Chicago race riot of 1919

Chicago race riot of 1919

Five police officers and a soldier with a rifle and bayonet standing on a corner in the Douglas neighborhood.
Date July 27 – August 3, 1919
Location Chicago, Illinois, United States
Deaths 38

The Chicago race riot of 1919 was a major racial conflict that began in Chicago, Illinois on July 27, 1919 and ended on August 3.[1] During the riot, thirty-eight people died (23 black and 15 white) and over five hundred were injured.[2] It is considered the worst of the approximately 25 riots during the Red Summer, so named because of the violence and fatalities across the nation.[3] The combination of prolonged arson, looting, and murder made it the worst race riot in the history of Illinois.[4]

The sociopolitical atmosphere of Chicago was one of ethnic tension caused by competition among many new groups. With the Great Migration, thousands of African Americans from the South had settled next to neighborhoods of European immigrants on Chicago's South Side, near jobs in the stockyards and meatpacking plants. The ethnic Irish had been established first, and fiercely defended their territory and political power against all newcomers.[5][6] Post World War I tensions caused frictions between the races, especially in the competitive labor and housing markets.[7] Overcrowding and increased African American militancy by veterans contributed to the visible racial frictions.[3] Also, a combination of ethnic gangs and police neglect strained the racial relationships.[7] According to official reports, the turmoil came to a boil after the stoning death of an African American child who had accidentally drifted into a swimming area at an informally segregated beach.[8] Tensions between groups arose in a melee that blew up into days of unrest.[3]

William Hale Thompson was the Mayor of Chicago during the riot and a game of brinksmanship with Illinois Governor Frank Lowden may have exacerbated the riot since Thompson refused to ask Lowden to send in the militia for four days, despite Lowden ensuring the militia was in Chicago and ready to intervene.[9] Although future mayor Richard J. Daley never officially acknowledged being part of the violence, at age 17 he was an active member of the ethnic Irish Hamburg Athletic Club, which a post-riot investigation named as instigators in attacks on blacks.[5] In the following decades, Daley continued to rise in politics to become mayor for twenty-one years.

United States President Woodrow Wilson and the United States Congress attempted to promote legislation and organizations to decrease racial discord in America.[3] Illinois Governor Frank Lowden took several actions at Thompson's request to quell the riot and promote greater harmony in its aftermath.[10][11] Sections of the Chicago economy were shut down for several days during and after the riots, as plants were closed to avoid interaction among bickering groups.[10][12] Mayor Thompson drew on his association with this riot to influence later political elections.[13]


A white gang looking for African Americans during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.

Unlike southern cities through the 1960s, Chicago did not segregate most public accommodations.[2] According to Walter Francis White of the NAACP, pre-1915 Chicago had a reputation for equitable treatment of African Americans in general.[7] However, early 20th-century Chicago beaches were segregated.[14] African Americans had a long history in Chicago, with the city sending its first African-American representative to the state legislature in 1876, but the population in 1900 was only about 1 percent, and expanded dramatically in the early 20th century. Most ethnic Irish and African Americans competed for low-end jobs, leading to tension between the groups.[15]

An African American man was stoned to death by whites during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.

By 1910, thousands of African Americans were moving from the South to Chicago as a major destination in the Great Migration to northern and midwestern cities, fleeing lynchings, segregation and disenfranchisement in the Deep South. The Ku Klux Klan committed 64 lynchings in 1918 and 83 in 1919 in southern states.[3] With industrial jobs in the stockyards and meatpacking industry beckoning as European immigration was cut off by World War I, from 1916 to 1919 the African-American population in Chicago increased from 44,000 to 109,000, a 148 percent increase during the decade.[3][6]

The growing African-American population settling in the South Side bordered a neighborhood of Irish Americans existing since the mid-19th century and the two groups competed for jobs and housing. African-American migrants arrived after waves of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe; there were competition and tensions in their relationships, too. Ethnic groups were possessive of their neighborhoods, which their young men often patrolled against outsiders. Because of agricultural problems, Southern whites also migrated to the city, about 20,000 by this period.[7] The rapid influx of migrants caused overcrowding as a result of a lack of adequate low-cost housing.[3]

