In this July 10, 2019, photo, a wreathe lies in front of a site commemorating the 1919 race riots in Chicago. The plaque is near the area where black teenager Eugene Williams was struck in the head with a rock and drowned in Lake Michigan, sparking race riots.AP Photos
When angry white mobs around the country attacked, injured and murdered groups of African Americans in the summer of 1919, Chicago’s black population fought back.
Black men in the city who had come home from fighting a war for their country — and who quickly realized they would be treated no differently than they had been before they went overseas — put up a defense against the violent mobs of white men rioting their communities.
While similar outbreaks of bloody violence occurred across the country in what became known as The Red Summer, Chicago stood out in its resistance.
The short-term impact of Chicago’s resulting race riots — which were sparked by the killing of black teenager Eugene Williams at 29th Street Beach 100 years ago Saturday — was dozens killed, both black and white, and hundreds more injured.
The long-term impact? It’s still being felt by black Chicagoans every day.
“I think an argument can be made that what happened here in 1919 at the beach and in the week that followed is just as impactful in shaping Chicago as the Chicago Fire was, where you get a completely different city with and without the event happening,” said Lee Bey, a longtime photographer, author and journalist, including a stint as the Chicago Sun-Times’ architecture critic.
Yet, as seminal of an event as the race riots were, most in the city have never heard much about them, let alone learned about them.
“We don’t learn this in school. This incident is not taught in school. It didn’t get the Hollywood movie treatment. So we can’t turn on Netflix and see what happened in 1919,” said Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd). “So these kids of events are very important.”
Bey and Dowell were among the speakers at one of a series of events around the city Saturday to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the start of the race riots.
“While it happened 100 years ago, the factors that led to that still exist with us today,” Dowell said. “I think it’s really important that we understand our history and mark our history.”
That event, held in an auditorium at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Bronzeville, featured a 30-minute lesson by Bey on Chicago history leading up to the 1919 riots, and how those events led to systemic segregation and oppression of black people today.
Bey spoke about the building of the Dan Ryan Expressway as a tool to keep apart black communities on the east from white neighborhoods on the west; school segregation and closings; and restrictive covenants, which white homeowners signed to prohibit the purchase, lease, or occupation of their homes by African Americans.
At another event, the annual Bughouse Square Debates at Washington Square Park on the Near North Side, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the “segregation that was already coming to define the city became even more firmly entrenched in the aftermath [of the 1919 riots] through policies like redlining and restrictive covenants.”
“Yes, we have made progress. But not nearly enough,” Lightfoot told a crowd of a few dozen.” Our work to create a more equitable and just society has to continue.”