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Chicago race riot of 1919

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Chicago race riot of 1919
Part of Red Summer
1919 Chicago Race Riot.jpg
Five police officers and a National Guard soldier with a rifle and bayonet standing on a corner in the Douglas neighborhood
DateJuly 27 – August 3, 1919
LocationChicago, United States

The Chicago race riot of 1919 was a violent racial conflict started by white Americans against black Americans that began on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois on July 27, and ended on August 3, 1919.[1][2] During the riot, thirty-eight people died (23 black and 15 white).[3] Over the week, injuries attributed to the episodic confrontations stood at 537, with two-thirds of the injured being black and one-third white, while the approximately 1,000 to 2,000 who lost their homes were mostly black.[4] It is considered the worst of the nearly 25 riots and civil disturbances in the United States during the "Red Summer" of 1919, so named because of the racial and labor related violence and fatalities across the nation.[5] The prolonged conflict made it one of the worst riots in the history of Illinois.[6]

In early 1919, the sociopolitical atmosphere of Chicago around and near its rapidly growing black community was one of ethnic tension caused by racism and competition among new groups, an economic slump, and the social changes engendered by World War I. With the Great Migration, thousands of African Americans from the American South had settled next to neighborhoods of European immigrants on Chicago's South Side, near jobs in the stockyards, meatpacking plants, and industry. Meanwhile, the Irish had been established earlier, and fiercely defended their territory and political power against all newcomers.[7][8] Post-World War I racism and tensions caused inter-community frictions, especially in the competitive labor and housing markets.[9] Overcrowding and increased African American resistance against racism, especially by war veterans contributed to the visible racial frictions.[5] Also, a combination of ethnic gangs and police neglect strained the racial relationships.[9]

The turmoil came to a boil during a summer heat wave with the murder of Eugene Williams, an African-American 17 year old[10] who inadvertently drifted into a white swimming area at an informally segregated beach near 29th Street.[11][page needed] A group of African American youths were diving from a 14 foot by 9 foot raft they had constructed. When the raft drifted into the "white beach area", one white beachgoer, indignant, began hurling rocks at the young men, striking Williams, and causing the teen to drown.[12] The official coroner's report cited that Williams drowned because the stone throwing kept him from coming to shore. When black beach goers complained whites attacked them, white violence expanded into neighborhoods where white mobs attacked innocent black residents. Tensions between groups arose in a melee that blew up into days of unrest.[5] Black neighbors near white areas were attacked, white gangs went into black neighborhoods, and black workers seeking to get to and from employment were attacked. Meanwhile, some blacks organized to resist and protect, and some whites sought to lend aid to blacks, while the Chicago Police Department often turned a blind eye or worse. William Hale Thompson was the Mayor of Chicago during the riot, and a game of brinksmanship with Illinois Governor Frank Lowden may have exacerbated the riot since Thompson refused to ask Lowden to send in the Illinois Army National Guard for four days, despite Lowden having ensured that the guardsmen were called up, organized in Chicago's armories and made ready to intervene.[13]

After the riots, Illinois governor Frank Lowden convened the Chicago Commission on Race Relations — a non-partisan, interracial investigative committee — to investigate the causes and propose solutions to racial tensions.[4] Their conclusions were published in 1922 by the University of Chicago Press as The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot.[14] United States President Woodrow Wilson and the United States Congress attempted to promote legislation and organizations to decrease racial discord in America.[5] Governor Lowden took several actions at Thompson's request to quell the riot and promote greater harmony in its aftermath.[15][16] Sections of the Chicago economy were shut down for several days during and after the riots, since plants were closed to avoid interaction among bickering groups.[15][17] Mayor Thompson drew on his association with this riot to influence later political elections.[18] Even so, one of the more lasting effects may have been decisions in both white and black communities to seek greater separation from each other.[1]


Unlike southern cities at the time, Chicago did not segregate most public accommodations.[3] According to Walter Francis White of the NAACP, pre-1915 Chicago had a good reputation for equitable treatment of African Americans.[9] However, while unofficial, socially early 20th-century Chicago beaches were racially segregated.[19] African Americans had a long history in Chicago, with the city sending Illinois' first African-American representative, John W. E. Thomas, to the state legislature in 1876. Nonetheless, blacks in 1900 were only about 1 percent of the total population of a city that had seen large European immigration, but the black population expanded dramatically in the early years of the 20th century. In the city, most African Americans competed for low-end jobs with Irish Americans causing tension between the groups.[20] By 1910, thousands of African Americans were moving from the South to Chicago, as a major destination in the Great Migration to industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest, fleeing lynchings, segregation and disenfranchisement in the Deep South. The revived Ku Klux Klan in the South committed 64 lynchings in 1918 and 83 in 1919.[5] With industrial jobs in the stockyards and meatpacking industry opening as European immigration was cut off by World War I, from 1916 to 1919 the African-American population in Chicago increased from 44,000 to 109,000, a 148 percent increase.[5][8]

