Photo: Three African American fleeing Chicago while white boys watch.
The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 was a major racial conflict that began in Chicago, Illinois on July 27, 1919 and ended on August 3. During the riot, dozens died and hundreds were injured. It is considered the worst of the approximately 25 riots during the Red Summer of 1919, so named because of the violence and fatalities across the nation. The combination of prolonged arson, looting and murder was the worst race rioting in the history of Illinois.
The sociopolitical atmosphere of Chicago was one of ethnic tension caused by competition among many new groups. With the Great Migration, thousands of African Americans from the South had settled next to neighborhoods of European immigrants on Chicago's South Side, near jobs in the stockyards and meatpacking plants. The ethnic Irish had been established first, and fiercely defended their territory and political power against all newcomers. Post World War I tensions caused frictions between the races, especially in the competitive labor and housing markets. Overcrowding and increased African American militancy by veterans contributed to the visible racial frictions. Also, ethnic gangs and police neglect strained the racial relationships. According to official reports, the turmoil came to a boil after a young African American was struck by a rock and died at an informally segregated beach. Tensions between groups arose in a melee that blew up into days of unrest.
William Hale Thompson was the Mayor of Chicago during the riot. Although future mayor Richard J. Daley never officially acknowledged being part of the violence, at age 17 he was an active member of the ethnic Irish Hamburg Athletic Club, which a post-riot investigation named instigators in attacks on blacks. In the following decades, Daley continued to rise in politics to become mayor for twenty years.
United States President Woodrow Wilson and the United States Congress attempted to promote legislation and organizations to decrease racial discord in America. Illinois Governor Frank Lowden took several actions at Thompson's request to quell the riot and promote greater harmony in its aftermath. Sections of the Chicago economy were shut down for several days during and after the riots, as plants were closed to avoid interaction among warring groups. Mayor Thompson drew on his association with this riot to influence later political elections.
Photo: African American men in front of Walgreen Drugs at 35th and S. State St. in Douglas community area
Photo: White men, boys standing in front of vandalized house
Unlike southern cities through the 1960s, Chicago did not segregate most public accommodations. In fact, according to Walter Francis White, pre-1915 Chicago had a reputation for equitable treatment of African Americans in general. However, early 20th-century Chicago beaches were segregated. African Americans had a long history in Chicago, with the city sending its first African-American representative to the state legislature in 1876. There had also been late 19th century tensions between ethnic Irish and African Americans, as most members of both competed for jobs among the lower classes.
African American stoned to death by whites.
Beginning in 1910, thousands of African Americans started moving from the South to Chicago as one destination in the Great Migration, fleeing lynchings, segregation and disfranchisement in the Deep South. The Ku Klux Klan committed 64 lynchings in 1918 and 83 in 1919 in southern states. With the pull of industrial jobs in the stockyards and meatpacking industry beckoning as European immigration was cut off by World War I, from 1916 to 1919 the African-American population in Chicago increased from 44,000 to 109,000, for a total of 148 percent during the decade. African Americans settled in the South Side, where, as their population grew, they pressed against a neighborhood of ethnic Irish, immigrant descendants established since the mid-19th century, and had to compete against them for jobs and housing. Southern African Americans had followed waves of immigrants from eastern Europe, who also added to the competition and tensions. Ethnic groups established territory in their areas of the city, which their young men often patrolled against outsiders. Because of agricultural problems, Southern whites also migrated to the city, about 20,000 by this period. The rapid influx of migrants caused overcrowding as a result of a lack of adequate low cost housing.
The postwar period found tensions rising in numerous cities where populations were increasing rapidly. People from different cultures jostled against each other and competed for space. In 1917, the Chicago Real Estate Board established a policy of block by block segregation. New arrivals in the Great Migration generally joined old neighbors on the South Side. By 1920, the area held 85% of Chicago's African Americans--middle and upper class and poor. In the postwar period, veterans of all groups were looking to re-enter the work force. Some whites resented African-American veterans. At the same time, African-American veterans exhibited greater militancy and pride as a result of having served to protect their country. They wanted to be treated as full citizens after fighting for the nation.
