Mell Montezuma

Connecting with Conflict

A hundred years after the 1919 riots, Chicago Public Schools teachers find ways to reinvent their curriculum

The centennial commemoration of the 1919 Chicago race riots, organized last year by the city in concert with academic and nonprofit organizations, was meant to memorialize an incident that left 38 dead, 537 injured, and around 2,000 Chicagoans—predominantly African-Americans—homeless. But for many, it was the first time they had heard of the riots at all. Details about what led up to the riots, as well as what came after, are often unknown even by native Chicagoans. This relatively large blindspot in history education is beginning to be challenged as more teachers find ways to teach about the riots in Chicago Public Schools. 

In Ian Brannigan’s Human Geography class at West Englewood’s Lindblom Math and Science Academy, the 1919 riots are taught as part of a unit about the spatial organization of race in Chicago. “We’re trying to answer the question of why is Chicago segregated, or why do people live where they do in Chicago,” Brannigan said. 

The Chicago race riots of 1919 were preceded by years of rising tensions surrounding race, labor, and the return of Black soldiers from World War I, and began after seventeen-year-old Black teenager Eugene Williams was stoned by a white mob as he swam in Lake Michigan and drowned. The riots were an act of racial violence provoked by white people against Black people, part of a larger string of riots that took place in many major American cities during what is known as the Red Summer. As Brannigan mentioned, the riots have had lasting impacts on segregation in Chicago, often hardening existing racial lines. In maps of the riots’ resulting deaths and injuries, researchers have noted that particular streets that experienced greater rates of violence continue to act as color lines. John Clegg, a historical sociologist at the University of Chicago who oversaw the creation of an interactive map of the riots, noted that these streets “have almost a physical memory of this long history of racial violence.”

In Brannigan’s class, and in many history classes across CPS, students try to answer the question of how such riots came to happen, and how they have had a lasting impact on Chicago and the United States today. These units are working to challenge, as Brannigan said, “the notion or discourses that suggest that segregation in Northern cities is natural.” CPS educators use talking about 1919 in their classrooms as a way to remind students of the roots of modern-day segregation and to raise awareness about parts of the Black liberation movement that are not mentioned in standard history textbooks. 

Brannigan, along with Lindblom teachers Teddy Kent and Alison Eichorn, all have units that include a discussion of 1919 in their classrooms, and have been talking about the riots with their students for many years. However, while their current students are learning about  the riots in high school, many CPS educators who teach the curriculum had not heard about the Red Summer until college, or even later. “I never learned about 1919 until I studied history on my own,” Eichorn, who teaches a History of Chicago class at Lindbom, said. “I never even learned about it in college, and I went to college in Chicago.” Kent and Brannigan echoed this sentiment.

“I think it’s probably part of the hidden history of Chicago,” said Jackson Potter, a teacher at Back of the Yards College Prep. He explained that myths about racial tolerance in the North as compared to the South, as well as the sense that Chicago in particular was a haven of racial progress, can cloud the realities of events like 1919. “I just think there’s a real myopia around the racial violence in the North in particular… there’s continuity between these various systems of racial apartheid and separation,” he said, referring to the enforcement of Jim Crow in the South and segregation in the North. 

The task for CPS educators: disrupting that myopia. In Eichorn’s History of Chicago class, she does so by teaching the riots as part of a larger unit called “Conflict.” The unit covers many of the conflicts in Chicago specifically that gave rise to the riots. “We talk about conflict in politics, conflict in labor, and conflict in race,” Eichorn said. 

Erik Fiksdal, who teaches African-American History, World Studies, and Honors U.S. History at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, and previously taught at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy, noted the importance of understanding the context in seeing how the problems of 1919 persist today. “As we start to unpack the story more I that they start to really see correlations and relationships between what happened during that summer and what’s still happening now,” Fiksdal said.

Eichorn and her colleagues, as well as Potter and Fiksdal, are intentional about showing their students that the racial violence of 1919 was not an isolated event in Chicago. “Many students have come in with the understanding that [the death of] Eugene Williams was the cause,” Kent said. “So we can uncover the tension leading up behind that… it’s not just a rock that caused it.” Over time, the 1919 curriculum in many teachers’ classrooms has changed to include more study of present-day activism, as well as police and prison abolition movements. 

Although teachers now are starting to be more explicit about making 1919 a part of their curriculum, many students are still unaware of the riots prior to high school elective classes; the background that students have varies greatly from classroom to classroom. At Lindblom, students are required to take Human Geography, which Kent and Brannigan teach, so all students hear about the riots during their freshman year, even if they don’t take later electives like History of Chicago. Still, even prior to freshman year, Kent and Brannigan explained that many of their students have some knowledge of the riots. “I find that most students are familiar with the flashpoint incident involving Eugene Williams, but not so many of them necessarily know about what happened afterwards,” Kent said.

