“The relation of whites and Negroes in the United States is our most grave and perplexing domestic problem.” So wrote the authors of “The Negro in Chicago,” a landmark 1922 study of a race riot that ripped through that city a century ago this summer. That conflagration, which began on July 27, consumed the city for three days and left 38 people dead and 537 injured. Whites set fire to scores of black-owned houses, leaving a thousand African-Americans homeless.
For several nights, gangs of white youth rampaged through black neighborhoods, targeting blacks who defended themselves by sniping back from behind makeshift street barricades. On Monday, July 28, the worst day of violence, white rioters pulled blacks off streetcars at busy South Side intersections and beat them with planks, pipes, bricks and fists. The next morning, a roving gang of whites, including soldiers and sailors in uniform, swept through the downtown streets of the Loop, killing two blacks and injuring many more. Large portions of the second-largest city in America became battlegrounds for open race war, which only rain and deployment of reserve guardsmen managed to quell.
The riots began after a weekend of racial skirmishes at a Lake Michigan beach, culminating in the drowning of a black teenager named Eugene Williams who had been stoned by a white mob incensed that he had swum into a “whites only” area. But that was just the spark; deeper factors were at work pushing the city toward violence.
Chicago was experiencing the first of several waves of migration — its black population doubled between 1915 and 1920, with most new arrivals coming from the South and settling in the neighborhoods below downtown. Almost overnight, the South Side emerged as a social, cultural and institutional center for African-Americans. That community would gestate modern blues, soul and gospel; landmark mass-market journalism; the largest black Protestant and nationalist churches; and, in time, the first black president.
In 1919, though, the South Side’s demographic revolution was seen as a threat by many of the city’s whites, many of them themselves recent arrivals from Europe. As black workers claimed industrial jobs in the South Side’s steel mills and stockyards, whites feared they would depress wages and undercut union power as strikebreakers.
Whites also worried about the black vote: Among the incentives to migrate from the Jim Crow South was the chance to cast a ballot. In April 1919, black voters, aligned with the Republicans since Reconstruction, provided the margin of victory for the party’s candidate in a divisive mayoral election — a result that, for many whites, confirmed their role as public enemy.
Chicago was not yet completely segregated, but by 1919 black homeowners and renters were concentrated in a narrow band of the South Side that came to be known as the “Black Belt,” chiefly the blocks east and west of State Street from 21st to 47th Streets. Those few African-Americans wealthy or intrepid enough to breach those boundaries were subject to harassment, intimidation and even bombings.
The Hyde Park neighborhood just south of the Black Belt, the site of the Columbian Exposition in 1893 and home to the University of Chicago, was one of the most intolerant neighborhoods. Property owned by a wealthy black businessman named Jesse Binga was bombed six times. Mary Bryon Clarke, another black homeowner in greater Hyde Park, had her properties targeted by bombs three times, even though the previous owners of two of her buildings had run them as brothels.
Such outbursts along the border of black and white Chicago fed into a general racial hostility. White newspapers resorted to dialect and minstrel-like scenarios to demean blacks and discredit their claim to housing and job opportunities. Black papers stressed a worsening climate of racial violence locally and nationally — often to sensationalized extremes — and denounced the unwillingness on the part of city authorities, especially the police, to protect African-Americans’ rights.
These factors did not make the 1919 riot inevitable. Once the conflict started, though, they made its escalation unavoidable. The worst of the violence — whites pulling blacks off street cars, hunting them down in the streets — were led by members of so-called athletic clubs, with names like the Hamburgers, Ragen’s Colts, the Sparklers and the Emeralds. These groups, funded and, when needed, protected by local Democratic ward bosses, were bent on revenging their party’s defeat in the mayor’s election that year.
Richard Daley, the future mayor and political dynast, was a member of the Hamburgers and allegedly took part in the violence — accusations that only burnished his reputation, later on, as a loyal neighborhood son willing to fight for the “integrity” of his turf.
As the riot spread, it followed the paths laid out by previous episodes of violence along the emerging boundaries of the Black Belt, or centered on contested areas where blacks were buying and renting property, but were not yet securely established in numbers. The generalized terror of the rioting emboldened whites to establish a racial quarantine of sorts, using sudden, brutal mob action to lay down a border between white and black Chicago.
For whites who hesitated, unfounded rumors of a black “invasion” moved them to action: Stories of blacks breaking into armories and preparing to “clean out” white neighborhoods to the west were taken as justification for pre-emptive strikes.
The police played a crucial role as well. During the first few hours of the violence, 2,800 officers, out of 3,500 total, were deployed along the edges of the Black Belt, forming a cordon. The police claimed they were separating the antagonists, but their strategy left few officers to patrol the rest of the city. The Tuesday morning rampage through the Loop, for example, took place while only two officers were detailed to cover the entire downtown.
