July of Blood: 100 Years Since the 1919 Race Riots in Chicago

because we should uplift the voices of those who survived.

One hundred years ago today, a teenage boy out to cool off drifted over an invisible line in the water, just off a beach just north of the neighborhood where I grew up. Most of us can’t see lines in the water, unless it’s the line that marks the sandbank, or where the water gets deeper. Nothing else is visible. It wasn’t visible to Eugene Williams, either, and it shouldn’t have mattered. But he died because he drifted across that invisible (and unofficial) line, from the side of the water allowed to African Americans onto the side allotted to white people, and Chicago plunged into a hell of white supremacist violence: the race riots of 1919.

I knew next to nothing about the Red Summer of ’19 until I stumbled across it while researching something very different. (It worked its way into that particular piece, and has worked its way into many others, and, should they ever make it to publication, I will fight for it to stay, even if only as a mention of this ghost of Chicago history.) If I knew so little, when I grew up in a household where the ghosts of our past walked among us, then I guessed others—or at least, many of Chicago’s white residents—probably knew even less. And, whether we remember or not, whether we believe ourselves touched by its bloody hands or not, the race riots of 1919 reach out through the years, staining us, marking us and marking our city.

This year’s overall Coretta Scott King Award winner—and then Chicago sociologist and poet Eve Ewing’s new book of poetry—threw another reality into the mix: not only do few people know about the race riots of 1919, but there are only three books whose subject headings are “Chicago Race Riot, Chicago, Ill., 1919″—and of those three, only two focus entirely on that subject line. (The other one’s great too, and you should check it out.) The lack of written representation—or, at least, of monograph representation—seems more than an oversight, at least to me. After all, if we can pretend it never happened, we can push it away into the midden heap of history, never facing the ways it marked—and continues to mark—all of us here.

1919 was an ugly year. (2019 shares that with it, to be sure.) It was a year in which then-President Woodrow Wilson overturned Japan’s suggested anti-discrimination clause in the League of Nation’s charter.1 It was the year of the Red Summer, of race riots across the country. Chicago’s African American community was stuffed to overflowing into what was then known as the Black Belt, neighborhoods around the one where I grew up. It was a year of labor unrest—all years are years of labor unrest, unfortunately: management loves to put its foot on labor’s back—and a time of fear, one war ended, the flu of 1918 still lurking just over there. (It was also the year the 19th Amendment passed, though full ratification wouldn’t come until August 18, 1920.) We don’t talk, a hell of a lot, about 1919. The war was over, the flu pandemic was (mostly) over; the twenties weren’t yet here. It’s a forgotten year.

I’d guess it’s an intentional, structural forgetting. I’d argue that it is flagrantly unethical, not to know: that the past is ever here, and not going anywhere, and if we are to keep from repeating its mistakes, we must own up to it, and acknowledge it, and understand it. We should remember—and, frankly, honor—the young World War I veterans who served their country, asked for something better, and defended their homes and their families during the Race Riots.2 We should remember that kid who was trying to cool off in Lake Michigan—and remember him not just as the catalyst of a Race Riot, but as a young man with hopes and dreams and friends.

Turning away from the past—pretending it isn’t there, denying that it lives in the present, insisting that we are not, indeed, borne backwards—has never stopped it from leeching into the present. I was eight years old during the murderous heat wave of 1995: I remember the deaths, and I remember who died. Is that not, in its way, a hearkening back to the horrors of 1919? Is that not another thing with which we must reckon? And the reckoning, as these summers grow hotter, must come now. Hot summer days bring nothing good, in my city, from the 1919 Race Riots to the deaths of ’95 and the gun violence3 that comes with the heat. That legacy—horror tied to heat tied to Chicago—is one we all must confront.

I’d like to believe we’re headed somewhere better: we have a mayor who’s shaping up (I hope, at least!) to be incredible, and we’re definitely Somebody’s least favorite city, which is always a good place to be. (The more that one hates us, the more we must be doing something right.) But we’ve got to look our bleak past straight in the face, or we’ll never be able to overcome it. We’ve got to fight for equity, for public schools in non-white neighborhoods—because, golly, did the last mayor ever close a lot of them. We need a Chicago with equity and access and decency for all, and I really don’t think we can achieve that without looking our past full in the eye.

resources

further reading

citations

1 Wisseman, Nicholas. “‘Beware the Yellow Peril and Behold the Black Plague’: The Internalization of White Supremacy and Its Critiques, Chicago 1919.” 43.

2 See “‘Our Changed Attitude’: Armed Defense and the New Negro in the 1919 Chicago Race Riot” by Jonathan Coit and “From News to History: Robert Abbott and Carl Sandburg Read the 1919 Chicago Riot” by C.K. Doreski, among others

3 The heat really does bring violence, something that is discussed here by the New York Times, here by the Giffords Law Center, here by Chicago Magazine, here by the journalists of the Medill Center, and here by the Guardian.

One response to “July of Blood: 100 Years Since the 1919 Race Riots in Chicago”

  1. […] hard, sad history—a bleak corner of Chicago that we’ve often tried to forget, though it was brought to our collective attention thanks to the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project and its affiliates—and […]

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