In national conversations about the legacy of anti-Black racism in America, the subject of racial violence is often only discussed as being a Southern phenomenon. We can recall examples of the violence used to enforce the South’s racial hierarchy: Jim Crow laws, the lynching of Black men, and the bombing of Black churches. Despite the popular narrative of the North being much more progressive than the South, with the abolitionist movement and more economic opportunities for African-American citizens after slavery, the history of Chicago in the early twentieth century also exhibited continuous occurrences of racial violence and discrimination. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, which lasted for a full week and resulted in thirty-eight deaths and over 500 people injured, is an often-overlooked event in Chicago’s history that undergoes new examination in the book A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 by Claire Hartfield, published this January.
A Few Red Drops begins with the story of Eugene Williams. July 27, 1919 was a very hot and humid day in Chicago, and many Chicagoans went to the beach to cool off. The beaches were segregated—not by law, but it was an unspoken rule enforced by white Chicagoans. Black Chicagoans went to the 26th Street Beach, while white residents went to the 29th Street Beach (neither beach exists today). On this day, Williams and four of his friends went to the beach to sail a raft out on Lake Michigan. The raft that the boys created ended up between the boundaries of 26th and 29th Street Beaches. A white man started to throw stones at the boys, and according to some reports, one hit Williams in the head, knocking him into the water. His friends were unable to get help for him in time and he drowned in the lake. Williams’s friends told a Black policeman at 26th Street what happened and dragged him to 29th Street beach. Once at 29th Street Beach, a white policeman, Officer Callahan, refused to arrest Williams’s killer. Tensions began rising across the city as news spread, and after a Black man was arrested when a white man complained about him, the tensions bubbled over into a riot, according to a history by WTTW.
Williams’s death was not an isolated incident. As Hartfield explained in an interview with the Weekly, “I would call Eugene’s death the instigator. It was the near-term catalyst. The tensions had been building for many, many years and were just waiting for an event of that type to set everything it off.” Instead of documenting the terror that took place each day of the riot after Eugene’s story, Hartfield’s book forces us away from the riot to investigate the tension between white and Black Chicagoans that led to the riot. Her nuanced investigation of the issues that resulted in the riot serves as a reminder to look beyond an incident of chaos to understand the real problem.
Racism and classism intersected at the heart of issues like employment, housing, policing, education, and social life in Chicago in the early 1900s. European immigrants from Ireland, Poland, and Lithuania were competing with Black migrants from the South, who came north during the first wave of the Great Migration for assembly line jobs at the stockyard. The conditions in the stockyard were horrible, consisting of manual labor for long periods of time with low pay and no job security. To push back against elites who controlled the stockyards, European immigrants created unions to represent and fight for the needs of the workers. Many of the jobs that were unionized did not include a large number of Black people, and unions excluded Black workers that would have otherwise been eligible for membership. So when white union workers went on strike, management would hire Black workers to take their place. White union workers were unable to get their demands met and needed their jobs to support their families. Instead of blaming the butchers, they blamed the Black workers, causing further strife between Black and white workers.
Furthermore, due to the large wave of migration from the South to Chicago, Black people were restricted in terms of where they could find housing. Many Black families lived in small apartments in the Black Belt (modern-day Bronzeville), but those who had more money and moved to white neighborhoods faced violence and discrimination, including the bombing of their homes. Schools were not legally segregated, but Black children were discriminated against in schools. Teachers refused to teach them in classes, after school programs were off-limits for non-athlete Black children. Instead, many Black children went to the Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s Negro Fellowship, Wabash YMCA, or other institutions within their communities. When Black people were victims of racial violence at the hands of white people at work, school, or in their community, they could not call the police. The police harassed and arrested Black people without evidence of a crime being committed. Black southern migrants were second-class citizens and were reminded of it daily; Williams’s death was just the last straw.
According to Hartfield, her grandmother largely influenced her interest in exploring the history of the riots. Hartfield’s grandmother moved to Chicago from New Orleans during the first wave of the Great Migration. Hartfield’s grandmother got an apartment in the Black Belt and a factory job in the industrial area near the Stockyards.
“One day in the summer of 1919, shortly after she had moved [to Chicago], she was taking a streetcar home from work in the afternoon. As the streetcar moved closer and closer to her home, she was looking out at her window and she saw these mobs of young men in the streets, both Black and white, fighting with one another and actually throwing rocks at the streetcar. She was scared out of her mind,” Hartfield recalled. “The streetcar driver was very cautious and he refused to stop at any of the normal stops. He took everybody straight to the end of the line and dumped them out there. She had to walk back home through this chaos. She ended up being fine but she later found out that this was the beginning of the week-long race riot. That went on for seven days and seven nights. Ended up with thirty-eight people dead and over 500 people injured and many, many homes destroyed.”
“So she told me this story when I was young and it got buried in the back of my mind as many memories do,” Hartfield continued. “But a few years ago as I would see on my TV screen, all of these new instances across the country where people taking to the street in protest, I remembered that story that my grandmother had told me. I thought ‘Wow, this is nearly a hundred years ago.’ I wanted to know more about what caused that situation and how it was the same and how it was different from what we’re experiencing today.”
In reading A Few Red Drops, it becomes apparent how the issues that led to the 1919 race riots are similar to the issues that Chicago continues to face almost a hundred years later. Even though her book chronicles a very dark time in Chicago’s history, Hartfield also spotlights the places where solidarity between groups can take place: in the workplace, unions, schools, and neighborhoods.
A Few Red Drops was written for teens to learn a lost piece of Chicago’s history to give them a foundation to understand why Chicago is still segregated today. Nevertheless, this book’s accessibility makes it easy for anyone to digest this long, complicated history.
As the city approaches the centennial of the riots, Hartfield said that she hopes that the book gives “context for some of the challenges we are going through today so that we can see that this period in time is a part of a much longer arc of history.” By learning from this landmark event in Chicago’s history of race relations and class, she also hopes that the centennial will bring new conversations about “how we have made significant progress in terms of justice than what we were able to do a hundred years ago.” Ultimately, her goal is that A Few Red Drops will “encourage people to talk to one another about the issues that we face these days—that’s our hope for coming up with better solutions.”