And the “dead line” cordon intended to separate the races worked only if the police were as committed to preventing white assailants from coming in as they were to keeping blacks from going out. This proved not to be the case: Much of the worst violence took place within the Black Belt itself.
In some cases, white officers rode along with the white gangs to shield them from arrest. In others, when officers responded to attacks on blacks, they failed to collect sufficient evidence from the scene, ensuring that few assailants were prosecuted (only 47 people were indicted) and signaling that they would turn a blind eye toward most violence. Although they made up two-thirds of the over 500 recorded casualties, blacks were indicted at double the rate of whites — the first clear instance of racial disparity in city criminal justice, but by no means the last.
Chicago was not the only city to experience racial violence in mid-1919, a period that soon earned the name “Red Summer.” Nationwide, reported George Haynes, a black statistician with the Department of Labor, 38 racial disturbances took place that year. A week before, in Washington, white soldiers back home from Europe, fought black civilians in the streets for four days in the wake of sensational newspaper accounts of a sex crime. Reporters noted that, unlike in previous race riots, casualties mounted on both sides of the color line — evidence, many said, of a growing black militancy.
That same year Claude McKay wrote his classic poem “If We Must Die,” in which he captured a spirit of black self-preservation in the face of white violence. The poem implicitly aligned African-Americans with global currents of self-determination and nationalism swirling from Dublin to Prague to Jerusalem. Such gains in racial consciousness were limited, however, by the complexities and contradictions of race in America: While the violent experiences of 1919 left blacks more unified and “modern” in their self-determination, the same went for whites — in ways that fortified their resolve to go on exercising power and dominance, in spite of the progressive promise of the age.
If the 1920s saw an upsurge in black culture and awareness, it also saw a sustained, violent backlash by whites, from the rebirth of the Klan to an epidemic of lynching to housing segregation.
That backlash was on stark display in Chicago. The city’s white real estate agents helped pioneer new tactics in segregation. By 1927 the Chicago Real Estate Board had drafted its own version of a restrictive covenant, a binding contract enjoining white homeowners from selling property to nonwhites. Within a decade, such contracts governed three-fourths of Chicago’s residential property. Upheld routinely by municipal judges, restrictive covenants carried the force of law until overturned by the Supreme Court in 1948.
Other measures, including redlining, contract selling, mortgage discrimination and steering, maintained racial exclusion across much of Chicago long after the passage of national civil rights laws in the 1960s.
Together with continued discrimination against black renters, and an expansive public housing system dedicated to shifting poorer African-Americans out of the general housing market, these policies deepened racial separation in the city with each passing decade. By 1970, census data certified Chicago as a hyper-segregated municipality, a designation it would retain until the start of the new millennium. The collateral effects of this separation consigned blacks to grossly unequal resources and outcomes related to employment, education, housing, health and safety that inform the stark social problems of the city today.
Deepening segregation also institutionalized starkly disparate treatment by the police. As the riot demonstrated, personal prejudice among patrolmen had always been a problem, even though the city employed a surprising number of black officers. The existence of prejudice among individual police did not necessarily mean that Chicago’s police department was, institutionally speaking, racist. But that would steadily change. Measures intended to modernize the police force — car patrols, information technology as a tool for deploying resources — ended up focusing enforcement on black residential areas.
By the turn of this century, that approach had yielded some of the most egregious examples of police abuse in the nation’s history, including the pre-emptive execution of the Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969; the South Side torture scandal masterminded by Jon Burge, a Chicago police commander; and the crisis of officer-related shootings — which, by the first years of the 21st century, had cost the city over half a billion dollars in settlement payments.
Chicago’s 1919 Race Riot was a bridge toward, as well as a break from, a racial order. That order, the Riot and its aftermath revealed was rooted in sophisticated institutions, dynamic city growth, and unyielding separation and inequality. It baptized the modern American city in blood. As Germany, Italy and other nations whose destiny took a turn for the worse after 1919 demonstrated, “modern” could and did mean the opposite of “progressive.”
Commemorating the riot 100 years on, in the middle of another moment of racial tumult, requires more than sober acknowledgment of memories and losses. It also requires squarely facing its legacies, which have done so much to thwart progress toward true democracy as well as full equality, and leave us today at risk of falling ever further from these ideals.
Opinion articles on the events of 1919.
Further Reading: Chicago Commission on Race Relations, “The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot”; the Kerner report from the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders; Simon Balto, “Occupied Territory: Policing in Chicago From the Red Summer to Black Power”; Arnold Hirsch, “Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960”; Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass”; Sharon McCloskey and Bruce Orenstein, eds., “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts in Chicago”; Cameron McWhirter, “Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America"; Aldon Morris, “The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. DuBois and the Birth of American Sociology”; Beryl Satter, “Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America"; Flint Taylor, “The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago”; William M. Tuttle, “Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919."
Adam Green is a professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of “Selling the Race: Culture and Community in Black Chicago, 1940-1955.”
Opinion | How a Brutal Race Riot Shaped Modern Chicago