Chicago went through the worst race riot in its history which resulted from clashes between its population of both white and black people.
According to Brent (2010), the white and black soldiers had just returned home from the World War I which had ended in November 1918. The white soldiers expected to get their jobs back while the black soldiers expected to be rewarded with jobs for participating in the war. The black people also expected an elevation to be able to acquire the jobs they could not get due to racialism.
As the economy continued to contract, the blacks and whites started competing for the same jobs and this led to the build up of racial tensions which erupted in 1919 (Brent, 2010). This case study seeks to uncover the events that took place during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, which started in July 27, 1919 and ended on August 3, the same year.
The Chicago Race Riot of 1919
Racialism had taken root in ancient Chicago and the murder of Eugene Williams awoke the violence. Eugene was stoned to death by a rowdy white mob for swimming in waters reserved for whites only on Lake Michigan according to Velasco (2010). The gangs that ruled the streets of Chicago around 1919 came together with revenge in mind.
The Chicago race riot of 1919 was triggered by this particular murder though many years before then, white men of Irish descent kept carrying out race massacres on the black people. The black people in turn wanted to hit back and the summer of 1919 seemed like the ideal time for the race riot. According to (Tuttle 1970, 65), the gangs were also fighting for boundaries and the whites wanted to run the west and south of Wentworth Avenue along the 43rd and 63rd street. The white gang referred to itself as the “Ragen Colts” and they made their intention of running this territory clear. They made their threat real by attacking the black people and by the time the war was over, 27 blacks lay fatally wounded. Other gangs that had taken root in Chicago around this time included the “sparklers”, the “Dirty Dozen”, the “Hamburgers”, the “Standard”, “Our Flag” and the “Aylwards”.
These attacks did not stop here as the fight against the blacks continued to soar and out of the second attack, seven more black people were fighting for their lives from injuries inflicted on them by the white gangs using guns and knives. In his book, ‘Race Riot’, (Tuttle 1970, 24) details how the riots escalated because the police turned a blind eye on the atrocities that were being meted on the black people. No arrests were made and the white gangs went ahead with their racial massacre on the blacks undeterred. The streets of Chicago were marred by violence, lawlessness and antisocial acts and the blacks bore the blunt. Later, the Chicago Commission on Race Relations was to unanimously agree that the Chicago race riots of 1919 could have been contained if the police had taken action against the perpetrators. The black people of Chicago were angered and grieved by the turn of events and it hurt them more that the authorities did nothing to protect them. As Tuttle (1970, 33) indicates, the black people were however not shocked by this turn of events since they knew the hostility that the white people meted on them, the officers being no exception. The law openly favored the white hoodlums and this confirmed the fact that the black people feared the athletic clubs, which was another name for the white gangs as they were above the law.
The black people of Chicago were not ready to watch hopelessly as their people got subjected to this inhumanity and they stood strong defending their own. They were armed and undertook to attack any of the white gangs that tried to get into their territory since they knew a direct confrontation into the white reserves would end up killing many of them. The tactic that the black gangs survived on was sniping while their counterparts thrived on mob warfare. These riots took place in the mayor’s absentia, a Mr. William H. Thompson who was away attending the Frontier Days Festivities.
He was now back and top on his list was to sort out the woes that had engulfed his city in absentia and a police officer even offered him unsolicited advice. To this police officer, the racial slaughter would only end if the south side, inhabited by the black people was subjected to martial law and state militia be put in place. Thompson was opposed to the officer’s advice on installing the state militia and opted to use the city police instead (Tuttle 1970, 65).
According to Tuttle (1970, 98), the mayor then consulted with his chief and ordered that the police be stationed on the south side to ensure that the riots did not break out again. The mayor also threatened the black people saying that he did not mind filling the Chicago jails as long as the race riot was brought to an end. This resolution was however not just as it did not look at protecting both the blacks and whites and rather seemed inclined to promoting further racial hatred between the peoples of Chicago. Mayor Thompson’s strategy worked out negatively according to (Tuttle 1970, 44) as violence erupted once again and the white gangs took upon the black people in their numbers. The streets of Chicago turned chaotic with the white gangs running after the black people with all sort of crude weapons and killing them on the spot.