The growing African-American population settling in the South Side bordered a neighborhood of Irish Americans existing since the mid-19th century, and the two groups competed for jobs and housing. African-American migrants arrived after waves of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe; there was competition and tensions in their relationships, too. Ethnic groups were possessive of their neighborhoods, which their young men often patrolled against outsiders. Because of agricultural problems, Southern whites also migrated to the city, about 20,000 by this period.[9] The rapid influx of migrants caused overcrowding as a result of a lack of adequate low-cost housing.[5]

"Earlier in 1919, there were race riots in Memphis, Tenn.; Charleston, S.C.; and Philadelphia, so his editor sent [Carl] Sandburg to take the pulse of Chicago's impoverished areas. [¶] Walking its streets, Sandburg foresaw an inevitable clash between dreams and fears. Black Southerners had come to Chicago envisioning opportunities long denied them. “A door once inscribed, ‘No hope,’ now says, ‘There is hope,’ ” he wrote. [¶] But where black people saw opportunity, white Chicagoans saw a threat. “Here and there, slowly and by degrees, the line of color discrimination breaks,” Sandburg wrote shortly before the [Chicago] riots . . .” "


In 1917, two summers before the Chicago riot, extensive and deadly race riots broke out in the expanding, war-time cities of East St. Louis, Illinois and Houston, Texas, influencing the violent events of Red Summer across the nation and in Chicago.[22] The postwar period also found tensions rising in numerous cities where populations were increasing rapidly. People from different cultures jostled against each other and competed for space. In 1917, the privately run Chicago Real Estate Board established a policy of block by block segregation. New arrivals in the Great Migration generally joined old neighbors on the South Side. By 1920, the area held 85% of Chicago's African Americans, middle, upper class and poor.[7]

In the post-war period, military veterans of all groups were looking to re-enter the work force despite the post-war economic slump. Some whites resented African-American veterans. At the same time, African-American veterans exhibited greater militancy and pride as a result of having served to protect their country. They expected to be treated as full citizens after fighting for the nation.[5] Meanwhile, younger black men rejected the deference or passivity traditional of the South and promoted armed self-defense and control of their neighborhoods.[23]

In Chicago, the Irish dominated social and athletic clubs that were closely tied to the political structure of the city. Some had acted as enforcers for politicians. As the first major group of 19th-century European immigrants to settle in the city, the Irish had established formal and informal political strength.[24] In Chicago, ethnic white gangs had been attacking people in African-American neighborhoods, and the police, overwhelmingly white and increasingly Irish-American, seemed little inclined to try to stop them. Meanwhile, newspapers carried sensational accounts of any African American allegedly involved in crime.[9] An example of territory was the Bridgeport community area, an ethnic Irish neighborhood just west of the Black Belt. The Irish had long patrolled their neighborhood boundaries against all other ethnic groups, especially African Americans. One group known as the Hamburg Athletic Club, whose members included a 17-year-old Richard J. Daley, future mayor of Chicago, contributed to gang violence in the area.[7]


The 29th Street Beach
African American men in front of Walgreen Drugs (now called Walgreens) at 35th and S. State St. in the Douglas community area

Longstanding racial tensions between whites and blacks exploded in five days of violence that started on July 27, 1919. On that hot summer day, on an unofficially segregated Chicago beach, a white man threw stones at Eugene Williams who then drowned, when he crossed the unofficial barrier between the white and black sections of the 29th Street beach. Tensions escalated when a white police officer prevented a black police officer from arresting the white man responsible for Williams' death,[12] but arrested a black man instead. Objections by black observers were met with violence by whites.[25] Attacks between white and black mobs erupted swiftly. At one point, a white mob threatened Provident Hospital, many of whose patients were African American. The police successfully held them off.

