was less endemic than in most southern cities, job opportunities were provided by the city’s huge stockyards and meatpacking plants – and workers were needed to replace those men called away to fight in World War I.

But if anyone believed that Chicago’s white population and their new black neighbours would live happily side by side, they were in for a rude awakening.

One source of rising racial tension was the fact that many African-American workers weren’t members of unions and were sometimes called in as strikebreakers. Another was the power of ethnic Irish gangs in Chicago. As the first major group of 19th-century European immigrants to settle in the city, the Irish had established formidable formal – and informal – political strength in the city, and guarded that power jealously.

Irish gangs, among them the notorious Hamburg Athletic Club, had long patrolled their neighbourhoods against other ethnic groups, such as immigrants hailing from eastern Europe. But now, with so many African- Americans arriving in the city – many of them competing with Irish- Americans for housing and jobs – it wasn’t long before gangs were attacking black communities.

If the competition for jobs and housing was intense during World War I, it became even more acute when the conflict ended and thousands of troops began returning home. White veterans who’d left their jobs for war, and returned to find them taken by black workers, seethed with resentment. But black war veterans had cause for bitterness too. As one black soldier put it, African-American veterans had made “the supreme sacrifice” and “now we want to see our country live up to the constitution and the declaration of independence”.

Through their pain and sacrifice in Europe, they believed they had earned the right to equality – and, if that wasn’t forthcoming, they were increasingly prepared to fight for it. For many, it wasn’t forthcoming – African-Americans continued to live in dilapidated, squalid housing, were still demonised by their white neighbours, and widely barred from political power.

Malicious amusement

As the Sun beat down on Chicago on Monday 28 July 1918, the day after Eugene Williams’s death, these many grievances started to play out across southern Chicago – with terrible consequences for the city’s white population. For their black neighbours, the pain would be far worse still.

The violence from the night before had temporarily dampened down and the morning rush hour of 28 July passed off relatively peacefully. But then the atmosphere turned toxic once more. According to the Chicago Commission on Race Relations report, “as the afternoon wore on, white men and boys living between the stockyards and the Black Belt sought malicious amusement in directing violence on Negro workers returning home”. White gangs flooded into tram stops, dragging black passengers out and beating and kicking them.

Elsewhere, a white laundryman was set upon by a black gang and stabbed to death. !en a rumour spread that a white man had shot a black boy from the fourth-floor window of a building. At that, a black mob converged on the building in search of revenge. A brick was thrown. Later, police fired a volley of bullets into the crowd, killing four.

Nightfall brought little respite to the mayhem. White gangs drove cars through black areas at high speeds, firing shots at anything that moved. They were increasingly met with fire from black shooters holed-up behind barricades.

THE RED SUMMER

Chicago was just one of a slew of race riots, predominantly between April and October 1919 in the south and east of the country, that are collectively known as the Red Summer. After Chicago, these were three of the most serious.

WASHINGTON, DC, 20–23 JULY

Thirty-nine people died and more than 100 were injured when rumours that a black man had sexually assaulted a white woman exploded into an all-out war. The violence began with white war veterans – fired up by news of the alleged assault –!roaming an impoverished black neighbourhood handing out lynchings. Soon the city’s African- Americans would fight back, killing 10 white residents in just one night. The bloodshed continued for four days until a combination of heavy rain and 2,000 military servicemen – sent in by President Woodrow Wilson –brought the violence on his doorstep to an end.

OMAHA, NEBRASKA 28–29 SEPTEMBER

The Omaha race riot was one of the Red Summer’s grisliest episodes. The violence erupted when a black man, Will Brown, was accused of raping a white 19 year old, Agnes Loebeck. Brown was taken to Douglas County Courthouse, swiftly followed by a white mob of thousands demanding retribution. The rioters overpowered the police and seized Mayor Edward Parsons Smith, a political opponent of one of the rioters’ ringleaders, and attempted to hang him. Only a dramatic intervention by police officers saved the mayor’s life.

