It is easy to miss the plaque nestled amidst the trees and expanse of lawn near 29th Street along the lakefront on Chicago’s South Side. Paid for by York High School students in the predominantly white suburb of Elmhurst, 26km (16 miles) east of Chicago, it was installed in 2009. But, today, 102 years after one of the longest and bloodiest race riots in the city’s history, few Chicagoans are aware of the marker or the events it commemorates.
According to Peter Cole, founding director of the Chicago Race Riot (CRR19) project, “no one in Illinois actually thinks about or remembers the Chicago race riot of 1919, let alone its legacy.”
This absence of collective memory and lack of recognition of the significance of the event is due in part to lax record-keeping about the riot, and the slipshod way in which the media covered the story. As Robert Loerzel concluded in 2019 when he tried to write a story on the incident that triggered the race riot, even the most basic facts about the Black teenager and other key actors at the centre of the story were unavailable. Loerzel argues that: “This was typical of journalism in the early 20th century. For one thing, few newspapers reported in depth about the lives of Black Chicagoans.”
‘Make this beach Atlantic City’
Parks and open spaces are important to Chicagoans. The city is blessed with miles of beaches and is well-endowed with parks. It opened the first public beach in 1895 in Lincoln Park, on the city’s North Side. In 1919, Chicago had 82 playgrounds, 14 of which were in Black neighbourhoods. Of the eight public bathing beaches, three were in Black communities. But the city’s white residents expected Black Chicagoans to confine themselves to just one of these – the 26th Street beach.
The beach was utterly unattractive and difficult to access. Visitors had to traverse a rough road that ran through a decrepit neighbourhood, then ascend a long flight of stairs to a four-foot-wide viaduct that passed over the railroad tracks, roundhouse, and switchyards. The one-block long strip of sand was 15 metres (50 feet) wide, narrowing at the end that abutted the railroad tracks and hemmed in at the other by a high embankment.
During the long, hot summer of 1919, the Chicago Defender and the Whip, two of Chicago’s leading Black newspapers, encouraged Black Chicagoans to make use of the other public beaches as well. Despite the fact that white gangs often harassed and brutalised Black people in the city’s parks, playgrounds and beaches, the papers saw these as democratic spaces that should be enjoyed by all residents of the city.
In particular, the Black newspapers urged Black people to also visit the 25th Street beach, with the Defender pointing out that there were free towels and lockers and the Whip listing attractions that included “bathing beauties” and a courteous and helpful Black lifeguard. The Whip implored Black Chicagoans to “make this beach [their] Atlantic City.”
Roaming gangs and hurled projectiles
In the early 20th century, outdoor enthusiasts and nature groups urged middle- and working-class white people to spend time outdoors to reinvigorate themselves after long hours of humdrum factory work, while Black social clubs, churches, community organisations, and newspapers, sent a similar message to Black Americans.
Banned from membership of white resorts, Chicago’s Black elite (like middle- and upper-class Black people around the country) created all-Black resorts. Among those who owned cabins, cottages or plots on the roughly 1,200-hectare (3,000-acre) resort around the private lake at Idlewild, Michigan – the Black resort closest to Chicago – were the pioneering heart surgeon and co-founder of Provident Hospital, Daniel Hale Williams, WEB Du Bois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the first Black person to receive a PhD from Harvard University, fiction writer Charles Waddell Chestnutt, millionaire businesswoman Madam CJ Walker, and the first Black female lawyer to practice before the US Supreme Court, Violette Nealey Anderson.
But Black people who could not afford to go to private resorts depended on the city’s public recreation facilities. White residents, however, bristled at the idea that they should have access to public parks and beaches, and while these spaces were not officially segregated, the reality was different.
Parks and recreation staff, police officers and white users devised and enforced segregationist practices that restricted which facilities Black people could use. Italian youths in the Vincennes Club and similar groups, enforced the social order of whiteness at the 38th Street beach, while gangs of young Irish men like those affiliated with the Ragen’s Colts, roamed the 29th Street beach and the surrounding area in their efforts to enforce the separation of the races that they espoused.
In 1913, the Juvenile Protective Association (JPA), a private nonprofit founded in 1901 by the renowned social reformer Jane Addams, reported that “even the waters of Lake Michigan [are] not…available for coloured children.” A secretary from the Young Men’s Christian Association described how when they tried to take Black boys to the lake, they were always waylaid by gangs of white boys on 31st Street who hurled projectiles at them.
Even on those beaches where there was nominally integration, Black people would use one portion of the beach and white people another.
The straining Black Belt
The segregation of outdoor spaces mirrored that of living and workspaces. Strict residential segregation, enforced by banks, realtors, homeowners’ associations, white native-born and immigrant segregationists, and ethnic street gangs and “athletic clubs,” shoehorned increasing numbers of Black residents into a 31-block long, four-block wide strip of the South Side called the Black Belt.
The Black Belt slowly expanded over time, developing its own socioeconomic stratification, with the poorest Black residents living in the northern portion of the belt while the more well-to-do lived in the southern part.
Living conditions in the Black Belt were horrific. Severe overcrowding was partly to blame. In the early 1900s, large numbers of Black people, part of the Great Northern Migration, fled the sharecropping system, catastrophic crop failures, racial oppression, and violence of the South for factory jobs in northern cities like Chicago. Chicago’s Black population more than doubled in a decade – going from 44,103 in 1910 to 109,594 in 1920.
The influx of Black residents marked a profound shift in the demographic composition of the city. Black people constituted 11 percent of the population of the South Side in 1910 but a decade later, they comprised 24.6 percent of the area’s residents.
The new arrivals poured into the Black Belt at a time when the city was experiencing a severe post-war housing shortage. The substandard housing – without proper indoor toilets, plumbing, heating, or ventilation – was strained to its limits.
While the Black Belt provided relatively easy access to jobs in the steel mills, meatpacking plants, garment factories, and at the rail yards, intolerable living conditions led Black residents to seek housing in other parts of the city. But those who succeeded in buying or renting in formerly all-white neighbourhoods bordering the Black Belt or on the West Side or North Side were perceived as “invaders” whose presence lowered property values.
“Pioneering Blacks” – as the first Black people to move into white neighbourhoods were called – were often met with firebombs, destruction of property, threats, and violence. Twenty-four firebombings were reported between 1917 and 1919. In 1918, homeowners in South Side communities like Kenwood and Hyde Park launched a “make Hyde Park white” campaign.
What these white homeowners either did not know or had forgotten was that Black people have lived in Chicago since 1790 when Jean Baptiste Point du Sable became the first non-Native American settler to build a house on the north bank of the Chicago River. Du Sable, a Black man, is recognised as a founder of Chicago, and fugitive enslaved people established a Black community in the city in the 1840s.
Other aspects of Black life were controlled by segregationist policies and practices as well. Workplaces were sites of conflict, tension, and racial domination. Black people who came north to work in the factories found themselves cast in the role of strikebreakers and were excluded from labour unions. They were perceived as invading hordes taking jobs from native-born and immigrant white people. When hired, they were relegated to the worst, lowest paying, and most hazardous jobs.
White ethnic groups such as the Irish, Italians, Germans, Polish, and Greeks – many of them immigrants – organised themselves into social clubs, gangs, and other collectives to protect their climb up the ladder of economic mobility, acceptability, and respectability, while subjugating Black people to enhance their stature and protect their gains.
A fateful Sunday
Sunday, July 27, 1919, was sweltering as the temperature climbed to 35 degrees Celsius…