There were also attempts by the ethnic Irish gangs to incite Southern and Eastern European immigrant communities to commit acts of violence against blacks, as they had no history of hostility towards them. In one instance, members of the Ragen's Colts donned in blackface and set fire to Lithuanian and Polish homes in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in a deliberate attempt to incite the immigrant community to join them in committing acts against African Americans.[26] Although multiple acts of violence sought to drive apart blacks and whites, some cooperation also occurred, with some whites seeking to help save Eugene Williams, reporting other whites to the police, denouncing the violence, and bringing food to black communities.[1][4]

The Chicago riot lasted almost a week, ending only after the Government of Illinois deployed nearly 6,000 Illinois Army National Guard troops. The troops were stationed around the Black Belt to prevent any further white attacks. By the evening of July 30, most violence had ended.[15] The majority of the rioting, murder, and arson was the result of white ethnic groups attacking the African American population in the city's Black Belt on the South Side. Most of the casualties and property damage were suffered by black Chicagoans. Newspaper accounts noted numerous attempts at arson; for instance, on July 31, more than 30 fires were started in the Black Belt before noon and all were believed to be arson. Rioters stretched cables across the streets to prevent fire trucks from entering the areas.[27] The mayor's office was informed of a plan to burn down the black area of Chicago and run its residents out of town. There were also sporadic violent attacks in other parts of the city, including the Chicago Loop.[28] Because of the rioting, 38 people died (23 African American and 15 white),[3] and another 537 were injured, two-thirds of them African American; one African-American Patrolman John W. Simpson was the only policeman killed in the riot.[8][29] Approximately 1,000 residents, mostly African Americans, were left homeless because of the fires. Many African American families had left by train before the rioting ended, returning to their families in the South.[30]

The Chief of Police, John J. Garrity, closed "all places where men congregate for other than religious purposes" to help restore order. Illinois Governor Frank Lowden authorized the deployment of the 11th Illinois Infantry Regiment and its machine gun company, as well as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd reserve militia. These four units totaled 3,500 men.[16] The Cook County Sheriff deputized between 1,000 and 2,000 ex-soldiers to help keep the peace. With the reserves and militia guarding the Black Belt, the city arranged for emergency provisions to provide its residents with fresh food. White groups delivered food and supplies to the line established by the military; the deliveries were then distributed within the Black Belt by African Americans. While industry was closed, the packing plants arranged to deliver pay to certain places in the city so that African-American men could pick up their wages.[31]

Once order was restored, Lowden was urged to create a state committee to study the cause of the riots. He proposed forming a committee to write a racial code of ethics and to draw up racial boundaries for activities within the city.[15]

Coroner's inquest[edit]

Three African American men moving furniture.

The Cook County Coroner's Office took 70 day sessions, 20 night sessions and 450 witnesses examinations to collect evidence about the riots.[35] Its report stated that on July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams, an African American youth, drifted towards an informally segregated beach on the South Side while holding onto a railroad tie. He was subsequently hit by a stone as a white man threw rocks at him and other African Americans to drive them away from their part of the 29th Street beach in the city's Douglas community on the South Side. A witness recalled seeing a single white male standing on a breakwater 75 feet (22.9 m) from the raft of the African Americans and throwing rocks at them. Williams was struck in the forehead. He then panicked, lost his grip on the railroad tie, and drowned. The assailant ran toward 29th Street, where a different fight had already started when African Americans tried to use a section of the beach there, in defiance of its tacit segregation.

The rioting escalated when a white police officer refused to arrest the man who threw the stone at Williams. He instead arrested an African American on a white man's complaint of some minor offense. Anger over the arrest, coupled with Williams' death and rumors among both communities, escalated into five days of rioting. Most casualties were African American and most of the property damage was inflicted in African American neighborhoods. Having learned from the recent East St. Louis Riot, Chicago quickly stopped the street cars to try to contain the violence. Inflammatory newspaper coverage had the opposite effect.[35] Historians noted, "South Side youth gangs, including the Hamburg Athletic Club, were later found to have been among the primary instigators of the racial violence. For weeks, in the spring and summer of 1919, they had been anticipating, even eagerly awaiting, a race riot" and, "On several occasions, they themselves had endeavored to precipitate one, and now that racial violence threatened to become generalized and unrestrained throughout Chicago, they were set to exploit the chaos."[35]

A map of the riot-affected areas on the South Side of Chicago, with the Union Stock Yards visible. North is to the right.

