Vashon Jordan Jr.

Op-Ed: Chicago’s Second Red Summer

Cutting River North and the Loop off from Chicago’s Black residents has made Chicago a twenty-first century sundown town

In 1918, an unarmed Black teenager visiting Chicago for the first time took a Sunday stroll on the South Side. He walked down Wentworth Avenue, which unbeknownst to him was the unofficial dividing line for Black Chicago and white Chicago. He was a high school student who, in his own words, “went out walking alone to see what the city looked like.” The border he unwittingly crossed separated white, Irish Bridgeport from the rest of the Black South Side.

At some point, it’s believed that he walked past the Hamburg Athletic Club, a private neighborhood club that counted Chicago’s future mayor and patriarch, Richard J. Daley, among its members.

The Hamburg Athletic Club had a reputation, as did Bridgeport. The teenager later reported that a group of Irish ruffians told him, “[We] didn’t allow n—— in that neighborhood.” They beat him savagely, leaving him with black eyes, a swollen jaw, and an introduction to Chicago that he would never forget.

That Black teenager was Langston Hughes, who would later become America’s most celebrated poet and a founding father of the Harlem Renaissance. He would never forget his time in the City of Big Shoulders—a sundown town where Black residents had best stay in their place and be home before it gets dark. Chicago, it seems, would always remember its unwritten rules for Black people too.

Less than a year later, American white supremacists waged a national campaign of violence against Black people. The attacks were widespread and indiscriminate. As GIs returned home from World War I, they competed for jobs and housing. Black GIs believed they were entitled to their fair share of the post-war economy and made moves to advocate for themselves.

White supremacists erupted. Acts of terror occurred in dozens of cities in what would be known as The Red Summer, aptly named for the amount of bloodshed.

In Chicago, Eugene Williams, a seventeen-year-old Black teenager, was swimming off the 25th Street beach when he drifted south into waters near what whites considered “their” beach. They threw rocks at Williams and his friends, hit Williams in the head, and drowned him. When Black Chicagoans raised this issue with authorities, white Chicagoans rose in open rebellion.

They went neighborhood by neighborhood attacking Black people, burning down nearly 2,000 Black homes, and killing dozens of Black people. Those who had proximity to white people and those who needed to access other parts of the city to go to work were explicitly targeted for retribution.

Largely Irish police and firefighters ignored the violence and burning homes. Black people were not allowed to congregate or travel safely from one neighborhood to another. Access to downtown and the North Side was impossible without being met with white police or a posse.

If this sounds familiar, it should. History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. In mid-August, Chicago police shot and wounded Latrell Allen, a twenty-year-old Black man, in Englewood. It was the latest local police shooting in a summer in which the country has risen up in protest over the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others by the police.

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What we’ve been witnessing during the last several months in Chicago is nothing less than a second Red Summer of 1919.

The pieces have changed. This time, the mayor unleashing police devastation onto the citizens of Chicago is a Black woman, something that would have been unheard of in 1919. Yet some things remain eerily familiar. If you think it’s unconscionable that a Black mayor could condone acts of white supremacy, you haven’t been paying attention to how she has responded to Black youth activists since the day she was inaugurated.

In June and then in August, in response to looting and property damage by a fraction of the city’s myriad protesters, Lightfoot raised the bridges connecting the Loop to the North Side of Chicago. By severing the affluent white areas from the rest of the city after 9pm, Lightfoot effectively turned Chicago into a Sundown town again. Her decision to cut off public transportation connecting the North and South Sides of Chicago also harkened back to a time when Black Chicagoans were not allowed to be in white parts of town.

The line separating white Chicago from Black Chicago has moved further north as whites have largely abandoned the South Side over the course of the twentieth century. During the curfews that were declared this summer, the unstated rules said anyone caught downtown between the hours of 9pm and 6am who had the temerity to protest their condition could be brutalized by police and charged with felonies.

The mayor is telling Black people that they are second-class citizens. Chicago had a fifty-three percent murder arrest rate in 2019. Crimes against the Black community go unsolved. The people of these communities are angry and feel abandoned.

If you speak with residents of Black Chicago, a common concern is that the Black mayor and her new Black police superintendent are not looking out for Black people. She and her mostly white police rank and file are sending messages to Black Chicago that say, “You may live here, but you are not who we’re working to protect. We do not care what happens to you as long as it happens away from white people.”

When looting occurred in Black areas of the city in late May, police merely lounged, uninvited, in Congressman Bobby Rush’s office. When vandalism occurred in downtown Chicago, in late May and again in mid-August Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, sent an overwhelming police presence to crack down on looters and protesters alike and cleaved the city in half.

Like the Red Summer of 1919, there are roving mobs of white supremacists active across the country again. On August 15, the Proud Boys, a white supremacist posse founded by a former Vice Magazine cofounder, brutally attacked protesters in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Now, the attacks are closer to home and more extreme. On August 25, seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a white self-styled militiaman from Antioch, Illinois, is alleged to have driven across state lines armed with an AR-15 and murdered two people during protests against the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Of course, this isn’t the first time a Chicago mayor has used brute police force to crack down on unruly protestors. During the Democratic Convention of 1968, police beat, gassed, and arrested thousands of antiwar demonstrators deemed to be too dangerous to exercise their democratic right to assembly.

Lightfoot’s decision to attack the typically peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters with a violent and mostly white police force echoes the tactics used by then-Mayor Richard J. Daley.

If Langston Hughes were alive today, he would recognize this city. Likely from the back of a squad car, with two black eyes and a bruised jaw, he might say, “Summer 2020, same as summer 1919.” A Red Summer, yet again.

This article was originally published on Medium

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Brady Chalmers is a dad, writer, and digital strategist who writes about race, politics, faith, sports, and hip-hop. He lives in Chicago with his wife Jillian, daughter Naomi, a dog named Bear and a cat named Eartha Kitty.

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