In 1917, two summers before the Chicago riot, extensive and deadly race riots broke out in the expanding, war-time cities of East St. Louis, Illinois and Houston, Texas, influencing the violent events of Red Summer across the nation and in Chicago.[16] The postwar period also found tensions rising in numerous cities where populations were increasing rapidly. People from different cultures jostled against each other and competed for space. In 1917, the Chicago Real Estate Board established a policy of block by block segregation. New arrivals in the Great Migration generally joined old neighbors on the South Side. By 1920, the area held 85% of Chicago's African Americans--middle and upper class and poor.[5] In the postwar period, veterans of all groups were looking to re-enter the work force. Some whites resented African-American veterans. At the same time, African-American veterans exhibited greater militancy and pride as a result of having served to protect their country. They expected to be treated as full citizens after fighting for the nation.[3] Meanwhile, younger black men rejected the passivity traditional of the South and promoted armed self-defense and control of their neighborhoods.[17]

White men and boys standing in front of vandalized house.

In Chicago, the Irish dominated social and athletic clubs that were closely tied to the political structure of the city. Some had acted as enforcers for politicians. As the first major group of 19th-century European immigrants to settle in the city, the Irish had established formal and informal political strength.[18] In Chicago, ethnic white gangs had been attacking people in African-American neighborhoods, and the police, overwhelmingly white and increasingly Irish-American, seemed little inclined to try to stop them. Meanwhile, newspapers carried sensational accounts of any African American allegedly involved in crime.[7]

An example of territory was the Bridgeport community area, an ethnic Irish neighborhood just west of the Black Belt. The Irish had long patrolled their neighborhood boundaries against all other ethnic groups, especially African Americans. One group known as the Hamburg Athletic Club, whose members included a 17-year-old Richard J. Daley, future mayor of Chicago, contributed to gang violence in the area.[5]


African American men in front of Walgreen Drugs at 35th and S. State St. in the Douglas community area.

Longstanding racial tensions between whites and blacks exploded in five days of violence that started on July 27, 1919. On that hot summer day, on a segregated Chicago beach, a white man was throwing rocks at black swimmers in the water at a beach on the South Side which resulted in Eugene Williams' death. Tensions escalated when a white police officer not only failed to arrest the white man responsible for Williams' death, but arrested a black man instead. Objections by black observers were met with violence by whites. Attacks between white and black mobs erupted swiftly. At one point, a white mob threatened Provident Hospital, many of whose patients were African American. The police successfully held them off.

The Chicago riot lasted almost a week, ending only after the government had deployed nearly 6,000 National Guard infantrymen. They stationed them around the Black Belt to prevent any further white attacks. By the evening of July 30, most violence had ended.[10] The majority of the rioting, murder, and arson was the result of white ethnic groups attacking the African American population in the city's Black Belt on the South Side. Most of the casualties and property damage were suffered by black Chicagoans. Newspaper accounts noted numerous attempts at arson; for instance, on July 31, more than 30 fires were started in the Black Belt before noon and all were believed to be arson. Rioters stretched cables across the streets to prevent fire trucks from entering the areas.[19] The mayor's office was informed of a plan to burn down the black area of Chicago and run its residents out of town. There were also sporadic violent attacks in other parts of the city, including the Chicago Loop.[20] Because of the rioting, 38 people died (23 African American and 15 white),[2] and another 537 were injured, two-thirds of them African American. Patrolman John W. Simpson was the only policeman killed in the riot.[6][21] Approximately 1,000 residents, mostly African Americans, were left homeless because of the fires. Many African American families had left by train before the rioting ended, returning to their families in the South.[22]

The Chief of Police, John J. Garrity, closed "all places where men congregate for other than religious purposes" to help restore order. Governor Frank Lowden authorized the deployment of the 11th Illinois Infantry Regiment and its machine gun company, as well as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd reserve militia. These four units totaled 3,500 men.[11] The Cook County Sheriff deputized between 1000 and 2000 ex-soldiers to help keep the peace. With the reserves and militia guarding the Black Belt, the city arranged for emergency provisions to provide its residents with fresh food. White groups delivered food and supplies to the line established by the military; the deliveries were then distributed within the Black Belt by African Americans. While industry was closed, the packing plants arranged to deliver pay to certain places in the city so that African-American men could pick up their wages.[23]

Once order was restored, Illinois Governor Frank Lowden was urged to create a state committee to study the cause of the riots. Lowden proposed forming a committee to write a racial code of ethics and to draw up racial boundaries for activities within the city.[10]

Coroner's inquest

Three African American men moving furniture while white boys watch.

