After four days of violent unrest, the government of Chicago called out federal troops on 30th July, 1919, to deal with the race riots which had engulfed the southern section of the city.
Events in Chicago came in the midst of the ‘Red Summer’, a period of acute racial tension in the United States which saw twenty five riots erupt. (Red in the name refers to blood) Riots broke out across the country, in Washington D.C., Texas, Nebraska and elsewhere.
This period of explosive race tension was a direct consequence of the end of the First World War. During the conflict, thousands of African-Americans had migrated north to take up jobs in factories, warehouses and mills. When the soldiers in the conflict returned home to the northern states, they found that their jobs had been taken by the new arrivals.
At the same time, African-American veterans who returned home from the First World War came back to a society which continued to deny them equality despite their sacrifices. This in turn pushed the civil rights movement to become increasingly militant.
Racial tensions which had simmered in the USA since the end of the Civil War were suddenly brought into clear focus. The Ku Klux Klan revived its activities in the southern states, lynching 64 African Americans in 1918 and and 82 and 1919. Meanwhile, in the north, the greater labour competition combined with shortages in housing to greatly heighten racial friction.
Circumstances for the riots across the USA of course varied, but the above mentioned factors normally had a significant part to play. In Chicago tension was particularly focused in the city’s South Side.
Between 1910 and 1920 the city’s African-American population had more than doubled from 44,000 to 109,000. Competition for adequate housing could not be dealt with by the city authorities, and many were forced to live in slum like conditions.
The trigger which set off the Chicago Race Riot came on 27th July, 1919. Reflecting broader segregation in the city, the beach of Lake Michigan was divided by an invisible boundary which stretched out into the sea. Eugene Williams, an African-American teenager, drifted into the white section of beach while swimming. A gang of white men pelted him with rocks and stones as he swam.
Exactly how is unclear, but Williams drowned in the lake, either as a direct result of the attack, or because he was too afraid to swim ashore when he became exhausted.
When police arrived on the scene, they refused to arrest the men who had been pointed out as responsible for the attack on Williams. Angry crowds started to gather, and distorted stories of what had happened to Williams began to spread through Chicago’s South Side.
In a city dominated by both white and black gangs, the drowning of Williams was enough to ignite the mounting tensions and trigger fighting around Chicago’s South Side. The violence escalated each subsequent day, as Chicago descended into a lawless battle ground. The state militia were called in on the 30th July, but their presence made little difference and the violence continued until 3rd August.
By the time the violence had subsided, twenty three black and fifteen white people had been killed. Just as devastatingly, considering the already severe housing crisis, 1,000 black families were left homeless after their homes had been vandalised.
Perhaps more than the other riots of the Red Summer, the sheer scale of the Chicago Race Riot brought the USA’s growing racial conflict into clear perspective.
Some called for stronger, more formalised segregation in the city, although this was largely ignored by both the US Congress and city officials, particularly because President Woodrow Wilson publicly declared that Chicago’s white gangs had been the main aggressors in the riot.
The Chicago Commission of Race Relations, made up of both white and black members, was created to look into the causes of race conflict in Chicago and work on solutions. On a national level, Wilson pushed for new Congressional legislation and voluntary organisations to try and foster racial harmony.
Race divisions would remain a hugely important issue in the USA for years to come, but the riots at least encouraged some attempts to confront this mounting problem.