The Chicago Race Riot of 1919—one of Illinois’ bloodiest events—began with the murder black teen Eugene Williams at the 29th Street beach after he inadvertently floated into an area frequented by white swimmers.
Williams’ death sparked rioting that began on July 27th and ended six days later, resulted in the death of 23 African-Americans and 15 whites. In addition, Chicago’s South Side experienced a wave of arson, looting, and general mayhem throughout the riot. Many homes and businesses were destroyed; over 2,000 black people lost their homes as a result of the rioting.
It did not happen suddenly. Racism and xenophobia had stewed nearly a decade before the riot. The mass movement of African-Americans in the South to cities in the north, spurned by a lack of economic opportunities and the terrifying resurrection of the KKK, became known as the Great Migration. Before 1910, 90% of the country’s African-American population lived in the south. After 1910, millions of African-Americans pursued employment in the country’s booming northern industries. Many cities were not prepared for the influx of thousands of workers. There was little low-income housing. There were also many ethnic gangs committed to protecting “their patch” from anyone they viewed as interlopers.
The competition for housing and jobs laid the foundation for the eventual race riot. Officially, few public areas in Chicago were segregated. Unofficially, however, segregation was rampant. The belief in segregation was so strong, in fact, that when 17-year-old Eugene Williams floated from the African-American swimming section to the white swimming section, a white man felt perfectly in his rights to hurl rocks and Williams and other black swimmers nearby. That man murdered Williams, but when police arrived, they only arrested a black man at the scene.
Hordes of white men, women, and children boiled onto the streets of the city’s South Side where the vast majority of African-Americans lived regardless of their income. Police did little to quell the violence. By the fourth day of the rioting, city officials called in the state militia, but even then, the fighting would continue for days.
While President Woodrow Wilson and other national figures condemned the racial injustice that led to the rioting, Chicago would become more racially divided in subsequent years, not less. City officials implemented strict zoning laws, delineating where African-Americans could live. There were even restrictions forbidding blacks from working alongside whites in the stockyards. This only heightened the tension, of course, as black workers—especially veterans of the Great War—demanded rights to jobs and living space in America’s cities.
Chicago’s Race Riot of 1919 was actually just one of many race riots that took place during what became known as the nation’s Red Summer. During this intensely hot summer, many race riots erupted around the country. In the South, the Ku Klux Klan also ramped up its murderous activities with a string of lynchings.
While many believe that 1919’s racial violence was inevitable, it’s still mind-boggling and disheartening to understand how a teenager enjoying cool water on a hot day lost his life for floating a few feet in the wrong direction.
“They tell me you are wicked and I believe them,” so wrote the poet Carl Sandburg on Chicago. In a recent interview, Chicago poet Eve L. Ewing asked “What does it mean to have the story of Eugene Williams, a 17-year-old black boy, which then becomes the story of Emmett Till, which then becomes the story of Laquan McDonald?”