The black people hit back with their sniper tactics and managed to put up a defence or at least a consolation for their own who had been murdered ruthlessly in the streets by the white gangs and the policemen. Tension continued to grow and rumors spread like bush fire about how more black people continued to loose their lives to the white gangs and this prompted them to retaliate (Tuttle 2010, 87). A direct confrontation between the two warring factors was inevitable and by the time people scattered, four black men lay dead having been shot by the white policemen and gangs. The white gangs felt threatened and this prompted them to invade the South Side which was inhabited by black people attacking and killing any black person on sight. The black on the other hand were out in their numbers conducting a well organised riot which the white men found hard to disperse. As the riots escalated, the trains ceased running and this posed a great danger to the white people who had to traverse the hostile neighbourhoods to get to work.
The irony of this race riot was that it was only the black people who got arrested and the authorities even said that it was easier to arrest a coloured man (Tuttle 1970, 34). As (Tuttle 1970, 78) indicates, the city of Chicago smelt death as bodies of black people lay strewn in gutters and trenches after the massacre carried out on them by the white gangs. The crack down on the black people spread to the downtown Chicago and they were not spared if found in hotels, railroad stations or restaurants going through their business of the day. The white gangs did not only aim at killing or maiming these black people but also robbed them and vandalised their equipments. It was not a rare sight seeing the white gangsters at street corners sharing their loot that included rings, watches and cash that they had managed to steal from the black people.
The Chicago local dailies such as the Defender, the Chicago Daily News among others carried scaring stories about the race riot. The news had been fabricated and the content was grossly exaggerated with whites showing that the blacks had committed grievous atrocities against them. For instance, some of the dailies reported that 155 whites had been injured as compared to the 151 blacks who had apparently met the same fate.
This news was not only misleading but hated on the blacks making them look bad even after the white gangs were killing and maiming them in their numbers. The blacks were also reported to have broken into the national armory and stolen ammunition to fuel the race riots which was all a mere fabrication. The white papers also insinuated that the blacks had attacked white women injuring them and even killed some. The Defender daily carried a scary fabricated story detailing how a black woman and her baby had been shredded to ribbons by the white gang as the white policemen watched. These rumours had a way of getting to people fast and this led to an escalation of the race riots once more as people got angrier with each other.
Racialism became more pronounced as the two warring factors continued fighting each other with the intention of revenge on the atrocities each had apparently executed on the other (Brent 2010, 109). According to (Velasco 2010, 57), a special commission known as the Chicago Commission on Race Relations was formed to curb this violence and prevent future eruptions. It was also aimed at improving relations between the black and white people of Chicago to avert such racialism. Among the findings of this commission was that this race riot was provoked by competition for jobs, an inconsistent law, inadequate housing and other forms of racial discrimination mainly meted on the black Chicagoans. This commission recommended that racial equality be upheld and all people be treated equally regardless of race or color.
Racial discrimination is an evil that has existed in many parts of the United States and Chicago experienced the worst during this race riot which left many people dead, wounded and homeless.
The authorities were unable to contain it by taking sides thereby protecting its own rather than serving its mixed population with equality. The Chicago Commission on Race Relations took on a slow and difficult route to curb racialism in Chicago, something that would have been prevented if only the relevant authorities took their responsibility of protecting its citizens regardless of their skin colour.
Brent, Rob. 2010. “Chicago Race Riot of 1919”. Chicago, Race Relations in the US, Race Riots, Civil Unrests and African-American History.
Chicago: Jazz Age. Tuttle, William. 1970.
Race Riot. Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919. American History African American Studies. University of Illinois press.
Chicago. Velasco, Kathy. 2010.
“The Chicago race riots of 1919”: A paired reading literacy strategy. Wilbur H. Lynch Literacy Academy.