However, in Potter’s classes at Back of the Yards College Prep, students are less likely to know about the riots. “I think every single one of my students, and I have about 135, 140 students, none of them were aware of the 1919 race riots. Not one,” Potter said. According to each teacher, their students typically reacted to the material with surprise. “I think that they were stunned, they were a bit incredulous that they’d never heard about it before, I would even go so far as to say a bit betrayed, angry, but extraordinarily curious,” Potter said. 

Discussion of 1919 is not required by the district, so its place in social studies and elective classes is left to teacher discretion, which is typically dependent on teachers’ familiarity with the material. 

“Teachers often teach what they know,” Eichorn said. “So if there’s not a legacy of teaching the content because they didn’t learn it in school or they’re not familiar with it, then I think that there’s a hole in that content.” Kent further explained that many teachers want to teach 1919 in their classrooms, but find it hard to make the space for it with an already packed schedule and a lack of flexibility with electives. “I’ve talked with teachers who have said they want to teach it, but they said the course sequence, like there’s no specific class [in some schools] like the History of Chicago class, or geography class,” he said. “You have to do some work in order to think about the context and where that fits.” 

Potter noted that more teachers might be teaching the riots now because discussion of the Chicago Police Department’s legacy of violence against Black and brown communities is no longer as censored. “The sort of dismantling of the end of the Chicago machine, where [Richard J.] Daley and his son sort of represent a continuous legacy of denial, whether it’s police torture, whether it’s intentional and planned segregation, whether it’s violence that Daley himself probably committed as a part of the Hamburg Athletic Club against the Black community in 1919—I think those things are no longer taboo.”

Particularly in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods, Eichorn explained that she felt discussion of the riots in classrooms was a little more common, or at least more comfortable for educators.  “It also needs to happen in spaces that are not Black and brown, and a lot of the time it doesn’t,” Eichorn said. “In talking about the suburbs specifically, it’s really easy to talk about Black and brown issues in front of Black and brown students, but it gets into more dangerous territory when you get to teaching in the wealthier suburbs, or to a predominantly white audience… I think that’s where we see a gap in how curriculum is developed.”

One way to address the imbalance would be to make teaching 1919 a required part of the curriculum, like the way the “Reparations Won” curriculum, which covers the history of police torture in Chicago and the movement for justice by survivors and their families, was made mandatory as part of an ordinance passed in 2015. Potter, who worked for the Chicago Teachers Union before returning to teaching, said that CTU is a strong advocate for that option. “We played a pretty innovative role, an unprecedented role as a teacher’s union in pushing for curriculum that challenges racism and the history of racial disparities in the city,” Potter said, referring to the Reparations Won curriculum. Potter thinks that something similar is possible for 1919. “But you gotta ask, is curriculum enough.” Further structural changes in the city of Chicago, as well as greater public acknowledgement and memorialization of 1919, he said, are also necessary components to bring the riots to light.

Even if teaching 1919 is made mandatory, it might come up against the same kinds of implementation challenges as Reparations Won, which has faced backlash for its critiques of the Chicago Police Department in predominantly white schools. At Wildwood Elementary on the Far Northwest Side, Principal Mary Beth Cunat resigned, in part, as a result of parents’ intense criticism of the curriculum. But Potter doesn’t think pushback should be a deterrent. “It should be edgy enough to not only challenge the historical moment…[but] being able to talk about, hey, this happened in the past, but we have to talk about how it impacts us in the present,” he said. “Now we gotta do something about the kind of racial animus, the lack of affordable housing and decent jobs and like school investment that have occurred in the Black and Latinx communities because of institutional racism.” 

CPS as a whole is certainly beginning to take the necessary steps, but there is still plenty of work left to do. There were plans to release a teaching guide for 1919 this past fall, although Potter said he had not been notified of any actual release, and no other teacher the Weekly spoke with mentioned using the guides. “A number of us have a pretty dynamic curriculum that we know is effective, and the district actually has proprietary ownership over that curriculum… but they’re contracting out a lot of stuff,” Potter said.

In any case, teachers noted that the passing of the 100th anniversary seemed to spark a greater awareness of the riots, and further education about the riots has the potential to highlight the similar struggles faced by Black and brown people today. Fiksdal noted that the riots in particular are seen a powerful and moving part of history by many of his students because, “It doesn’t seem as removed as some of the other events can be…the teenager who drowned in Lake Michigan is about their age.” In his African-American history class at Whitney Young, Fiksdal starts the year by showing the documentary “Whose Streets?”,  about the Ferguson protests. “Then they can see the emotions that those protestors were feeling,” he said. “And it has to be parallel to the things that people were feeling a hundred years ago.”

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Ashvini Kartik-Narayan is a student at the University of Chicago majoring in public policy, and one of the current Education editors for the Weekly. She last wrote for the Weekly about the Burge reparations package and memorial effort. 

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