In Chicago, ethnic Irish dominated social and athletic clubs that were closely tied to the political structure of the city. Some had acted as enforcers for politicians. As the first major group of 19th-century European immigrants to settle in the city, the Irish had established formal and informal political strength. In Chicago, ethnic white gangs had been attacking African-American neighborhoods, and the police, overwhelmingly white and increasingly ethnic Irish, seemed little inclined to try to stop them. Meanwhile, newspapers carried sensational accounts of any African American allegedly involved in crime. An example of territory was the Bridgeport community area, an ethnic Irish neighborhood just west of the Black Belt. Ethnic Irish had long patrolled their neighborhood boundaries against all other ethnic groups, especially African Americans. A group known as the Hamburg Athletic Club, whose members included a 17-year-old Richard J. Daley, future mayor of Chicago, contributed to gang violence in the area.
Photo: African American stoned to death by whites for the crimes he had committed.
Photo: A white gang looking for African Americans to lynch during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919
Starting with a white man throwing rocks at blacks in the water at a beach on the South Side which resulted in an African American's death, conflict escalated when police did not arrest the white man but arrested a black man instead. Objections by blacks were met with violence by whites. Attacks between whites and blacks erupted swiftly. At one point a mob of white men threatened Provident Hospital, many of whose patients were African American. The police held them off. The riot lasted for nearly a week, ending only after the government deployed nearly 6,000 National Guard troops. They stationed them around the Black Belt to prevent further white attacks. By the night of July 30, most violence had ended. Most of the rioting, murder, and arson was the result of ethnic whites attacking the African-American population in the city's Black Belt on the South Side. Most of the casualties and property damage were suffered by blacks. Newspaper accounts noted numerous attempts at arson; for instance, on July 31, more than 30 fires were started in the Black Belt before noon and were believed to be due to arson. Steel cables had been put across the streets to prevent fire trucks from entering the areas. The Mayor's office was told of a plan to burn down the black area and run its residents out of town. There were also sporadic violent attacks in other areas of the city, including the Chicago Loop. In the rioting, 38 people died (23 African Americans and 15 whites), and 537 were injured (two-thirds were African Americans). Patrolman John W. Simpson was the only policeman who was killed in the riot. Approximately 1000 residents, mostly African Americans, were left homeless after fires destroyed their homes. Numerous African-American families left the city by train before the rioting had ended, returning to families in the South.
Chief of Police John J. Garrity closed "all places where men congregate for other than religious purposes" to help restore order. Governor Frank Lowden authorized the deployment of the 11th Illinois Infantry and its machine gun company, as well as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd reserve militia. These four units totaled 3,500 men. The Cook County Sheriff deputized between 1000 and 2000 former soldiers to help keep the peace. With the reserves and militia guarding the Black Belt, the city arranged for emergency provisions to supply its residents with fresh food. Whites delivered food and supplies to the line established by the military; from there, deliveries were distributed within the Black Belt by African Americans. In addition, while industry was closed, the packing plants arranged to deliver pay to certain areas so African-American men could pick up their money.
After order was restored, Illinois Governor Frank Lowden was urged to create a state committee to study the cause of the riots. He proposed forming a committee to write a racial code of ethics and to draw up racial boundaries for activities within the city.
Photo: Map of riot area
Photo: House with broken windows and debris in front yard
The Cook County Coroner's Office took 70 day sessions, 20 night sessions and 450 witnesses examinations to collect evidence about the riots. Their report stated the finding that on July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams, an African American youth, drowned after tiring of holding onto a railroad tie. He had been hit by a stone as whites threw rocks at African Americans to drive them away from their part of the water at the 29th Street beach in the city's Douglas community on the South Side. A witness recalled seeing a single white male standing on a breakwater 75 feet (22.9 m) from the raft of the African Americans and throwing rocks at them. Williams was struck in the forehead; he panicked and drowned. The assailant ran toward 29th Street, where a different fight had already started when African Americans tried to use the beach there, in defiance of its tacit segregation.
