Don’t Call it a “Race Riot”: the Chicago Rebellion of 1919
Some people called it Chicago’s Red Summer. Some called it the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, and some the more neutral Chicago Riot of 1919. The men of the 370th/8th Infantry Regiment called it the Chicago Rebellion of 1919.
The Chicago Rebellion of 1919 was the better name, the proper name of what happened in Chicago in on July 27th 1919.
Long before that terrible summer of 1919, the men of the Illinois 8th National Guard (which became the 370th Infantry Regiment, aka “Black Devils,” during World War I) had been renowned for their bravery, patriotism, and skill in combat. Their overseas exploits had made them so famous that local politicians battled for endorsements on their return. The men of the 370th/8th would not be political pawns.
“We protest against using the patriotism, sacrifice, and patriotic devotion to country of men of the Eighth as a means of furthering the political ambitions of city hall politicians,” the soldiers announced and signed in a public resolution. They would not be used. The Chicago political machine had set aside an entire day to honor them with parades, bands, dinners, and speeches, but it did nothing to change their minds.
The Great War had done that already.
Almost 400,000 Black soldiers joined the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) during World War I. It was a massive contribution to the war effort, especially since Black soldiers were prohibited from joining either the Navy or Marines. Following the rise of the Second Klu Klux Klan and subsequent Great Migration, America’s Black population believed such an obvious display of patriotism would ease the struggle for civil rights back home. It didn’t happen.
Things changed little when they returned. In some cases grew worse. Many had realized a new truth in Modernist America: the government wasn’t going to help them. For returning soldiers, a future of racial subservience was impossible. These brave men had suffered in the trenches of France and Germany, they had fought well, and they had endured.
At the onset of the violence in 1919, Chicago’s “athletic clubs” (basically the Irish street gangs with a theme) started roaming up and down the Black neighborhoods of Chicago looking for targets. These war veterans didn’t hide out or shelter behind municipal law enforcement. They armed themselves, positioned themselves, dug in, and waited. How could they cower from piss-ant street toughs? These men had suffered German soldiers by the thousands, hours of artillery barrages, sleeping in mud and shit for weeks, and nightmare of poison gas. They couldn’t cower.
Some soldiers had weapons already, but many more “probably” came from the 8th Regiment Armory. Built in 1914, this armory originally housed the National Guard unit. After the war, it provided shelter and food for Black soldiers. During the 1919 Rebellion, it provided soldiers with the tools to defend themselves, their homes, and their families.
Later on, no one asked these former soldiers where they got their Browning mounted machine guns or Springfield rifles. Law enforcement heard reports of groups going in and out of the armory throughout the violence. These rumors turned into reports of looting. They questioned the officer in charge of the armory, but he denied everything.
It’s difficult to know exactly what happened over those three days. Newspaper accounts either placed blame for the violence on both sides equally or fully on Black Chicagoans. It’s hard to read between the lines and reporters then were masters of masking racial injustices. It’s also hard to read the undisguised racism in the journalism of the day. It’s ugly reading.
For example, veteran Harry Haywood’s describes how he and other former soldiers defended their homes against the white mobs. Although his group never had to resort to violence, he shared the tactics used by a fellow group of Black vets.
The Black veterans set up their ambush at Thirty-fifth and State, waiting in a car with the engine running. When the whites on the truck came through, they pulled in behind and opened up with a machine gun. The truck crashed into a telephone pole at Thirty-ninth Street; most of the men in the truck had been shot down and the others fled. Among them were several Chicago police officers—”off duty,” of course!
The newspaper account of the same crash is very different.
An automobile filled with armed white men swung off State and into Thirty-fifth street [sic] shortly after 10 o’clock. The men were firing into Negro houses. The machine crashed into a patrol wagon, and the occupants were placed under arrest.
In all likelihood, the police reports mentioned a patrol car in an effort to explain why several off-duty officers were participating in the violence.
When the dust and smoke settled, Governor Frank Lowden tasked a bi-racial (6 Black, 6 white) committee with two monumental tasks. First, to find out exactly what conditions caused the mob violence over those five days in 1919; and Two, suggest ways of preventing a resurgence. The committee hired two sociologists—an emerging field at the time—to analyze events leading up to and including the riot. In some circles, the issue was referred to as “The Negro Problem.” This term would have a disturbing correlation with the anti-Semitism (Hitler would later call it die Judenfrage, or “the Jewish Question”) flowering in Europe around the same period.
Considering Chicago’s lengthy history and exploding population, pinpointing an exact cause wasn’t easy. Or it might be better to say it was too easy. The committee released its report in 1922, and the final product was something extraordinary: a 672-page history of Chicago’s race relations and very specific methods of improving the racial stratification in the city. It was a how-to guide in changing not only Chicago, but the abyss of social and cultural differences that infected all of America.
Governor Lowden thanked them for their good work, admired the book, and promptly tucked it away. There’s little evidence city officials followed any of the committee’s advice. The committee had been a gesture toward progress, but not progress itself. The Chicago machine went on.
Historically, the Chicago violence in the summer of 1919 began with the murder Eugene Williams, a Black youth who happened to drift into the white section of a Chicago beach and had been pelted with rocks. One struck his head and he slipped unconscious into the water. It’s a logical place to start and it certainly lit a match.
But here’s a more accurate cause. Here’s the gunpowder.
If you want to know more about the Chicago’s Red Summer of 1919, then read through the entire pdf available to read or download HERE at the Internet Archives. It is a fascinating read, and heartbreaking in that a panacea for today’s racism had been in our hands a century ago and nothing was done.