How Chicago Is Facing Its Violent History

A century after the deadly riot, the Chicago Race Riots of 1919 Commemoration Project looks to build bridges in a city still grappling with its segregated past—and present.
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A group of men and armed National Guardsmen in front of the Ogden Cafe during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.

Photo by Jun Fujita/Chicago History Museum

This summer marks 100 years of one of the deadliest and traumatic periods in U.S. history. Across the country, anti-Black terrorist attacks and subsequent uprisings, or riots were pervasive. The period was dubbed, “Red Summer” for the hundreds of deaths that occurred, and even more injuries.

In Chicago, tensions over Black migrants from the South, oppressive economic conditions for Black workers, and inequality in education and health led to the 1919 Chicago Race Riot.

Many people remember the uprisings in 1968 after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But the 1919 rebellion was the first and deadliest in the city, happening a decade before the civil rights leader was born.

More than 520 people were injured, and 38 people were murdered, including 17-year-old Eugene Williams, whose murder ignited the Chicago riots.

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In a case of what we would today call “swimming while Black,” Williams’ death occurred after he and friends tried to retrieve their raft that had drifted to the “White side” of the Lake Michigan beach in Bronzeville. The segregated space at the Black beach nearby was one of few places Black families could enjoy a beach day at the time. Like the neighborhood Williams came from, the Black side of the beach was crowded, so overstepping the arbitrary segregation line was inevitable.

When it did, 24-year-old George Stauber, a White man, started throwing rocks at the boys. He hit Williams, causing him to drown. When police arrived, they refused to arrest Stauber. More Black people showed up, and so did more police. Someone fired a gun at the police and was immediately shot dead.

Hours later, Chicago erupted in rioting.

Most in the city, according to history professor Peter Cole, Western Illinois University, have forgotten the horrific incident. He and his colleagues intend to change that with their commemorative project on the 1919 riot.

The Roots of a City’s Pain

According to Cole, knowing the roots of the riot is key to helping Chicago heal from the racial trauma that still plagues the city. Many Chicagoans live by unspoken codes, enacted right after the riots, to prevent further clashes. In fact, Cole says, those decisions or policies after the riots “set in motion some of the divides in the city.”

“After the riot, Whites decide the answer [to preventing another riot] is [further] segregation,” Cole explains. “And that becomes the perceived solution. The housing segregation, and then educational segregation, all these things are justified in part by [the notion] ‘well, maybe we don’t want more violence.’”

A police officer examines a victim of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. Photo by Jun Fujita/Chicago History Museum.

Of course, more rioting occurred in the ’60s and ’70s, he continues. And after WWII, the problems surrounding housing, jobs, and politics are heightened.

“Those three big areas are where there’s this dramatic clash that really still exists,” Cole says. “You know, it’s just simmering beneath the surface.”

Healing Is Necessary and Not Always Voluntary

On July 27, the date 100 years ago of Eugene Williams’ and 37 other deaths in Chicago, Cole and others will publicly launch the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19) in Bronzeville, where the riot began and much of the violence occurred.

The project, he explains, was inspired by the Stolpersteine project in Germany, which uses tiny stones to commemorate the murders of Jewish people by Nazis. Thousands of these stones are found all over Germany at the places where lives were lost. The stones include not only the names of the victims, but also the names of the Nazis who killed them. It is a way for the country to atone for the atrocities of the Nazi occupation, Cole says, and also remember them.

He hopes for CRR19 to have a similar impact to that of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Lynching Memorial, in Montgomery, Alabama, which commemorates the thousands of racial terror lynchings that occurred in 12 states across the country from 1855 to 1950. By placing monuments to the murdered 38 people where their deaths occurred, Cole says, he believes that the CRR19 project will begin a healing process.

Facing the past can’t be a one-off experience. That’s why the commemoration will be a permanent monument that he hopes “will become as natural to the Chicago landscape as the Bean.”

Remembering is Crucial

Cole’s project is one of several others in place in Bronzeville, organized by community leaders there to help the people heal themselves.

Franklin Cosey-Gay, executive director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, has been working closely with the Bronzeville community since 2015 to help heal from the scars of the riots. Cosey-Gay says the violence, troubled schools, unemployment, and intergenerational trauma all stem from aftermath of the riot. He calls the 1919 riot “the origin story,” for the problems that have haunted the community and the city of Chicago for the past century.

Cosey-Gay’s organization works with the community to resolve the education problems by teaching youth about the systems that made their community what it is today.

“This means telling the kids about historic events like the riots and their aftermath,” he says. “[And] ensuring that any plan to help the community heal from the past includes the children, engages the parents, and supports the school staff (including principals).”

Men move furniture out of a house, guarded by police, during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. Photo by Jun Fujita/Chicago History Museum.

“[It’s] social justice in equity and healing,” Cosey-Gay says. It  works because all of the people in the community are informed, and they acknowledge its history.

Cosey-Gay commends programs like the Greater Bronzeville Action Plan, run by the Rev. Chris Harris Sr., the Bronzeville Historical Society, led by Sherry Williams, and others whose work in the community “channel the community voice, to educate, train, and mobilize,” the residents toward healing, and breaking the centuries-old systems put in place to oppress them.

Eve Ewing, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and author of the book 1919, says that the work that folks are doing to address past traumas are critical to any healing before the city can move forward.

“I think it’s been profound for people to step into tough conversations about the ways that our present circumstances are so, so similar to our historical circumstances,” Ewing says. “It challenges us to think about what ‘progress’ means and to confront difficult questions about why we seem to be reliving the same crises over and over.”

Ewing says we can’t commit ourselves to the “hard work” of creating a more just world if we don’t move with “honesty about where we’ve been.”

“Often folks think about racism and white supremacy as individual problems, and seeing the ways that they’ve been embedded in the fabric of our society for so long can help us see how this is really about structures and power,” she says.

Anti-racism work and efforts to heal traumas of past racial violence are not just goals for Black or Brown people. And Cole and others with CRR19 are demonstrating this.

Joining Forces to Commemorate the Centennial

CRR19 will join the Newberry Library, the DuSable Museum of African American History, and many other organizations to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Eugene Williams’ murder. They have partnered to bring a year of activities to commemorate the 1919 riot, according to Brad Hunt, Vice President for Research and Academic Programs for the Newberry Library, and Project Director of the Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots project.

A crowd mills by a storefront during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919Photo by Jun Fujita/Chicago History Museum.

This consortium under the Newberry’s lead has created a resource that people can return to long after this centennial is over, including the most well-known remaining pictures from that time, captured by Japanese American photographer Jun Fujita, along with a timeline of the violence, and an interactive map of the 38 deaths.

But, No One is Stopping There

Alderman Pat Dowell summed up the need to remember the 1919 Chicago Race Riots in her remarks this week to the City Council.

“Hopefully, by remembering the event today, we can have the same galvanizing impact for a new generation of African Americans moving forward that it had on the people that lived through it in 1919,” she remarked, referencing the civil rights movement as a positive gain from the Red Summer trauma.

Cole hopes the project will eventually grow to include other victims of racial violence in the city. The monuments thus become historical markers to remind us all of what happened, and to continue the work of healing.