Early reports detailed injuries to police officers and a Chicago fireman.[24] One African-American policeman John Simpson was killed during the riot by persons or persons unknown.[36] [37]The conduct of the white police force was criticized during and after the riots. State's Attorney Maclay Hoyne accused the police of arresting African-American rioters, while refusing to arrest white rioters.[9] Hoyne began bringing the cases involving only African Americans to the sitting grand jury to be charged, causing the jurors to walk-out. "What the ------ is the matter with the state's attorney? Hasn’t he got any white cases to present?" a juror complained. The jury then deferred hearing evidence of all cases against African Americans until whites were also charged.[1] Similarly a judge lectured police: "I want to explain to you officers that these colored people could not have been rioting among themselves. Bring me some white prisoners."[4] Roaming gangs of Bridgeport whites, who were mostly ethnic Irish, perpetrated much of the violence.[9] Although the local newspapers carried accounts of African Americans setting fires, "later the office of State Fire Marshal Gamber proved conclusively that the fires were not caused by blacks, but by whites."[9] The New York Times coverage during the riot, however, clearly conveyed that whites were responsible for planned large-scale arson against black areas and for numerous mob attacks.[27] Because of early police failures to arrest whites, no white Chicagoans were convicted of any of the murders, and most of the deaths were not even prosecuted. One man was prosecuted for Williams' death, but he was acquitted.[8]


House with broken windows and debris in front yard

The rioting impacted Chicago's economy. Low-income areas, such as tenement housing, were especially impacted as areas of possible riots. Some of the South Side's industry was closed during the riot. Businesses in the Loop were also affected by closure of the street cars. Many workers stayed away from affected areas. At the Union Stock Yard, one of Chicago's largest employers, all 15,000 African-American workers were initially expected to return to work on Monday, August 4, 1919. But after arson near white employees' homes near the Stock Yards on August 3, the management banned African-American employees from the stockyards in fear of further rioting.[15][17] Governor Lowden noted his opinion that the troubles were related to labor issues rather than race. Nearly one-third of the African-American employees were non-union, and were resented by union employees for that reason. African-American workers were kept out of the stockyards for ten days after the end of the riot because of continued unrest. On August 8, 1919, about 3,000 non-union African Americans showed up for work under protection of special police, deputy sheriffs, and militia. The white union employees threatened to strike unless such security forces were discontinued. Their main grievance against African Americans was that they were non-union and had been used by management as strikebreakers in earlier years.[38] Many African Americans fled the city as a result of the riots and damage.[28]

Illinois Attorney General Edward Brundage and State's Attorney Hoyne gathered evidence to prepare for a grand jury investigation. The stated intention was to pursue all perpetrators and to seek the death penalty as necessary.[27] On August 4, 1919, seventeen indictments against African Americans were handed down.[39]

Richard J. Daley was president of the Hamburg Athletic Club in Bridgeport. Daley served as Chicago's mayor from 1955 to 1976. In his long political career, he never confirmed nor denied involvement in the riots.[7]

In 1922, six whites and six African-Americans were commissioned to discover the true roots of the riots. It claimed that returning soldiers from World War I not receiving their original jobs and homes instigated the riots.[3]

In 1930, Mayor William Hale Thompson, a flamboyant Republican, invoked the riot in a misleading pamphlet urging African Americans to vote against the Republican nominee, Rep. Ruth Hanna McCormick, in the United States Senate race for her late husband's seat. She was the widow of Sen. Joseph Medill McCormick as well as the sister-in-law of Chicago Tribune publisher Robert Rutherford McCormick. The McCormicks were a powerful Chicago family whom Thompson opposed.[18]

