Chicago Church to Present 3-Day Program on 1919 Race Riots

Hyde Park School of Dance instructor Dereque Whiturs (right) and student Laila May teach some dance moves to participants at the Jackson Park Field House, 6401 S. Stony Island Ave., during Make Music Chicago. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

On July 27, 1919, Chicago erupted in flames of racial animosity when Eugene Williams, a black teenager who set out into lake Michigan on a makeshift raft. He drowned when white people on the shore pelted him with stones.

His crime was that he crossed the unofficial line in the water that segregated the beach on 26th Street (that was for white people), and the one on the 29th (which was for Blacks). When police refused to arrest the men who stoned Williams to death, and instead arrested a black man, rioting erupted.

The week-long rioting that followed left 38 people dead, and 537 injured. Almost 1,000 residents of the “Black belt” (a small area on the South Side that contained most of Chicago’s growing Black population) were left homeless due to arson. It is the deadliest incident of rioting in Chicago’s history.

The Interfaith Council of the Augustana Lutheran Church in Hyde Park is organizing three days of events from June 25-27 commemorating the 1919 riots in partnership with the Baha’i community of Hyde Park. The aim of the event is to revive 1919 riots in the collective memory, with a view that this provides an understanding of the city and the racial inequalities that still beset it.

Understanding the history of how things came to be the way they are comes with the possibility of illuminating the way forward. The first day of Augustana’s program will be dedicated to laying out the timeline of the riots, and what has happened since. The second day will involve laying out a map on the floor marking the places where people were killed during the riots. The final day will be dedicated to a conversation with Claire Hartfield, author of “A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race riot of 1919”.

Pastor Nancy Goede of the Augustana Lutheran Church stresses on the importance of reviving the 1919 riots in public memory, and its relevance to understanding our city today. First, there is the general tendency towards violence. As Pastor Goede says, “I can, even today, imagine an adult throwing a rock at a kid for doing something they think is ‘wrong,’ and setting off a similar chain of events.”

Goede explains how part of the tension in 1919 was the fact that Black people were forced to live within the confines of the black belt, a tiny area on the South side. At the time, this racial segregation was enforced by neighborhood clubs and block clubs, who policed sales of houses for this purpose. Today, formal means of enforcing segregation have been outlawed, but still the segregation persists, partly because laws are hard to enforce.

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Source: Hyde Park Herald