Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, March 2

Gapers Block

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"There were huge race riots in the summer of 1919 that left 38 dead, more than 500 injured, and a lot more homeless, that were started by the killing of a black teenager at the 26th Street beach. That seems kind of random and historical, but it wasn't, although I did have to do a history report on it freshman year."
--Hairstyles of the Damned

It was called the "Red Summer." In just a few short months, the United States experienced an unprecedented period of interracial conflict. During the summer of 1919 more than 20 race riots broke out in cities across the country.

On July 19, 1919, a drunken mob of white men began attacking black men after police in Washington, D.C. released a black man from custody, questioned regarding an attempted sexual assault on a white woman. The initial violence touched off four days of bloody chaos. Nine were dead and over 150 people of both races injured before federal troops and heavy rains could quell the fighting.

In Knoxville, Tenn., eight people were killed and dozens wounded when a white woman fell and died while fleeing a black man later accused of attempting to assault her. And nobody is quite sure what led to the riots in Omaha, Neb., that resulted in the burning of the county courthouse.

And yet none of these were as deadly or violent as the riots that swept through Chicago that same July.

Although not explicitly segregated, everyone tacitly understood that the 29th Street beach was for whites only, while blacks gathered at the nearby 25th Street beach. On July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams, a black youth, drifted across that invisible barrier between the beaches while swimming in Lake Michigan. A white man standing on a breakwater near the 29th Street beach began throwing rocks at the boy. Williams was struck and drowned.

When a police officer on the scene refused to arrest the man witnesses identified as the attacker, anger quickly turned to fighting. Then fighting turned to rioting. Armed mobs of both races clashed in the streets during several days of escalating violence. Black men were pulled from streetcars and wagons and beaten by organized gangs of white youths, members of so-called neighborhood "athletic clubs" connected to local politicians.

The state militia was brought in to restore order, but, by the end, 38 people were dead, more than 500 others were wounded, and nearly 1,000 people were left homeless by fires that blazed through neighborhoods south of the Loop during the riots. Many of those left homeless were Czech, Polish and Lithuanian immigrants.

Between 1910 and 1919 Chicago's black population had grown from 44,000 to more than 109,000 people. Most migrated from the South, attracted to the city's robust industrial economy and the promise of steady work. But a shortage of both jobs and housing contributed to the rising racial tensions that exploded during Chicago's Red Summer.

Carl Sandburg, the acclaimed poet and writer, was working as a reporter for The Chicago Daily News in 1919. Just weeks before the riots, he had been assigned to write a series of articles exploring Chicago's black community. He talked to dozens of people and found many common ideals that had drawn Southern blacks to Chicago. Sandburg wrote:

"Better jobs, the right to vote and have the vote counted at elections, no Jim Crow cars, less race discrimination and a more tolerant attitude on the part of whites, equal rights with white people in education—these are among the attractions that keep up the steady movement of colored people from southern districts to the North."

For Southern blacks, Chicago represented a refuge from fear. But instead of tolerance, they found a mob.

Further Reading

Meno, Joe. Hairstyles of the Damned. Chicago: Punk Planet Books, 2004.

Sandburg, Carl. "Chicago is a receiving station for oppressed Negroes." The Chicago Daily News 19 July 1919. Rpt. in Done in a Day: 100 Years of Great Writing from The Chicago Daily News. Eds. Dick Griffin and Rob Warden. Chicago: Sparrow Press, 1977.

Swanson, Stevenson, ed. Chicago Days: 150 Defining Moments in the Life of a Great City. Wheaton, IL: Cantigny, 1997.

Tuttle, William M. Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996.


Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. This month we are reading Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno. We will be meeting to discuss the book on Monday, April 11, at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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