Thursday, January 04, 2018

Red Summer: A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 by Claire Hartfield

On one rare day, the cool breezes off Lake Michigan failed the Windy City. It was a still, steamy, summer day in Chicago, and all those who could crowded the beaches along the lakefront to cool off.

The date was July 27, 1919, a day that would forever change the life of John Turner Harris and cause the whole city of Chicago to rethink where it had been and where it was headed.

As is often the case just before catastrophe strikes, that Chicago summer morning was like any other. Except that it was hot. And this heat had been building for days.

Although most Chicagoans didn't realize it, the city was already a tinder box of economic and ethnic tensions. World War I had taken away most of the men who labored in the stockyards and related industries, and in their place came repeated waves of European immigrants--Polish, Irish, and Lithuanians mostly--and a new phenomenon, the Great Migration of black families from the South, crowding the older district called the Black Belt, settled post-Civil War by its "Refined" upper class, the "Respectables," the solid middle class, as well as some "Deplorables," the unemployed, gamblers, and con-men, and all of these new residents came to take the place of those away in the the military. White ethnic and racial groups competed for living space and jobs and gangs of young men formed to protect their own turf, but the satisfaction of increasing jobs and rising wages kept conflict at a simmer, as the major meat packers scrambled to hire all able-bodied men and some women to keep the stockyards and canneries going to supply the military.

But with the demobilization in 1919 of soldiers who believed they deserved their old jobs back, competition for jobs became fierce. Unions tried to form to protect the workers, but packers like Swift and Company took advantage of the oversupply of labor now in Chicago by playing off the conflict between the racial and ethnic groups to keep wages as low as possible, and confrontations took place frequently, with the Irish against the Polish and the Polish against the Lithuanians and everyone in Packingtown against the newly arrived black workers in the Black Belt neighborhoods.

And on that 96-degree day in July, four teen-aged black boys set off to the "black beach" at Twenty-Ninth Street with a homemade wooden raft to spend the day floating in the cool lake. The boys didn't notice that they had drifted close to the "white" Twenty-Sixth Street Beach, which was already seething about the invasion of several black men. Although there were no segregation laws as such in Chicago, whites considered certain areas off limits for blacks.

And the cauldron of racism was already simmering.

It seemed that something had come over black people after fighting in the Great War. They seemed to think they could go anywhere, do anything, same as whites. And now here they were on their beach. They needed to be shown their place.

Whites starting throwing rocks at the kids on the raft, who at first took it as a sort of game, ducking under and popping up with a grin, but when one stone hit young Johnny Harris's friend Eugene William in the head, he sank and Johnny was unable to drag him up from underwater. When the boys managed to paddle back to their beach and tell their story to the lifeguard and the police took no action, an angry crowd stormed down toward the white beach, and the Chicago riot of 1919 began.

The riot raged for seven days, with bombings, shootings, and battling mobs of teen gangs and unemployed men. Houses and apartments were burned. Schools and even the stockyard and packing houses had to close, and for a time the trolleys stopped running. Thirty-eight people died, many were injured, and even more left homeless and jobless. Black leaders like Ida Wells-Barnett worked with Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson to bring the battling to an uneasy end, the Chicago Commission was formed to guide the city in improving race relations, but when the man whose rock killed Eugene Williams was acquitted of manslaughter and the discrimination in hiring continued, Chicago entered the turbulent Twenties and Prohibition era very much a divided city. Tensions between the old ethnic groups receded over the decades and Chicago's blacks gained socially and economically, but institutions like the Chicago Defender newspaper, the Urban League and NAACP remain as witnesses to that time--and to both the successes and failures of the time since.

From the last century, Ida Wells-Barnett reminds us that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," and Claire Hartfield's just published A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2018) observes that progress "comes in fits and starts." Author Hartfield offers a documentary-style narration of the events of that week, including personal stories from many people from that time, and with photographs that speak volumes of the complexity of their lives and times. With abundant endnotes, an extensive bibliography, picture credits, and a detailed index, even Carl Sandburg's poem, "I Am The People, The Mob," this new book is a powerful source for Black History Month units and research papers, and for those who want to understand how we got where we are today.

Hartfield writes,

"America's present echoes its past. Today's disparity between rich and poor is a wide as the divide between Swift and his laborers one hundred years ago. One quarter of America's city dwellers live in poverty. One percent of all Americans take home nearly twenty percent of all earnings. Black America is the bleakest of all."

Written for secondary level students, Hartfield's book is compelling and highly readable, filled with details that will feel all too familiar today, and yet with the hope that people who know their own history will not be doomed to repeat it.



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