The Cook County Coroner's Office took 70 day sessions, 20 night sessions and 450 witnesses examinations to collect evidence about the riots.[24] Its report stated that on July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams, an African American youth, drifted towards an informally segregated beach on the South Side while holding onto a railroad tie. He was subsequently hit by a stone as a white man threw rocks at him and other African Americans to drive them away from their part of the 29th Street beach in the city's Douglas community on the South Side. A witness recalled seeing a single white male standing on a breakwater 75 feet (22.9 m) from the raft of the African Americans and throwing rocks at them. Williams was struck in the forehead. He then panicked, lost his grip on the railroad tie, and drowned. The assailant ran toward 29th Street, where a different fight had already started when African Americans tried to use a section of the beach there, in defiance of its tacit segregation.

The rioting escalated when a white police officer refused to arrest the man who threw the stone at Williams. He instead arrested an African American on a white man's complaint of some minor offense. Anger over the arrest, coupled with Williams' death and rumors among both communities, escalated into five days of rioting. Most casualties were African American and most of the property damage was inflicted in African American neighborhoods. Having learned from the recent East St. Louis Riot, Chicago quickly stopped the street cars to try to contain the violence. Inflammatory newspaper coverage had the opposite effect.[24] Historians noted, "South Side youth gangs, including the Hamburg Athletic Club, were later found to have been among the primary instigators of the racial violence. For weeks, in the spring and summer of 1919, they had been anticipating, even eagerly awaiting, a race riot" and, "On several occasions, they themselves had endeavored to precipitate one, and now that racial violence threatened to become generalized and unrestrained throughout Chicago, they were set to exploit the chaos."[24]

A map of the riot-affected areas on the South Side of Chicago, with the Union Stock Yards visible. North is to the right.

Early reports detailed injuries to Chicago police officers and a Chicago fireman.[18] One African-American policeman was killed during the riot.[25] The conduct of the white police force was criticized during and after the riots. State's Attorney Maclay Hoyne accused the police of arresting African-American rioters, while refusing to arrest white rioters.[7] Roaming gangs of Bridgeport whites, who were mostly ethnic Irish, perpetrated much of the violence.[7] Although the local newspapers carried accounts of African Americans setting fires, "later the office of State Fire Marshal Gamber proved conclusively that the fires were not caused by blacks, but by whites."[7] The New York Times coverage during the riot, however, clearly conveyed that whites were responsible for planned large-scale arson against black areas and for numerous mob attacks.[19] Because of early police failures to arrest whites, no white Chicagoans were convicted of any of the murders, and most of the deaths were not even prosecuted. One man was prosecuted for Williams' death, but he was acquitted.[6]


House with broken windows and debris in front yard.

The rioting impacted Chicago's economy. Some of the South Side's industry was closed during the riot. Businesses in the Loop were also affected by closure of the street cars. Many workers stayed away from affected areas. At the Union Stock Yard, one of Chicago's largest employers, all 15,000 African-American workers were initially expected to return to work on Monday, August 4, 1919. But after arson near white employees' homes near the Stock Yards on August 3, the management banned African-American employees from the stockyards in fear of further rioting.[10][12] Governor Lowden noted his opinion that the troubles were related to labor issues rather than race. Nearly one-third of the African-American employees were non-union, and were resented by union employees for that reason. African-American workers were kept out of the stockyards for ten days after the end of the riot because of continued unrest. On August 8, 1919, about 3,000 non-union African Americans showed up for work under protection of special police, deputy sheriffs, and militia. The white union employees threatened to strike unless such security forces were discontinued. Their main grievance against African Americans was that they were non-union and had been used by management as strikebreakers in earlier years.[26] Many African Americans fled the city as a result of the riots and damage.[20]

Illinois Attorney General Edward Brundage and State's Attorney Hoyne gathered evidence to prepare for a Grand Jury investigation. The stated intention was to pursue all perpetrators and to seek the death penalty as necessary.[19] On August 4, 1919, seventeen indictments against African Americans were handed down.[27]

Richard J. Daley was president of the Hamburg Athletic Club in Bridgeport. Daley served as the Chicago's mayor from 1955 to 1976. In his long political career, he never confirmed nor denied involvement in the riots.[5]