President Woodrow Wilson pronounced white participants the instigators of the prolonged riots in Chicago and Washington, D.C. As a result, he attempted to promote greater racial harmony through the promotion of voluntary organizations and through the enactment of legislative improvements by Congress. He did not change the segregation of federal departments which he had imposed early during his first administration, however. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 shocked the nation and raised awareness of the problems that African Americans faced every day in the early 20th century United States.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Lee, William (July 19, 2019). "'Ready to Explode': How a Black Boy's Drifting Raft Triggered a Deadly Week of Riots 100 Years Ago in Chicago". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  2. ^ Essig, Steven (2005). "Race Riots". The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society.
  3. ^ a b c d Sandburg, Carl (2005). "The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919". The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society.
  4. ^ a b c d "Editorial: Chicago's race riots of 1919 and the epilogue that resonates today". Chicago Tribune. The Editorial Board. June 19, 2019. Retrieved July 21, 2019.CS1 maint: others (link)
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Chicago Race Riot of 1919". Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 2007. Retrieved August 24, 2007.
  6. ^ "Street Battles at -Night" (PDF). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. August 3, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  7. ^ a b c d Cohen, Adam; Taylor, Elizabeth (2000). "Richard J. Daley: A Separate World (page 7), excerpt from American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley – His Battle for Chicago and the Nation". Chicago History Information. Archived from the original on August 11, 2007. Retrieved August 26, 2007.
  8. ^ a b c d "Homicide in Chicago 1919: The Race Riot". Northwestern University School of Law. 2004. Retrieved August 24, 2007.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h ""Chicago and Its Eight Reasons": Walter White Considers the Causes of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot". Crisis. History Matters. October 1919. Retrieved August 27, 2007.
  10. ^ Loerzel, Robert (August 1, 2019). "Searching for Eugene Williams". Chicago Magazine. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
  11. ^ Roth, Randolph (2012). American Homicide. Belknap Press. ISBN 978-0674064119.
  12. ^ a b Loerzel, Robert (July 23, 2019). "Blood in the Streets". Chicago Magazine. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
  13. ^ Krist, Gary (2012). City of Scoundrels: The Twelve Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago. New York: Crown. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-307-45429-4.
  14. ^ "The Negro in Chicago: a study of race relations and a race riot". Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1922.
  15. ^ a b c d e "Troopers Restore Order in Chicago" (PDF). The New York Times. August 2, 1919. Retrieved May 8, 2008.
  16. ^ a b "Street Battles At Night" (PDF). The New York Times. July 29, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  17. ^ a b "Rioters in Chicago Knife Militia Captain" (PDF). The New York Times. August 3, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  18. ^ a b "Thompson v. McCormicks". Time. November 3, 1930. Retrieved May 2, 2008.
  19. ^ "Race Divisions on Public Beaches (page 1)". The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society. 2005.
  20. ^ Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, "Richard J. Daley: A Separate World" (page 7), excerpt from American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley – His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, Chicago History Information, accessed August 26, 2007
  21. ^ Grossman, Ron (July 18, 2019). "Flashback: Before Chicago erupted into race riots in 1919, Carl Sandburg reported on the fissures". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  22. ^ Barnes, Harper (2008). Never Been A Time. New York: Walker & Co. pp. 4. ISBN 978-0-8027-1575-3.
  23. ^ Coit, Jonathan S. (April 2012). "'Our Changed Attitude': Armed Defense and the New Negro in the 1919 Chicago Race Riot". Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. 11 (2): 225–56. doi:10.1017/S1537781412000035.
  24. ^ a b ""A Crowd of Howling Negroes": The Chicago Daily Tribune Reports the Chicago Race Riot, 1919". Chicago Daily Tribune. Archived from the original on October 29, 2014. Retrieved May 7, 2008.
  25. ^ Greenberg, David (July 12, 2020). "What We've Learned from 101 Years of American Unrest". Politico.
  26. ^ "Racism, Ethnicity, and White Identity".
  27. ^ a b c "Soldiers Rescue Negroes in Clash With Chicago Mob" (PDF). The New York Times. August 1, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  28. ^ a b "28 Dead, 500 Hurt In Three-Day Race Riots In Chicago" (PDF). The New York Times. July 30, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  29. ^ "ODMP memorial". The Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc. Retrieved April 24, 2009.
  30. ^ Lewinnek, Elaine (July 30, 2014). "On the 95th anniversary of the Chicago Race Riots". Oxford University Press. Retrieved August 1, 2014.
  31. ^ "Order Prevails in Chicago" (PDF). The New York Times. August 3, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  32. ^ [3]
  33. ^ [4]
  34. ^ Note this picture was printed backwards – see corrected version at [5].
  35. ^ a b c O'Brien, Ellen and Lyle Benedict (February 2006). "1919: Race Riots". Chicago Public Library. Archived from the original on March 30, 2008. Retrieved May 7, 2007.
  36. ^ "Patrolman John W. Simpson". The Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP).
  37. ^ Homicide in Chicago 1870-1930
  38. ^ "White Union Protests Stock Yard Guards" (PDF). The New York Times. August 8, 1919. Retrieved May 8, 2008.
  39. ^ "Indict 17 Negro Rioters" (PDF). The New York Times. August 5, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.

Further reading[edit]

  • The Chicago Commission on Race Relations. The Negro in Chicago. (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1922).
  • Coit, Jonathan S., "'Our Changed Attitude': Armed Defense and the New Negro in the 1919 Chicago Race Riot", Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 11 (April 2012), 225–56.
  • Krist, Gary. City of Scoundrels: The Twelve Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago. New York: Crown Publisher, 2012. ISBN 978-0-307-45429-4.
  • Sandburg, Carl. The Chicago Race Riots July 1919. (New York; Harcourt, Brace & World, 1919).
  • Spear, Allan. Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto 1890–1920. (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1967).
  • Tuttle, William. Race Riot Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919. (Urbana, Illinois; University of Illinois Press, 1970).

External links[edit]