A hot summer day 100 years ago would forever affect race relations in Chicago: On July 27, 1919, a group of black youths who were swimming in Lake Michigan mistakenly drifted across 29thStreet, which was well-known as the “white” area of the waters. Among the group was 17-year-old Eugene Williams who was killed by a white beachgoer who threw rocks at them and caused him to drown.
This event sparked the Chicago Race Riot of 1919; part of the country’s “red summer.” This event, which took place from July 27 to August 3, incited violence between black and white Chicagoans resulting in 38 deaths (23 black and 15 white) and injuries to over 500 others.
Nevertheless, as deadly and as violent as this incident was, it has been largely ignored; for that reason, this little-known incident was the premise for “A Retrospective of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919,” held recently at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Elected officials and community leaders representing the area feted this event, which was kicked off by the VanderCook’s One Cityband’s musical tribute to Bronzeville. For 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell the 1919 riot is a part of Chicago’s history that deserves more attention, especially in schools and media. “This incident is not taught in schools,” said Dowell. “It didn’t get the Hollywood movie treatment.” Likewise, for Alderman Sophia King (4th), many are just now learning about the riots is telling. “It’s unfortunate that we uncovered it like it’s a hidden treasure,” she said.
At the center of the event was a lecture given by journalist and critic Lee Bey, who highlighted the effects the riots [still] have on Chicago. “You can make the argument that what happened here in 1919 is just as impactful in shaping Chicago as the [Great] Chicago Fire,” he said. Bey continued by taking the audience on a cultural and historical journey from blacks’ early migration to Chicago to the city’s present day issues with racial relations including discriminatory housing practices, unemployment and school segregation.
Youth-centric organizations like After School Matters and Good Kids Mad Citywere also recognized at the event; for Dr. Franklin Cosey-Gay, Project Director for the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention at the University of Chicago, groups like these and other alliances should not be dismissed. “They should not be excluded because they are assisting with mobilizing this effort,” said Cosey-Gay.
The event closed with remarks by Western Illinois University history professor Dr. Peter Cole; as founding director of the Chicago Race Riot 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19), Cole lamented the city’s neglect in talking about the riot and why efforts to combat race matters should be a collective responsibility. “Chicago’s failure to address the horror that was CRR19 has not resulted in racial harmony, justice, or equality,” he said. “We must confront our past, together, if we are ever going to move forward towards a morejust and equal society.”
For more information about CRR19, visit chicagoraceriot.org.
Photo credit: Melanie L. Brown Photography
LaShawn Williams is a lifelong Chicagoan and arts and entertainment enthusiast.