The rioting escalated when a white police officer refused to arrest the white man who threw the stone at Williams. He instead arrested an African American. Anger over the arrest, coupled with Williams' death, as well as rumors among both communities, escalated into five days of rioting. Most of the casualties were African American and most of the property damage was inflicted in African American neighborhoods. The city quickly closed down the street cars to try to contain the violence. Inflammatory newspaper coverage worked to the opposite effect. Historians have noted: "South Side youth gangs, including the Hamburg Athletic Club, were later found to have been among the primary instigators of the racial violence. For weeks, in the spring and summer of 1919, they had been anticipating, even eagerly awaiting, a race riot", one study found. "On several occasions, they themselves had endeavored to precipitate one, and now that racial violence threatened to become generalized and unrestrained throughout Chicago, they were set to exploit the chaos."
Early reports detailed injuries to Chicago Police officers and a Chicago fireman. The conduct of the white police force was criticized during and after the riot. State's Attorney Maclay Hoyne openly charged the police with arresting African American rioters but refusing to arrest white rioters. Roaming gangs of Bridgeport whites, who were mostly ethnic Irish, perpetrated much of the violence. While local newspapers carried accounts of African Americans setting fires, "later the office of State Fire Marshal Gamber proved conclusively that the fires were not caused by blacks, but by whites." The New York Times coverage during the riot, however, clearly conveyed that whites were responsible for planned large-scale arson against black areas and for numerous mob attacks. Because of early police failures to arrest whites, no white Chicagoans were convicted of any of the murders, and most of the deaths were not prosecuted. One man was prosecuted for Williams' death, but he was acquitted.
There were broad ramifications for the Chicago economy, as certain sectors on the industrial South Side were closed during rioting. Businesses in the Loop were also affected by closure of the street cars. Many workers stayed away from affected areas. The Union Stock Yard, one of Chicago's largest employers, was an example. Initially, all 15,000 African-American workers were expected to return to work on Monday August 4, 1919. But after arson in areas of ethnic white workers homes near the Stock Yards on August 3, the management banned African-American employees from the stockyards in fear of further rioting. Governor Lowden noted his opinion that the troubles were related to labor issues rather than race. Nearly one-third of the African-American employees were non-union, and were resented by union employees for that reason. African-American workers were kept out of the stockyards for ten days after the end of the riot because of continued unrest. On August 8, 1919, about 3,000 non-union African Americans showed up for work under protection of special police, deputy sheriffs, and militia. The white union employees threatened to strike unless such security forces were discontinued. Their major grievance against African Americans was that they were non-union, and had been used by management as strikebreakers in earlier years against the union. Many African Americans fled the city as a result of the riots and damage.
Illinois Attorney General Edward Brundage and State's Attorney Hoyne gathered evidence to prepare for a Grand Jury investigation. The stated intention was to pursue all perpetrators and to seek the death penalty as necessary. On August 4, 1919 seventeen indictments against African Americans were handed down. Despite the coroner's report of white responsibility, extensive rioting by whites and their causing damage to black areas, no whites were indicted.
Richard J. Daley was soon elected president of the Hamburg Athletic Club in Bridgeport. In his long political career, he never confirmed or denied whether he was involved in the violence of the riots. Daley served as the city's mayor and most powerful politician in the Chicago Democratic Machine from 1955 to 1976.
In 1930, the flamboyant Republican mayor William Hale Thompson invoked the riot in a misleading pamphlet when urging African Americans against voting for the Republican nominee Rep Ruth Hanna McCormick in the United States Senate race for her late husband's seat. She was the widow of Sen. Joseph Medill McCormick as well as the sister-in-law of Chicago Tribune publisher Robert Rutherford McCormick. The McCormicks were a powerful Chicago family whom Thompson opposed.
United States President Woodrow Wilson pronounced white participants the instigators of the prolonged riots in Chicago and Washington, D.C.. As a result, he attempted to promote greater racial harmony through the promotion of voluntary organizations and through the enactment of legislative improvements by the United States Congress. He did not change the segregation of Federal departments which he had imposed early during his first administration, however. The riot shocked the nation and raised awareness of racial problems. It also demonstrated the new willingness of African Americans to fight for their civil rights despite injustice and oppression.[