Even though it is mostly forgotten today, the ‘long, hot summer’ of 1919 was one of the worst ever for racial violence in the United States, and in Chicago the rioting became so intense that it was in reality a state of racial warfare and a total breakdown in social order. Only the arrival of federal troops after five days of rampant violence, beatings, killings and arson finally restored some semblance of calm to the city. In the end, at least 38 people died, over 500 were wounded and more than 1,000 burned out of their homes, although the true figures are probably much higher. As all the city newspapers reported at the time, it began when a group of whites attacked a black youth on a South Side bathing beach, whose raft had strayed into their area. He was drowned, and when the police did not intervene, blacks immediately attacked the whites responsible and soon the violence spread all over the city’s ‘Black Belt’. This was the immediate cause, along with the hot summer weather, but the true causes were the usual one in all previous and subsequent race riots like these: police brutality, competition among blacks and working class whites for jobs and housing, segregation in housing, schools and employment, and deeply ingrained racial hostilities and prejudices that took on a life of their own. This was intensified by millions of veterans returning from World War I into an uncertain economic climate, where violent strikes and government repression were the norm, along with paranoid fears and fantasies that the country was about to undergo a Bolshevik-style revolution.
As the Chicago Daily News reported, Dr. George Hall, a prominent black leader in Chicago, blamed the white police and city officials for supporting policies of racial segregation, as well as timid and corrupt black politicians who were not really representing their own voters. Indeed, the police had created the segregation line at the beach, where the black youth was killed after crossing over into the white area. Blacks were therefore being Blacks were therefore being oppressed by a color line in Chicago and other Northern cities just as much as in the South. Black ministers dutifully preached against violence, knowing full well that their own people would suffer the worst from it, and even sent their congregations home. Rev. J. F. Thomas, pastor of the Ebenezer Church, told them that they “must stand against violence in every form that we must stand by law and order no matter what happens. I don’t care what the past has been; it won’t help us to jump in for revolutionary ideas.” All the ministers noted, however, the racism, residential and school segregation, discrimination and police violence were the real cause of riots like these, as they had been in the past and would be again many times in the future. Carl Sandberg called the situation “race warfare” as did the chief of police, John J. Garrity, who also promised more protection for the black community when he learned that hundreds of blacks had armed themselves. Gangs of white and black workers were attacking each other continually, and it was too dangerous to ride streetcars into neighborhoods of the other race. Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson, one of the most notoriously and flagrantly corrupt machine politicians in U.S. history, promised to make a special appeal to white and black civic leaders to maintain order and calm in their neighborhoods. Alderman John H. Passmore wanted a resolution passed that would give the police special powers to search and disarm all “suspicious individuals” in areas where rioting was underway. After the body of the drowned black youth had been examined, the police denied that he had been attacked at all but rather “drowned when he got into deep water”. By this time, with the riots going on, the bathing beach was completely deserted.
The Chicago Daily Tribune agreed that the rioting began on the South Side beaches when a black youth was stoned by whites who prevented any blacks from attempting to save him. It blamed the intense “racial feeling” partly on the hot summer weather, which exploded on the beach when the black boy peddled his raft into the ‘white’ area, and then was attacked by a mob throwing stones. Blacks complained that the police did nothing to prevent this attack or assist the black youth, who was drowned. They then started beating up the whites who had been throwing the rocks and drove them into the water. After this, rioting spread very rapidly “through the black belt and by midnight had thrown the entire south side into a state of turmoil”. Blacks were being dragged off street cars and beaten by mobs of whites, and there were many rumors of dead bodies being thrown into Lake Michigan. Another rumor that fifty whites were trapped in a drug store, which blacks then set on fire turned out to be false. Blacks trapped a policeman in a drug store, where he called for reinforcements and in the gun battle that followed another police officer and three blacks were shot. At this time, the police sent all of the available officers, including the reserves, to the city’s Black Belt on the South Side, where armed groups of blacks and whites were shooting, beating and stabbing each other. The Tribune also provided a long list of the dead and wounded, at least insofar as it was able to obtain information about them.
As the Chicago Defender, the city’s main black newspaper, reported, calling this a race riot truly underestimates the depths of hysteria and irrational violence in these events, which seem more like an all-out racial war. So intense was the hatred that it affected even the dead, since white and black undertakers refused to take victims of the other color for fear of the mobs rampaging outside. Rioters destroyed street cars, trains and telephone lines, and regularly shot at and attacked any passersby who were of the other color, filling all the hospitals with the dead and dying, and schools, drug stores and residences had to be used to take in the wounded. Blacks and whites literally could not even enter each other’s neighborhoods without fear of being killed, and the city’s police force was completely overwhelmed by this complete breakdown in the social order. Women, children and infants were not spared, and on at least one occasion a black woman and her baby were literally torn to pieces, while blacks were forced out of their jobs at the central post offices by threat of death from white mobs. At this point, according to the Defender, the violence had simply taken on a momentum of its own without any real ‘reasons’, but insanity, madness, hysteria and a desire to destroy members of the other race, as well as their homes, cars and property. It was a brutal, atavistic tribal conflict in which the worst kinds of atrocities became routine, and only the dispatch of 4,000 federal troops finally ended it. As the Defender’s reporter on the scene noted, it was just as if hell had broken loose, and he was nearly a victim of it himself as the police opened fire on a black mob for ten minutes and a dead body fell on top of him.
Of the three newspapers, only the Chicago Defender truly attempted to delve into the deeper causes on the riot, which included a pervasive system of racial segregation and discrimination in Chicago that was already firmly in place in 1919 and continues up to the present. It was still the norm when Martin Luther King visited the city in the 1960s, and he had little success there compared to his more famous victories in the South. Only the Defender actually published comments from prominent black ministers and other civic leaders, who deplored the irrational explosion of violence and hatred but also attempted to explain its causes. There was a lot more happening here than just one attack by a white mob against a black youth on a hot summer’s day. At least, that was just the match that set off the explosion, but there was already plenty of tinder to ensure a racial conflagration. At least implied in all the news stories is an atmosphere of competition for jobs and housing between blacks and lower class whites (including white immigrants and migrants from the South) for jobs and housing, which was hardly unique to Chicago or something that only existed in 1919. Blacks had been attracted to the Northern cities because of the industrial and service jobs that were available, particularly in wartime, as well as the civil and voting rights that were denied then in the South at that time. Instead of finding a land of opportunity, though, they experienced the same familiar patterns of racism, segregation, discrimination and police violence that were the norm in the South, and this naturally provoked a smoldering sense of resentment and alienation. It had all happened before in many other cities, and would happen again, since the real underlying causes of this racial violence and warfare have not been fully addressed in this society.
“A Crowd of Howling Negroes”, Chicago Daily Tribune, July 28, 1919 (available online at historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4975).
“Ghastly Deeds of Race Rioters Told”, Chicago Defender, August 2, 1919 (available online at historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4976).
“Says Lax Conditions Caused Race Riot’s, Chicago Daily News, July 28, 1919 (available online at historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4974).