For Brown, however, there would be no escape. He was captured, lynched and his lifeless body hanged from a telephone post. Then the body was burned and its charred remains dragged through the city’s business district for hours. Nobody went to prison for his killing.

ELAINE, ARKANSAS 30 SEPTEMBER–1 OCTOBER

The unrest that blighted Elaine, Arkansas, might be more accurately called a massacre. Around 200 African-Americans, along with five white people, were killed when a white mob numbering up to a thousand went on the rampage. By 2 October, US Army troops had been sent in and the mob began to disperse. But that didn’t bring the black population’s suffering to an end – many African-Americans were rounded up in stockades and there were accusations of torture. In the aftermath, 122 African-Americans were charged with crimes related to the riots. Not one white person faced justice.

Within 36 hours of Eugene Williams’s death, it was already clear that Chicago was in the midst of one of the darkest incidents in its history – and media reports of the events certainly did little to quell the hatred between the black and white communities.

Even newspapers with a primarily African-American audience were, it seems, guilty of stoking the fires of hatred. The Chicago Defender claimed that a white mob killed a black woman attempting to board a car, cutting off her breasts and displaying them on a pole, and beating her “baby’s brains out against a telephone pole”.

This wasn’t true but, by Tuesday, such was the level of violence, the Defender hardly needed to exaggerate. That day, a gang of white soldiers and sailors, aided by civilians, raided the Loop, a downtown section of Chicago, killing two black men, and beating and robbing several others. Meanwhile, white gangs were burning black homes and dragging black service industry workers out of restaurants and beating them in the streets.

Mounted police flanking a black man during Chicago's 1919 race riot
Police guided (though some say ‘herded’) Chicago’s African-Americans to safe zones during the unrest. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

In one particularly grisly incident, a black cyclist was knocked off his bike and dragged into a street from the basement where he had tried to hide. Here, according to one report, a mob “riddled his body with bullets, stabbed him and beat him”.

As the nation looked on in growing horror, William Hale Thompson, mayor of Chicago – who had thus far resisted calling in outside help – finally relented and ordered in 6,000 Illinois Army National Guard troops.

“Within hours there were thousands of troopers heading into the streets with howitzers and rifles and bayonets — and they met a lot of resistance,” wrote Krist. “A lot of the athletic clubs put up a fight, but really within 24 hours they had more or less restored order.”

By 3 August – seven days after Eugene Williams had gone for his fateful swim in Lake Michigan – the riot had fizzled out. But with many dead, swathes of southern Chicago in ruins and President Woodrow Wilson publicly blaming the city’s white residents for the violence, this wasn’t an incident that the city could move on from in a hurry.

Seeking resolution

It was amid the soul-searching that the authorities tasked the Chicago Commission on Race Relations – made up of six black men and six white – with producing a report on the riots. !at report – which addressed everything from institutionalised racism and poor housing options through to inconsistent law enforcement – has been hailed as an extraordinary effort at cross-racial collaboration, research and resolution.

But critics have pointed out that little was done to improve the lot of Chicago’s black population in the wake of its publication. Most of the deaths were not even prosecuted and, while one man was charged with Williams’s death, he was acquitted.

Some have argued that, if anything good did come out of the carnage of late July and early August 1919, it’s that it highlighted to wider America the injustices faced by its black population. It’s also been argued that 1919 marked the beginning of a growing willingness among African-Americans to fight for their own rights in the face of injustice.

Whether that’s true or not, the race riot continue to loom large in Chicagoans’ imagination in the 21st century. As one black Chicagoan, Dempsey Travis, wrote in his An Autobiography of Black Chicago: “I was never permitted to learn to swim. For six years, we lived within two blocks of the lake, but that did not change [my parents’] attitude. To Dad and Mama, the blue lake always had a tinge of red from the blood of that young black boy.”

Spencer Mizen is Production Editor of BBC History Magazine

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This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed