Race Riots in Illinois - History
Chicago developed a reputation as a cauldron of specifically “racial” conflict and violence largely in the twentieth century. The determination of many whites to deny African Americans equal opportunities in employment, housing, and political representation has frequently resulted in sustained violent clashes, particularly during periods of economic crisis or postwar tension.
Since the mid-1960s, the nature of race riots in Chicago (as elsewhere) has significantly shifted. Although violent black/white clashes continued into the mid-1970s, the term&aposs use shifted during the 1960s to refer to the uprisings of poorer blacks (or Latinos) protesting ghetto conditions, especially police brutality. Chicago has experienced several noteworthy outbreaks of this type, including the confrontation between police and the largely Puerto Rican communities of West Town and Humboldt Park during the summer of 1966, but most notably the massive 1968 West Side riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King. No clashes of this magnitude have occurred since (even following the 1992 Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles), but the continued salience of many of the protesters&apos expressed grievances—inferior housing, lack of meaningful employment, and inequitable law enforcement—suggests that the issues surrounding racial violence are by no means a finished chapter in Chicago history.
East Saint Louis Race Riot of 1917
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East Saint Louis Race Riot of 1917, (July 2), bloody outbreak of violence in East St. Louis, Illinois, stemming specifically from the employment of black workers in a factory holding government contracts. It was the worst of many incidents of racial antagonism in the United States during World War I that were directed especially toward black Americans newly employed in war industries. In the riot, whites turned on blacks, indiscriminately stabbing, clubbing, and hanging them and driving 6,000 from their homes 40 blacks and 8 whites were killed.
On July 28 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) staged a silent parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City, protesting the riot and other acts of violence toward black Americans. German propaganda magnified these incidents in an attempt to arouse antiwar sentiment in the American black community, and President Woodrow Wilson publicly denounced mob violence and lynchings, of which there had been 54 in 1916 and 38 in 1917.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.
Growing Racial Tensions
The “Red Summer” of 1919 marked the culmination of steadily growing tensions surrounding the great migration of African Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North that took place during World War I. When the war ended in late 1918, thousands of servicemen returned home from fighting in Europe to find that their jobs in factories, warehouses and mills had been filled by newly arrived Southern Black people or immigrants. Amid financial insecurity, racial and ethnic prejudices ran rampant. Meanwhile, African-American veterans who had risked their lives fighting for the causes of freedom and democracy found themselves denied basic rights such as adequate housing and equality under the law, leading them to become increasingly militant.
Did you know? In the summer of 1919, Richard J. Daley, who served as Chicago&aposs powerful mayor from 1955 until his death in 1976, was a 17-year-old member of an Irish-American organization called the Hamburg Athletic Club. Though an investigation later identified the club among the instigators of the rioting, Daley and his supporters never admitted that he participated in the violence.
Red Summer In Chicago: 100 Years After The Race Riots
Armed National Guards and African American men standing on a sidewalk during the race riots in Chicago, Illinois, 1919.
Exactly 100 years ago today, Chicago was in the throes of a brutal heat wave. Thousands flocked to the beaches lining Lake Michigan for some relief. Among them: a group of black boys that included 17-year-old Eugene Williams. Eugene, who was on a raft, inadvertently drifted over the invisible line that separated the black and white sections of the 29 th St Beach. One white beachgoer, insulted, began throwing rocks at the black kids. Eugene Williams slipped off his raft and drowned.
That incident ignited a race riot that would go down in history as one of the country's bloodiest, and least-known, to date.
And Chicago wasn't the only place this happened. What would come to be referred to as the country's Red Summer was a series of race riots that occurred for several months in different places around the country. In Chicago, Eugene Williams' death was what sparked the city's riots, but kindling for that fire had been building for at least a few years.
For one thing, the city's demographics were changing very quickly. 100-year-old Timuel Black Jr. is a historian, educator and activist who has lived most of his long life in Chicago. He came to the city with his parents as an infant a few months after the riot, but stories from relatives and neighbors made it very clear why so many black folks were streaming into Chicago.
People, Black said, "wanted to move forward and break the barriers of segregation." According to Black, three major factors were propelling black Southerners forward: "to escape the tyranny and violence of the Ku Klux Klan, to be able to vote without fear and to get better education for their children," he says.
So many newcomers at once strained the city's resources. "At the time, people in Northern cities&mdashespecially Chicago&mdashsaw it as an invasion," says John Russick of the Chicago History Museum.
The South Side neighborhoods to which black Chicagoans had been traditionally relegated were bursting at the seams. There was fierce competition for the existing apartments and homes, even though many of them were substandard.
Adding to the tension: soldiers were returning home after serving in Europe during World War I. Black soldiers, in particular, had experienced being treated as complete citizens while they fought abroad. Returning to an America that barely recognized their service and wanted them back in their assigned, segregated places was not something they were willing to accept.
Adding to the tension was fierce competition over jobs. The black newcomers readily accepted jobs in the city's slaughterhouses and meatpacking companies because the pay was better than what they'd received in the South. That outraged the European immigrants&mdashIrish, Italian, Czech and Polish&mdashwho'd traditionally held those jobs and who wanted to unionize the companies they'd worked for.
So pressure was building, and Eugene Williams' tragic death at the beach was the final straw. Liesl Olson is director of the Chicago History project at the Newberry Library, and says, to add insult to the injury of Eugene's death, "a white policeman refused to arrest the white man who'd caused an African American teenaged boy's death."
The police's inaction doesn't surprise John Russick. "The white police were a tool of white supremacy in Chicago at this time," he explains. "All of the tools of power were in the hands of white people in 1919, and we can't lose sight of that."
Anger escalated on the black side of the beach when it became apparent that no arrest would be made. More police arrived. One especially distraught black beachgoer pulled out a gun and fired into a knot of police. He was shot dead immediately.
A group of men and armed National Guard in front of the Ogden Cafe during the race riots in Chicago, Illinois, 1919.
The tale of Eugene's death and the shooting that followed angered groups of young white men. Some climbed into cars and began racing through major streets in the city's black neighborhoods, randomly firing at homes and businesses. Others armed themselves with guns, sticks and rocks and began marching up 35 th street, assaulting any black person unfortunate enough to cross their path.
Juanita Mitchell had just come to Chicago with her family. They were staying with relatives until they found their own place. Mrs. Mitchell is 107 now, but still clearly recalls her terror as the eight-year-old girl she was then.
"I remember how afraid my mother was, how afraid my aunt was," she says. "I remember my uncle standing in the window and I heard him say 'here they come'&mdashwhich meant the race riot was coming down 35 th and Giles."
Her uncle was armed "with the biggest gun I had ever seen," Mitchell recalls. He was prepared to protect his family. So were many of the returning black veterans. A group of National Guard reserve men who'd returned from France after fighting valiantly there, broke into an armory and grabbed guns and other weapons, determined to protect black lives and property.
That resistance was a watershed, says Timuel Black Jr. "I understand that this was the first time these Northern Negroes fought back from an attack and been successful."
So successful, in fact, that the riot soon wound down.
"From what I've been told by my family who was here, the riot was soon over, because the Westside rioters felt they were in danger, now that these Negroes returning from the war had weapons equal to their weapons."
When the smoke cleared and the ashes cooled, 38 people&mdash23 black, 15 white&mdashwere dead. More than 350 people reported injuries.
African American victim of race riot stoning lying on ground, with police standing above, Chicago, Illinois, 1919.
And it wasn't just Chicago: more than two dozen cities throughout the country had their own Red Summers&mdashin Washington DC, Houston and Charleston all experienced racial violence. In Elaine, Arkansas, some 200 people were presumed dead.
"The struggle over jobs, the return of black soldiers from the war and not being treated with respect and not finding employment - those tensions were in so many places," says Liesl Olson.
In Chicago, some 1,000 black homes had been burned down. None of the white participants in the riot ever faced consequences for their involvement.
"It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, looking back 100 years later, that the response to the violence perpetrated upon African Americans in the wake of the incident at the beach wasn't aggressively prosecuted or even investigated after the fact," says John Russick.
And although that was true in the immediate aftermath, a commission, established by the governor, released a report three years later: The Negro In Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot. The commission members, six black men, six white men, looked at the root causes behind the riot and concluded, as would the Kerner Commission Report 50 years later, that racial inequality was a major reason for the violence.
Row of armed National Guard sitting in front of a storefront during the race riots in Chicago, Illinois, 1919.
That was then. What about now? Is the Red Summer relevant to us today?
John Russick thinks so. "We think these things can't happen again," he says. "We think of the past being past, but at this moment, the race riots are with us still. We're still struggling with how to get along with each other."
Eve Ewing teaches at the University of Chicago and has just published a new book, 1919, which retells the cataclysmic events of the Red Summer through poems. Past, says Ewing, is, sadly, prologue.
"What does it mean to have the story of Eugene Williams, 17 year-old black boy, which then becomes the story of Emmett Till, which ten becomes the story of Laquan McDonald?" she asks. "What does it mean for us to be constantly living this recurring nightmare?"
Chicagoans have been examining just that all year long, in an effort to better understand Red Summer. This weekend, there will be services, lectures, even a walking tour of some Red Summer sites, in an effort to learn from--and not repeat--this chapter of the city's history.
Cicero, Illinois, Race Riot – Whites Protest Racial Integration
A mob of over 4,000 whites attacked an apartment building in Cicero, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where an African-American family lived. The tenants were the family of Harvey Clark, an African-American war veteran and graduate of Fisk University.
Only 60 police officers were assigned to the incident, as local authorities made little effort to prevent the violence. Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson (Democratic Party candidate for president in 1952 and 1956) called out the National Guard to restore order.
The riot was one of several incidents in the post-World War II years of white segregationist violence opposing the racial integration of neighborhoods on the South and Southwest side of Chicago. Two incidents eventually led to Supreme Court decisions over free speech issues: Terminiello v. Chicago, decided on May 16, 1949 and Beauharnais v. Illinois, decided on April 28, 1952.
And for historical perspective go to July 27, 1919, for the famous 1919 Chicago race riot.
Violent racial events returned to Cicero in 1966. On May 25th, Jerome Huey, a 17-year-old African American, went to Cicero from Chicago to apply for a job. He was brutally assaulted and killed by a white racist mob. Martin Luther King planned a protest march, but cancelled under an agreement with Chicago area officials. Other African Americans, however, refused to accept the agreement and conducted a march on September 4, 1966. The march was met with thrown bottles and bricks, along with abusive racist verbal attacks, by an angry white mob.
Chicago Race Riots: The Long Hot Summer of 1919
Funeral registers, 1919. Source: Kersey, McGowan and Morsell archives, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection
The sky was a searing hot blue with temperatures in the 90s. Farmers anxiously watched for signs of healing rain for their dry crops. As school was out, teenagers hung out at the beach for relaxation. Eugene Williams and four of his friends were relaxing on a raft at the 27th Street beach when his raft crossed the invisible line separating black and white swimmers at the 29th Street beach. He was immediately pelted with rocks, which caused the raft to move and him to tumble off into the water and drown. In an instant, life in Chicago changed for everyone.
Blacks insisted the Chicago Police Department arrest the white attackers. When this did not happen, five days of intense racial violence erupted. When the riot ended, the death count was 23 blacks and 15 whites. Carl Sandburg, already a renowned writer working for the Chicago Daily News, had been writing a series of articles designed to ease tension between the races. Instead, it highlighted all the prevalent conditions that contributed to one of the bloodiest race riots in Illinois history. The great migration from the South, lack of job opportunities, veterans returning from World War I and lack of housing fueled the flames of anger on both sides.
After five bloody days of unrest, the riot was curtailed by the call of National Guardsmen and the thundering rains the farmers had been looking for. Educator Madeline Stratton Morris remembers in a HistoryMakers oral history video how her father had to be safely transported home from work in a police wagon. The fathers in her building checked on one another's safety from darkened apartments behind the window curtains at night. Most of the violence had taken place on the South Side, where gangs and mobs of whites would invade the black community and blacks would try and protect their neighborhood. The funeral register of Kersey, McGowan and Morsell listed several riot victims.
The Cicero race riot of 1951
In 1951 a race riot occurred in Cicero, Illinois on July 11th and 12th, when a mob of around 4,000 whites attacked an apartment building that rented an apartment to a Black family. In June of 1951, Camille DeRose who owned an apartment in Cicero had issues with tenants and was ordered to refund a portion of their rent. Out of anger after the controversy she rented an apartment to Harvey E. Clark Jr., a Black World War II veteran and graduate of Fisk University along with his family in the all-white neighborhood. A Cicero official learned that a Black family was moving into a Cicero apartment and warned DeRose that there would be “trouble” if the family moved in.
On June 8th around 2:30 pm a moving van containing $2,000 worth of the family’s furniture was stopped by the police. A crowd gathered and Clark was told by the police to get out or he would be arrested “for protective custody.” A detective warned Clark that, “I’ll bust your damned head if you don’t move.” At 6:00 pm the same day Clark was grabbed by 20 police officers. The chief of police told Clark, “Get out of here fast. There will be no moving into this building.” Clark was hit multiple times as he was pushed towards a car which was parked across the street and was shoved inside the car. The police told him, “Get out of Cicero and don’t come back in town or you’ll get a bullet through you.”
A suit was later filed by the NAACP against the Cicero Police Department on June 26th. The Clark family would later moved in. On July 11, 1951, a crowd of 4,000 whites attacked the apartment building that the Clark’s family lived. Only 60 police officers were assigned to the scene and did almost nothing to control the rioting. Women carried stones from a nearby rock pile to bombard Clark’s windows. Another tossed firebrands (a piece of burning wood) into windows and onto the rooftop of the building. The mob destroyed a bathtub, woodworks, plaster, doors, windows, and set fires to the place. Most of the whites who joined in the rioting were teens. Firemen who rushed to the building were met with showers of bricks and stones from the mob. Sheriff’s deputies asked the firemen to turn their hoses on the rioters, who refused to do so without their lieutenant, who was unavailable at the time.
County Sheriff John E. Babbs asked Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson to send in the Illinois National Guard. When troops arrived at the scene, the rioters fought with them. Armed with bayonets, rifle butts, and tear gas, the troops ended the riot by setting a 300-yard perimeter around the apartment block in which the rioting was in progress. On July 14th most of the violence had ended. When the riot was over, $20,000 in damage had been done to the building.
The Cook County grand jury failed to indict any of the accused rioters, instead indicting Clark’s attorney from the NAACP, the owner of the apartment building, and the owner’s rental agent and lawyer on charges of inciting a riot and conspiracy to damage property. The charges were later dropped.
A federal grand jury then indicted four Cicero officials and three police officers on charges of violating Clark’s rights in connection with the race riots after the United States Attorney General launched an investigation of the incident. Charges were, however, dropped against the fire chief, whose firefighters refused to direct their water hoses at the rioters when requested by the police, and the town’s president. The police chief and two police officer were fined a total of $2,500 for violating Clark’s civil rights. Of the 120 mobsters arrested, two were convicted and fined $10 each. The federal prosecution was hailed as a courageous achievement, since it was rare that civil rights in housing had stirred action by federal officials.
JULY 11, 1951: CICERO RIOT OVER HOUSING DESEGREGATION – ZINN EDUCATION PROJECT
Extraordinary Pictures of the Chicago Race Riots of 1919
The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 began on a hot July day and thought to be the worst of around 25 riots during the so-called 'Red Summer'.
A member of the state militia faces off against an African-American veteran during the 1919 Chicago Race Riot. July 27, 1919.
The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 began on a hot July day and thought to be the worst of around 25 riots during the so-called ‘Red Summer’. Some ninety years later the New York Times called it the worst race riot in the history of Illinois.
On July 27, 1919, an African-American teenager called Eugene Williams was swimming with friends in Lake Michigan when he crossed the unofficial race barrier between the ‘white’ and ‘black’ beaches. He was stoned to death by a group of white youths. The murder, and the subsequent refusal by the police to arrest the the person initially responsible began a week of rioting between black and white Chicago residents. When the riot ended on August 3, 23 African-Americans had died along with 15 whites and more than 500 injured. Over 1000 black families lost their homes after being set alight by the rioters.
During World War One, essentially being fought on the other side of the Atlantic, there had begun a great migration of African Americas from the rural south to the cities of the North. When the war came to an end thousands of servicemen, back and white, found their jobs had been taken by Southern blacks and other immigrants. According to the History website the African-American population in Chicago alone had increased in ten years from 44,000 in 1909 to more than 100,000 in 1919. This only exacerbated the already simmering racial tensions related to policing, migration, and housing. Everything came to a head in 1919.
Vandalized first floor of house
Troops gather at 47th Street and Wentworth Avenue during the Chicago race riots in 1919
The state run militia patrols the streets of Chicago during the race riot of 1919. Photo dated Aug. 1, 1919.
Police remove the body of a black man killed during the 1919 race riots
People moving from house, accompanied by policemen during race riots
Mob chasing victim during race riots
kids cheering a burning house
Illinois National Guard soldiers questioning
Heavily armed motorcycle and foot policemen stood at the ready for instant transportation to quell the rioting on Chicago’s south side on July 30, 1919.
Five policemen and one soldier with rifle standing on street corner in the Douglas Community area.
Chicago race riot of 1919.
Black residents of the south side move their belongings with a hand-pulled truck to a safety zone under police protection during the Chicago race riots of 1919.
A group of white men and boys examine the destroyed homes of black Chicago residents after the city’s 1919 riot.
A soldier tells a man to back up during the race riots in Chicago in 1919. The soldiers were in place to keep white people in their own district.
A police officer stands in front of Burke’s Lunch Room in the heart of Chicago’s business district July 30, 1919
A man armed with a machine gun sits at the Cook County Jail during the 1919 Chicago race riots.
A firefighter looks over a burned out building during the Chicago race riots of 1919.
A black resident of the south side moves his belongings to a safety zone under police protection during the Chicago race riots of 1919
How the 1908 race riot and Black history reform have risen to the spotlight for Illinois
Springfield is more than Illinois&rsquo state capital. It is more than the city that former United States President Abraham Lincoln called home. This city is also the home of the 1908 Race Riot.
It is important locally to acknowledge all of our histories. In August 1908, after a white woman accused a Black man of rape &mdash later recanting her story, a riot ensued. A mob of white residents murdered at least two Black residents, burned Black homes and businesses and attacked hundreds of people merely because of the color of their skin.
That history is not good or pretty. But it is significant, and it should not be buried.
As Democratic U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin continue to push for that piece of the city&rsquos past to be memorialized, Illinois Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford is leading the way with legislation calling for more inclusive history to be taught in schools throughout the state.
The education reform bill would require that social studies classes more widely and regularly acknowledge Black history, and other diverse histories. The hope is that learning more about the past &mdash good and bad &mdash of diverse groups of people will make for better race relations. It is an effort focused on developing communities that are more empowered and empathetic.
The State Journal-Register coverage of the 1908 violence depicted the Black residents who were lynched, injured and had their homes and businesses burned as deserving of such brutality. They were not.
We have since reported on the 1908 Race Riot on numerous occasions with accuracy.
Recently, we took a look back at what archeology tells us about some of the Black people who were victims of the riot. We also looked at what changes to the state's history standards could mean for students and gathered Black community leaders to discuss where we have been, and where we can go.