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1919 Race Riots in Chicago: A Look Back 100 Years Later

A century after the tragedies that shaped the nation's race relations.

The year 1919 was a year of racial uprisings. It was dubbed the “Red Summer” by author James Weldon Johnson.  There were more than three dozen race riots in cities across the country, but none were as violent or as deadly as the one in Chicago.

At the time, Chicago was a tinderbox of a racial tensions. White soldiers returning from World War I were afraid they wouldn’t get their high pay jobs in the stockyards and meatpacking plants back. Meanwhile, blacks who had been recruited from the South to fill them, feared they would be fired. Black soldiers returning from the war refused to put up with racial discrimination after they had risked their lives for their county.

Union differences also fueled the anger. Whites were in favor of the better pay and job protections unions could provide, while blacks worried about discrimination.

Politically, whites were staunchly Democratic while blacks were Republicans, the party of Lincoln who freed the slaves. Overcrowding and poor housing conditions in the black community contributed to the divide.

In short, Chicago was a city just waiting to explode—and it did on July 27, 1919. It was sparked by an incident at 29th Street Beach. A group of black teens were playing on a raft and didn’t realize they had drifted over an invisible line and into the white part of the beach. A white man became infuriated and started throwing rocks. Eugene Williams, 17, ended up drowning, either from being hit by one of the rocks or from being too afraid to swim back to shore.

Anger began to build when a white police officer refused to arrest the man accused of throwing the rock, and false rumors quickly spread throughout the community as the story became distorted about who died and why. There were beatings and bombings.

Thirty-eight people ended died and more than 500 were injured. It caused millions of dollars in property damage, while leaving about a thousand families, mostly black, homeless.

Peace was eventually restored when the governor called in the National Guard and a hard driving rain forced people inside. It was later determined Irish American gangs from nearby Bridgeport were the main instigators of the rioting. One 17-year-old gang member in particular, Richard J. Daley, went on to become the long-time mayor of Chicago.

Daley never confirmed nor denied whether he took part in the rioting, but his supporters have said he had no involvement.

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