This month marks the centennial of “The Negro In Chicago,” a blue ribbon commission’s report on a race riot that plunged the city into four days of murderous anarchy in 1919. A dozen civic leaders – half black and half white – were tasked with finding the roots of the violence that claimed the lives of 38 people, including 23 black and 15 white.
Established by Illinois Governor Frank Lowden, the Chicago Commission on Race Relations adopted a basic scientific principle: to get rid of an undesirable phenomenon, its causes must be identified and eliminated.
Unfortunately, some of the issues that led to the race riot are still being faced today.
“The negro distrust of the police grew among the negroes during the period of the riot,” the commission reported in 1922. “They turned a blind eye to offenses committed by white men while they were very vigorous in getting all the colored men they could get.”
The Chicago race riot was sparked by the death of Eugene Williams, a 17-year-old African American, in the water off a South Side beach on Sunday, July 27, 1919. Williams drifted across a virtual line that racially separated the beach between whites and blacks, and white bathers, including one identified only as Stauber, began throwing rocks at it. Williams dropped a railroad tie he was clinging to and sank.
“White and black men dived for the boy to no avail,” the commission reported. “The negroes demanded that the policeman present arrest Stauber. He refused and, at this crucial moment, arrested a black man on the complaint of a white man. Negroes then attacked the officer. These two facts, the drowning and the policeman’s refusal to arrest Stabber, together marked the start of the riot.
Rumors spread in concentric circles, first by word of mouth, then by tabloid articles. Even the highly regarded Chicago Daily News has sacrificed facts for garish headlines.
Its editor, Victor Lawson, would later become a member of the Riot Commission. But during the riot, his newspaper published a description of a white alderman from a black neighborhood under the headline: “Said enough ammunition is stored in the section to last for years of guerrilla warfare.
On Monday, more than 30 black people were assaulted as they walked through white neighborhoods at the end of their work day. Among the deaths listed in the commission’s report were those of Henry Goodman, killed on a 39th Street streetcar stopped by a truck blocking the tracks at Union Avenue, and John Mills, killed fleeing a 47th Street streetcar.
An elderly Italian peddler and a white laundryman were stabbed to death by blacks. As night fell, white gangs attacked black families in white neighborhoods.
On Wednesday night, Chicago Mayor William Thompson bowed to public pressure and called on militia units at local armories for help. With soldiers patrolling the streets, the violence ended,
Lowden had previously called a commission to investigate the riot, one of a series of urban uprisings during the “Red Summer” of 1919, as it was dubbed because of the bloodshed. But Chicago was particularly qualified as a city to study.
Sociology had long been a speculative pursuit of parlor philosophers, but by the University of Chicago it had become a scientific discipline. His teachers collected data and talked to people.
Charles Johnson, lead author of the Race Relations Commission report, was educated at the University of Chicago. He had conducted research on black migrants in the South for the Carnegie Foundation and served as director of research for the Chicago Urban League.
After reviewing 11 months of painstaking investigations by Johnson and his associates, the commission concluded that the American race problem could be summed up in one simple statement:
“Many white Americans, while technically recognizing black people as citizens, cannot bring themselves to believe that they should participate in government as freely as other citizens.”
In support of this conclusion, the commission printed excerpts from interviews with white Chicagoans. Surprisingly, even those who seemed the most open-minded could turn to segregation for approval.
“Theoretically, in this country, everyone has a right to justice,” said a man who admitted that “I know very few niggers.”
However, he continued, “I do not find myself ready to place the Negro on an equal footing with the white in all respects, that is, socially and otherwise. I do not consider the fact of not having thus placed the Negroes as an injustice towards them.
“My opinion is that we must hold on to Lincoln’s ideal – the right of every human being to equality in the true sense of the word. I have found, however, that Negroes are dull and sensitive,” a said a man who had met prominent black educator Booker T. Washington, “As a solution, I would colonize them in Africa, and if they opposed it, I would use all peaceful means to force them out.”
Chicago’s black population had more than doubled between 1910 and 1920 when news spread that better paying industrial jobs were to be found in the North. The blacks interviewed were not as willing to defer to white prejudice as their ancestors had been in the South, where segregation was enforced by law and lynching.
World War I had just ended, and black veterans were not inclined to passively accept that Jim Crow had followed them. The French called them heroes, even though the American army did not.
“I went to war, I served eight months in France,” a black veteran told a commission interviewer. “I did my part and I will fight here until Uncle Sam does his. I can shoot as well as the next one, and no one better start anything.
The racial perspectives of blacks and whites clashed in “adjusted neighborhoods” and “unadjusted neighborhoods,” as the commission characterized them.
The fitted quarters were predominantly of one race. Despite the stark racial lines of the city’s neighborhoods, there were crossovers, and a white resident spoke well of his neighbors in a black community.
“Having lived for 40 years on the south side in what is now called the ‘black belt’, I can testify that I have never had more honest, calm and law-abiding neighbors than those who are of African race” , the man told the commission.
But it was unsafe for blacks to drive through most white neighborhoods, as the principal of a school just west of Wentworth Avenue explained.
“Wentworth Avenue is the gang line,” he said. “Although pupils of color who come to school for manual training are not disturbed at school, they must be escorted to the line, not because of the problems of school members, but of groups of boys outside the school.
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Homebuyers in many neighborhoods were barred from selling to black buyers. It wasn’t until 1940 that the Supreme Court ruled that Carl Hansberry could not be bound by a ward “restrictive covenant” that he had not signed. His daughter, Lorraine Hansberry, wrote the play “Raisin In The Sun,” about the struggles of a black family in isolated Chicago.
This legacy has not yet been fully eradicated, but progress has been made.
As of 2008, Barack Obama was living at 5046 S. Greenwood Ave. at Kenwood where, but for the battles waged by Hansberry and others, he would have been barred under the Chicago Real Estate Board’s covenant which decreed “no part of said premises shall in any way be used or occupied directly or indirectly by a Negro or Negroes.
There were exceptions – “negro janitors, drivers or servants”.
Obama would not have qualified under these conditions. He had just been elected President of the United States.
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