In the months following the end of the First World War in November 1918, thousands of American servicemen came home from Europe. Most of these men expected to reclaim jobs similar to those they had held prior to the war. The end of wartime government spending, however, sent the nation's economy into recession. As a result, many former soldiers experienced great difficulty finding jobs upon their return to civilian life. The problem was especially acute in northern industrial cities like Chicago, where during the war employers had come to rely on previously marginalized groups of workers, including eastern European immigrants and Southern blacks, to keep their factories, mills, and warehouses operating at maximum capacity. As the economy worsened, unemployed whites often blamed working blacks for their hardships. In the nation's largest industrial cities, interracial tensions steadily increased until the summer of 1919, when race riots erupted in no less than twenty American cities. The largest and most violent of these riots took place in Chicago.
Chicago's riot began on July 27, after an African-American youth named Eugene Williams, while swimming with friends in Lake Michigan near 29th Street, strayed into an area informally reserved for the exclusive use of white bathers. For this, Williams was pelted with stones by an unruly group of young white men and soon drowned. When the police ignored eyewitness accounts of the event and refused to arrest those responsible for the boy's death, indignant crowds of blacks gathered in protest. Distorted accounts of the incident inflamed already tense relations between black and white Chicagoans. For the next two weeks, gangs of unruly whites, including many from Bridgeport and the Stockyards district, clashed with mobs of outraged blacks in sporadic fights across the city's South Side. On the fourth day of rioting, the state militia was deployed to restore order, but the fighting continued. In the end, the violence claimed the lives of 38 Chicagoans: 23 blacks, 15 whites. Additionally, over 500 were injured. Hundreds of families lost everything when their homes were torched by rioters.
In the wake of some of the worst rioting in the city's history, Chicagoans looked for ways to prevent similar episodes in the future. Some offered quick fixes, including some that would have legitimated racial discrimination in matters of hiring and housing. One proposal called for banning African-Americans from working alongside whites in the stockyards; another suggested that zoning laws be used to formally segregate black and white residential areas. Such proposals, though given much attention in newspapers catering to the city's majority white population, were rejected by Chicago's African-American and liberal white residents.
Instead, city leaders and concerned citizens took the occasion to examine more closely the state of relations between white and black Chicagoans. They formed a special commission—the Chicago Commission on Race Relations—to investigate the sociological origins of the riot and suggest ways to improve race relations in the city. This commission concluded that a variety of factors—competition for coveted jobs at the Stockyards and other South Side workplaces, inadequate housing options for blacks, inconsistent enforcement of the law, and various forms of direct and indirect racial discrimination—had soured relations between white and black Chicagoans and created an environment conducive to race riots. While improvements in these would be slow and difficult to attain, the commission's recommendations at least envisioned a future in which racial equality, not racial segregation, would be the standard for all municipal policies.
Brick-wielding Whites in Pursuit of a Black
Victim, Chicago, Illinois, 1919
Selected Newspaper Accounts
"Report Two Killed,
Fifty Hurt, in Race Riots," Chicago Daily Tribune, 28
Futilely Against Crowd in Loop," Chicago Daily Journal,
29 July 1919.
"Torch Rioters Give
Firemen Continuous Job," Chicago Daily Tribune, 31
"Negroes Seek Safety
Haven at Milwaukee," Chicago Daily Tribune, 31 July
Chicago," Chicago Defender, 2 August 1919.
"Ghastly Deeds of
Race Rioters Told," Chicago Defender, 2 August 1919.
"Negroes Didn't Set
Fires, Say Their Aldermen," Chicago Daily Tribune, 3
"Seized as Riot
Firebug," Chicago Daily Tribune, 4 August 1919.
Selected Newspaper Editorials
Chicago Tribune editorial, 29 July 1919.
Whirlwind," Chicago Defender editorial, 2 August
"Seeking the Cause,"
Chicago Defender editorial, 9 August 1919.
Report of the Chicago Commission on Race Relations
"Summary of the
Chicago Riot" (an excerpt)
"The Role of Rumor"
of the Commission" (an excerpt)
Race Riots [Chicago Public Library]
and the 1919 Chicago Race Riot [John Hagedorn, Ph.D.]
a Negro During the Race Riots in Chicago" [Newman Library
Digital Collections, CUNY]
race riot, house with broken windows and debris in front yard,"
1919 [Library of Congress]
race riot, five policemen and one soldier with rifle standing on
street corner," 1919 [Library of Congress]
race riot, soldiers with rifles standing guard at vandalized house,"
1919 [Library of Congress]
race riot, three African American men moving furniture while young
Caucasian boys watch," 1919 [Library of Congress]
race riot, white men, boys and young girls standing in front
vandalized house," 1919 [Library of Congress]
race riot, white men, boys standing in front of vandalized house,"
1919 [Library of Congress]
race riot, African-American men standing in front of Walgreen Drugs,
35th and State," 1919 [Library of Congress]
· William M. Tuttle, Jr.,
Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 (University of
Illinois Press, 1997).
· Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in
Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (Chicago: Univ.
of Chicago Press, 1922).
Illustration: Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1922), pgs. 12-13.
Page authored: 3 November 2001