Letter from the editor on the summer of 1919

As spring 2019 turns into summer, before the temperatures in Chicago reach “scorching” levels and we all take to the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan, I have been thinking—reading, browsing, learning—about Chicago in the summer of 1919, exactly one hundred years ago.  This is my version of beach reading this year—the word “beach” being the operative word.

The year 1919 had a real beast of a summer.  Across the nation, it was known as the Red Summer, because there was so much civil unrest. That summer saw race riots in Washington, D.C., Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, and Nebraska.1 I have been reading about it all, but with a particular emphasis on Chicago—simply because I call the Chicago area my home. I did not know before recently that Chicago had experienced race riots, although I knew that another Illinois city had been scarred by race riots only two years before, in East Saint Louis in 1917.2 In Chicago, the proverbial pot finally boiled over at a south shore beach in July 1919.

The basic story is that, on July 27, 2019, a small group of unarmed black teenage boys unknowingly crossed an invisible (and unofficial) racial boundary while cooling off on a beach off of 29th street, along Lake Michigan.  After being attacked by a white male bather, one of the boys drowned.3  The Chicago Police never arrested the attacker, though he had been identified by the surviving boys and witnesses. Nevertheless, the incident kicked off nearly a week of race riots in Chicago, including arson, beatings, and plain, cold-blooded murder.4  All this happened at a time of deep ethnic divisions and tensions, paralyzing union strikes, and widespread angst amongst the working classes of all ethnicities. Notably, in 1919, even if the working-class white ethnic Chicagoans (including Polish, German, Irish and Italians) did not want to compete for jobs with each other, there was an apparent consensus that none of them would tolerate African Americans walking across the union picket lines, living in their neighborhoods, or working the same jobs. Rage and resentment boiled over.  With City Hall unable to restore order, the National Guard was called.  Thirty-eight people died in the Chicago riots of 1919.5

At a minimum, my goal in reading about the events of the summer of 1919 has been to remember the young man who lost his life (Eugene Williams), and then to learn about a race riot that Chicago seemed to have forgotten altogether.  Given that this has been called one of the largest race riots in America, it seemed odd (and sad) that I had never learned about it or heard about it.  Somehow, I have managed to call Chicagoland my home for nearly 15 years without ever hearing a word about this particular history.  However, based on my reading so far, my experience is not unique, because this is not a history that Chicago has straightforwardly addressed at any time.6

On the 100th anniversary of those riots, the situation appears to be changing, and Chicago is looking frankly, honestly, and intentionally at the summer of 1919, through a collaborative project called “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots.”7  I can’t do honor to what this initiative is doing with my 750 words or less, so I strongly encourage you to go to the website (www.chicago1919.org ), read up, and try to attend some of the events going on throughout the year.

Personally, as a lawyer of color, I want to know all about it. I want to know more about what has always appeared to me (as an outsider) as a longstanding history of ethnic divisions and hostility in Chicago. I want to know whether any white persons were prosecuted in 1919 for battery, property damage, or for murder.  I want to know if Chicago took any steps to protect its black citizens in 1919.  I want to know how and if Chicago healed after the National Guard quelled the violence.  I want to know if the Chicago race riots of 1919 had any effect on the laws enacted after that time, or the way that existing laws were enforced.

In short, I will be following the Chicago 1919 initiative and attending as many events as I can, while reading a couple more books on the subject.  I hope you will join me.  Let’s talk about this history with the kind of detail and respect that such truth deserves.

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June 2019Volume 29Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)