One hundred years ago, 7-year-old Juanita Mitchell should have been playing with other children in the streets during that summer’s heat wave and getting to know her new home on Chicago’s South Side.
She and her younger sister, Iona, had just moved with their mother into their uncle’s home near the corner of 35th Street and Giles Avenue, the heart of the city’s expanding black community where new faces were showing up daily and thousands of families were hoping to find the jobs and dignity absent in the Jim Crow South.
But instead, Mitchell and other relatives were trapped inside a stifling upstairs room, sometimes huddled behind a piano, as angry mobs of young white men and boys roamed the so-called black belt looking to maim, kill or set fires.
Mitchell — one of the last living eyewitnesses to Chicago’s most violent racial conflict that began on July 27, 1919 — still recalls her uncle Cecil’s signal that white men armed with guns had crossed Wentworth Avenue, the racial dividing line, and entered their neighborhood.
“My uncle pulled out the biggest gun I’ve ever seen and stood at the window, and I heard him say ‘Here they come,’” Mitchell, now 107, recently recalled at the suburban Flossmoor home she shares with her daughter. “It meant the white folks was coming up 35th Street and that the riot was going to begin.”
But despite a yearlong Newberry Library public conversations initiative as well as a large number of community meetings, prayer services and even bike tours to commemorate the riots, many details about one of the city’s worst weeks are not widely known.
The 1919 riots “didn’t seem to make it into the timeline alongside titanic stories about Fort Dearborn, Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, the World’s Columbian Exposition, the 1968 riot, Richard J. Daley, or Harold Washington,” wrote Eve Ewing in her book of poetry “1919.” In fact, only a small marker on the beach near the spot where 17-year-old Eugene Williams was murdered commemorates the days of rioting that followed.
But the cataclysmic event that left 38 people dead (23 black and 15 white), more than 500 injured and hundreds homeless due to arson influenced many of the city’s leaders who would face issues about race relations for decades.