A Century Later, Reflecting On The 1919 Race Riots

Monday, August 5, 2019 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

Featured image: Whites and Blacks gather at 29th Street beach after Eugene Williams’ drowning on July 27, 1919. | Public Domain

One hundred years ago — on Sunday, July 27, 1919 — Eugene Williams, 17, drowned in Lake Michigan after a white mob hurled stones at the Black teenager, because he was swimming on the “white side” of a segregated beach near 29th Street on Chicago’s South Side.

Williams’ death touched off a week-long riot on the South Side that resulted in 38 fatalities — 23 Blacks and 15 whites — and more than 500 people injured. But the riot was only the symptom of much deeper racial strife in a city characterized by extreme residential segregation and prejudice.

According to historian Elaine Lewinnek, the 1910s were years when the boundaries of the Chicago metropolitan area’s residential apartheid were hardening. While some Blacks in the area were confined to segregated parts of suburbs like Maywood and Chicago Heights, most “were confined to a narrow four-block strip around State Street on Chicago’s South Side known as the Black Belt. Half of Chicago’s blacks lived there in 1900, while 90% of Chicago’s blacks lived there by 1930.”

In the decade between 1910 and 1920, “Chicago’s Black population grew from about 44,000 to nearly 110,000 — still just 4 percent of the city’s 2.7 million residents — as Southern Blacks moved north to flee Jim Crow laws,” according to a recent Chicago Magazine article marking the 100th anniversary of the riot.

White people inspect homes vandalized during the riot. | Public Domain

As Blacks flowed into the city, however, they were confined to an area “from 22nd Street (now Cermak Road) south to 39th Street (now Pershing Road) and from Wentworth Avenue east to State Street” — the so-called Black Belt.

By 1920, according to historian Arnold Hirsch — the late author of the seminal 1983 book Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago: 1940-1960 — “the Black Belt extended roughly to 55th Street, between Wentworth and Cottage Grove avenues. Approximately 85% of the city’s nearly 110,000 Blacks lived in this area. A second colony existed on the West Side between Austin, Washington Boulevard, California Avenue, and Morgan Street.”

As the boundaries of this racially manufactured area frayed and Blacks started moving beyond the ghetto created for them, the white-on-Black violence increased.

“In the two years leading up to the riot, bombs were thrown at two dozen homes of Black Chicagoans,” according to Chicago Magazine. “The police solved none of these crimes. A 6-year-old girl named Garnetta Ellis died in one explosion. And early in the summer of 1919, several attacks on Blacks by white mobs were reported on the South Side.”

A Black man is stoned by white rioters. | Public Domain

After World War II, according to Hirsch, a “second ghetto” — one much larger than the Black Belt — was created “with government sanction and support.”

After the 1919 riot, national leaders, including President Woodrow Wilson, called for racial harmony. Racism, nonetheless, persisted. Even progressive solutions to housing segregation were governed by the very racism that had effectively segregated the 29th Street beach. For instance, the federal government supplied funds to build more housing in the city, but it also maintained a so-called neighborhood composition rule, “which prevented government projects from altering the racial composition of their host neighborhoods,” Hirsch explains.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Hirsch writes, “the Black Belt’s boundaries, drawn during the Great Migration, were shattered” — and an even larger Black ghetto rose up in its wake.

“To the east, the Cottage Grove Avenue barrier — which had been buttressed by the activity of local improvement associations after the 1919 riot — fell as Blacks entered the communities of Oakland, Kenwood, Hyde Park, and Woodlawn in large numbers.

Five policemen and a soldier armed with a bayonet guard a corner in Chicago. | Public Domain

“To the south and southwest, Park Manor and Englewood also witnessed the crumbling of what were, by 1945, traditional borders. On the West Side, the exodus of Jews from North Lawndale created a vacuum that was quickly filled by a housing-starved Black population.”

David Cherry, a program director with the All Stars Project of Chicago — an organization that provides resources to young people in low-income areas of the city — said last month that the city’s segregated past was prologue to its present. He was nonetheless optimistic about the city’s future.

“What happened in 1919 set the tone of the next 100 years of racism, segregation, isolation, poverty and disinvestment,” said Cherry, who is also a member of the Leaders Network. “The next 100 years is going to be different — starting today.” VFP

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