Chicago's Red Summer

Long-brewing racial tensions came to a head one hot summer day in 1919, when a black boy was drowned near a whites-only beach. The riots that broke out were quelled in a week, but they contributed to a century of segregation in the city.

Reported by JESSICA PUPOVAC | Digital production by KATHERINE NAGASAWA | Audio production by JESSE DUKES | Edited by SHAWN ALLEE
July 21, 2019

Editor’s note: A photo caption in an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified who was deployed to restore order during the riots. The people sent in were members of the Illinois Reserve Militia.

In the summer of 1919, race relations in America reached a boiling point. There was persistent talk of an impending race war; some feared it, while others wanted one to happen. The official close of World War I only heightened tensions. Many black soldiers returned home from Europe with a new sense of agency, ready to challenge discrimination and segregation at home. Those efforts evoked fear and anger among many whites. Some were willing to preserve the old social order through violence.    

This Red Summer saw waves of lynchings and riots. In Washington, DC, white soldiers started riots that lasted for four days. Fifteen died and dozens were injured. Smaller riots erupted in Charleston, South Carolina, Norfolk, Virginia, and more than three dozen other cities.

Chicago saw some of the worst of the violence. Here, riots started on July 27 and the violence lasted a week. Thirty-eight people were killed.  Hundreds were injured. 

Steven Boone grew up in a South Side neighborhood not far from where the riots started, but didn’t learn about them until he took an African American history class in college. He was left wanting to know more. So he asked Curious City

How did the 1919 race riots start in Chicago, and how did they affect the city today?  

For answers, we interviewed historians and surveyed accounts from the time — from news articles to government reports. We discovered both a volatile incident that ignited the riots, as well as a litany of grievances that had been mounting between whites and blacks, and reached a crescendo on one hot summer day. We also discovered ways that the events of 1919 continue to reverberate in Chicago today. 

A Perfect Storm

By the early 20th century, the first wave of the Great Migration was underway, and African American Southerners were moving to Chicago in droves. The onset of World War One created additional job opportunities, and the city’s black population more than doubled in just two short years, changing the face of the city. Many whites, particularly in poor immigrant neighborhoods, saw the sudden increase as an “invasion.” 

“Those people fled the South so that they would not get lynched … as well to be able to vote. And they outvoted the European immigrant population on a percentage basis.” 
- Historian Timuel Black, whose family moved from Alabama to Chicago in 1919

In some industries, black workers weren’t allowed to join white unions. In others, blacks reportedly distrusted unions, due to historic betrayals. After fighting ended in Europe in November 1918, the country’s economy shrunk, and thousands of soldiers returned home, looking for work. Tensions between non-unionized black workers and their unionized white counterparts escalated.

“African Americans were branded as strikebreakers. There were a few cases of African American workers being brought in to break strikes. But that's the exception, not the rule. ... Labor unions are not doing a good job of bringing African Americans in. So, then, the unions think African Americans are the problem because they won't join the union.” 
- Claire Hartfield, author of A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919

As the black population increased, families in the city’s Black Belt faced extreme housing shortages. Some who moved into predominantly white neighborhoods became the targets of intimidation and violence — even bombings. One February 1919 bombing killed a six-year-old black girl. Realtors and loan officers who served black families were also targeted. Out of nearly 60 bombings in the years just before and during the riots, only two arrests were made.

“There were these boarding houses that were full to the gills, like 600 people coming in to look for space when there was only room for 100. So you literally had people who were out on the streets until they could find a place to live. And so it became untenable.”
- Claire Hartfield, author of A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919

Many black veterans had just risked their lives in World War I, making the world “safe for democracy.” But they returned to find themselves deprived of those same liberties they had just helped secure in Europe. Many refused to take it sitting down.  Acts of civil disobedience became more common, as did retaliatory violence aimed at keeping the status quo intact.

“[Black veterans] will never be the same again. You need not ask them to go back to what they were before. They cannot, for they are not the same men anymore.”
- W. E. B. Du Bois, speaking at Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School in May 1919

The Riots

July 27 was a hot Sunday. Five black teens played on a raft in Lake Michigan. When they drifted towards a nearby whites-only beach at 29th Street, an angry young white man threw rocks at them. Seventeen-year-old Eugene Williams was hit in the head and drowned. The refusal of a white police officer to arrest the rock-thrower helped ignite longstanding tensions between white and black Chicagoans.

“There were invisible lines almost everywhere. ... There was housing segregation, job segregation — although the law said that anybody could go to a theater together or to a restaurant together. In practice that really wasn't what happened. And the beaches were like that.”
- Claire Hartfield, author of A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919

The night of Eugene William’s death, ethnic gangs, some longing for a race riot, drove through the Black Belt, firing indiscriminately. Mob violence from blacks and whites continued for four days until state troops arrived. In the end, 23 black people were killed and 15 whites. More than 500 were injured. Though the majority of the violence was committed by whites, black people were disproportionately prosecuted for the violence.  

“When news of those altercations comes to Canaryville and Bridgeport, that's when the gangs say ‘Ah, this is our opportunity. We're going to retaliate and we're going to go after African Americans in their homes.’” 
- David Krugler, author of 1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back

A Legacy Of Segregation

After the riots, many Chicagoans longed for better race relations.  Unfortunately, city and business leaders chose another path. According to historian Adam Green, they succumbed to the fears stoked by the race riots and formalized racial segregation through “changes in schools, changes in policing, [and] hardening residential segregation.” In 1925, restrictive covenants emerged, formally barring black people from moving into certain white neighborhoods.

“It's no coincidence that the Dan Ryan Expressway made a barrier between a majority black neighborhood and majority white neighborhoods. Or, that tall, tower housing projects were located on one side. Those barriers, those decisions, reflect the battle lines of 1919.”
- David Krugler, author of 1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back

Though restrictive covenants are deemed unconstitutional in 1948, segregation and inequality are maintained for decades, and Chicago becomes the most residentially segregated large city in America by the late 1950s. In 1966, at the request of local civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King arrives to help change that.  Though many local promises from city leaders to reduce segregation and increase opportunities for black residents go unfulfilled, Congress passes the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

“It's a legacy of the race riot in terms of people deciding that the way to avoid that conflict from ever happening was to enforce the separation of people who were white and black from each other. ... There are ways in which it might have been unavoidable but we'll never know because people chose to follow their fears rather than to work from the facts.” - Adam Green, professor of American history at the University of Chicago

More about our questioner

(Courtesy Steven Boone)

(Courtesy Steven Boone)

Steven Boone first learned about the 1919 race riots in Chicago when he took an African American history class at Chicago State University. 

“[The professor] talked about the ‘Red Summer,’” he says. “I had never heard that term before.” 

As someone who grew up on the South Side not far from where the riots occurred, Steven became especially interested in the histories of the various immigrant communities that lived there over time, like the Irish. 

“You can’t know where you’re going until you understand where you’ve been,” he says. “It gives you a contextual view of how other individuals outside of your community, outside of your ethnicity, have lived and had to deal with [things] — in the context of the city. So I think it’s vastly important.” 

When we shared our reporting with Steven, he was saddened that the 1919 riots helped codify racial segregation. 

“When you can’t experience other people’s culture, you can’t understand where they’re coming from,” he says. “Our tragic flaw is that, unless you seek it out, you don’t really get a taste of just how deep the culture runs in so many ethnic groups — and the vast and rich history that Chicago has had throughout its existence.” 

Steven lives in the Woodlawn neighborhood, where he takes care of his dad. He currently runs his own insurance and investment business.