In 1922, six whites and six African-Americans were commissioned to discover the true roots of the riots. It claimed that returning soldiers from World War I not receiving their original jobs and homes instigated the riots.[2]

In 1930, Mayor William Hale Thompson, a flamboyant Republican, invoked the riot in a misleading pamphlet urging African Americans to vote against the Republican nominee, Rep Ruth Hanna McCormick, in the United States Senate race for her late husband's seat. She was the widow of Sen. Joseph Medill McCormick as well as the sister-in-law of Chicago Tribune publisher Robert Rutherford McCormick. The McCormicks were a powerful Chicago family whom Thompson opposed.[13]

United States President Woodrow Wilson pronounced white participants the instigators of the prolonged riots in Chicago and Washington, D.C.. As a result, he attempted to promote greater racial harmony through the promotion of voluntary organizations and through the enactment of legislative improvements by the United States Congress. He did not change the segregation of federal departments which he had imposed early during his first administration, however. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 shocked the nation and raised awareness of the problems that African Americans faced every day in the 20th century United States.[3]

See also


  1. Essig, Steven (2005). "Race Riots". The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Sandburg, Carl (2005). "The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919". The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 "Chicago Race Riot of 1919". Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 2007. Retrieved August 24, 2007.
  4. "Street Battles at -Night" (PDF). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. August 3, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Cohen, Adam; Taylor, Elizabeth (2000). "Richard J. Daley: A Separate World (page 7), excerpt from American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley - His Battle for Chicago and the Nation". Chicago History Information. Archived from the original on August 11, 2007. Retrieved August 26, 2007.
  6. 1 2 3 4 "Homicide in Chicago 1919: The Race Riot". Northwestern University School of Law. 2004. Retrieved August 24, 2007.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 ""Chicago and Its Eight Reasons": Walter White Considers the Causes of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot". Crisis. History Matters. October 1919. Retrieved August 27, 2007.
  8. Roth, Randolph (2012). American Homicide. Belknap Press. ISBN 978-0674064119.
  9. Krist, Gary (2012). City of Scoundrels: The Twelve Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago. New York: Crown. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-307-45429-4.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 "Troopers Restore Order in Chicago" (PDF). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. August 2, 1919. Retrieved May 8, 2008.
  11. 1 2 "Street Battles At Night" (PDF). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. July 29, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  12. 1 2 "Rioters in Chicago Knife Militia Captain" (PDF). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. August 3, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  13. 1 2 "Thompson v. McCormicks". Time. Time Inc. November 3, 1930. Retrieved May 2, 2008.
  14. "Race Divisions on Public Beaches (page 1)". The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society. 2005.
  15. Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, "Richard J. Daley: A Separate World" (page 7), excerpt from American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley - His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, Chicago History Information, accessed August 26, 2007
  16. Barnes, Harper (2008). Never Been A Time. New York: Walker & Co. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-8027-1575-3.
  17. Coit, Jonathan S. (April 2012). "'Our Changed Attitude': Armed Defense and the New Negro in the 1919 Chicago Race Riot". Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. 11 (2): 225–56. doi:10.1017/S1537781412000035.
  18. 1 2 ""A Crowd of Howling Negroes": The Chicago Daily Tribune Reports the Chicago Race Riot, 1919". Chicago Daily Tribune. Archived from the original on October 29, 2014. Retrieved May 7, 2008.
  19. 1 2 3 "Soldiers Rescue Negroes in Clash With Chicago Mob" (PDF). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. August 1, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  20. 1 2 "28 Dead, 500 Hurt In Three-Day Race Riots In Chicago" (PDF). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. July 30, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  21. "ODMP memorial". The Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc. Retrieved April 24, 2009.
  22. Lewinnek, Elaine (July 30, 2014). "On the 95th anniversary of the Chicago Race Riots". Oxford University Press. Retrieved August 1, 2014.
  23. "Order Prevails in Chicago" (PDF). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. August 3, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  24. 1 2 3 O'Brien, Ellen and Lyle Benedict (February 2006). "1919: Race Riots". Chicago Public Library. Retrieved May 7, 2007.
  25. ODMP John Simpson
  26. "White Union Protests Stock Yard Guards" (PDF). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. August 8, 1919. Retrieved May 8, 2008.
  27. "Indict 17 Negro Rioters" (PDF). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. August 5, 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2008.

Further reading

External links

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