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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Red Summer of 1919 - Chicago

"...Racial feeling, which had been on a par with the weather during the day, took fire shortly after 5 o'clock when white bathers at the 29th street improvised beach saw a colored boy on a raft paddling into what they termed 'white' territory. ~ Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1919

National Guardsmen surround suspect in Chicago
In addition to bloody labor strikes earlier in the year, the summer of 1919 had over 30 violent race riots. Although those in Knoxville, Tennessee and Elaine, Arkansas were more deadly, none were as widespread or long-lasting as the one in Chicago which began on Sunday, July 27. 

The city had seen its African American population grow from 44,000 to 109,000 in the previous decade as stockyard and factory owners advertised throughout the south for workers. Another 20,000 white southerners had emigrated as well. With veterans returning from World War I this led to a housing shortage and fierce competition for jobs, especially between African Americans and recent European immigrants. 

Seventeen-year-old Eugene Williams was on a raft in Lake Michigan when he crossed into water in front of the beach used by white bathers. A group of youths began throwing rocks at him and one, allegedly thrown by George Stauber, hit him in the head. He fell off the raft and the white youths prevented anyone from going to his rescue. When police arrived the only arrest they made was of one black man. Fights broke out at the beaches and quickly spread to adjacent areas of the city.

Much of the violence was from roving gangs of Irish American youth seeking victims to attack. These groups were organized as Athletic Clubs throughout the city. Future Mayor Richard J Daley was a member of one, the Hamburg Athletic Club. Daly, 17 at the time of the riot, did never confirm or deny his participation.

By the middle of the week, heavy rains and the presence of 6000 National Guardsmen ended most of the violence, although sporadic outbreaks lasted nearly two weeks. Another 3500 troops were brought in to keep the peace, along with between 1000 and 2000 veterans who were deputized. There had been 38 fatalities, 23 of whom were African American, and 537 injured. Fires left about 1000 people homeless. 

Some civic leaders suggested immediate segregation in housing and workplaces as a solution to the racial problems, but the majority took a more long-range approach with the formation of the Chicago Committee on Race Relations to study the issues leading to the riot. Their report, which took two years to complete, focused on the underlying causes of racism and the competition for housing and jobs.

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