Lizzie Smith

Present and Past

How we commemorate the race riots of 1919

A riot is the language of the unheard.”

These are the words inscribed into bronze along the lakefront at 29th Street. The plaque, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., is embedded in a large stone about thirty feet from Lake Michigan.  It is the only memorial the city has to remember the victims of the 1919 Chicago race riots. 

The plaque marks the area where the riots first began. It commemorates the first victim, Eugene Williams, who was seventeen years old when he died. Williams drowned after  white beachgoers repeatedly threw rocks at him after he had drifted into the whites-only section of the beach. His death and the building resentment of a segregated city resulted in a week of riots where thirty-eight people were killed and hundreds were injured.

The riots lasted eight days, and laid the foundation for many of the issues that would dominate Chicago life, especially for its Black residents, for the next hundred years: police brutality, housing segregation, a lack of public resources. 

The plaque at 29th Street is the only reminder of this event—but that might change soon, thanks to Peter Cole, professor of history at Western Illinois University. 

Cole founded the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19) to create a lasting tribute to the events of a hundred years ago. The central idea behind the project is installing thirty-eight plaques throughout the city, one at every site where a victim of the riot lost their life. 

Cole’s project was inspired by the powerful Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones” with names of Holocaust victims inscribed in each bronze brick incorporated into the sidewalks throughout Germany and other European countries. It shares some of the “never again” narrative as well.

“Commemorating…absolutely is vital, most definitely in regards to Chicago’s, and the country’s, long history of racism and racial violence,” said Cole. “If ‘forgetting’ the past was effective, we wouldn’t still be suffering, as a city and country, from persistent racial inequalities nor would racism and racial violence continue.” 

Cole felt that without something to pay tribute to those who suffered before, history was more likely to repeat itself. “Public art happens to be a particularly good way to remember, or be educated…of atrocities like the Chicago Race Riot of 1919,” Cole continued. “The genius of a dispersed public art project, like the one we are working to create, is that it ‘finds’ people who aren’t looking to remember.” 

The plaques, much like the stumbling stones in Europe, can do that by starting conversations. At another commemoration of the riots—organized by University of Chicago professors Eve Ewing and John Clegg—Franklin Cosey-Gay, executive director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention and current co-director of CRR19, related a story in which a parent and their child ran into a stumbling stone outside of an apartment they were touring. Neighbors congregated and started a conversation, and the parent told the child, for the first time, about the Holocaust. “We hope [the plaques] will start a conversation,” Cosey-Gay said.

That may have also been the larger goal of the other commemorations that took place throughout the city this year. Starting as early as February 23, fourteen Chicago organizations, including the Newberry Library, DuSable Museum, Chicago History Museum, and Young Chicago Authors, hosted, organized, and ran eleven events commemorating the riots. 

On July 27, the exact anniversary of the beginning of the riots, the Newberry hosted the Bughouse Square Debates, an annual event in which anyone can sign up to speak to the crowd for a few minutes. This year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke at the beginning about the riots’ legacy. Later, WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore and Medill Dean and Professor Charles Whitaker discussed the riots as well. They also opened it up to questions from the crowd of people sitting, standing, and lounging on the grass of Washington Square.

During the event, people asked about the role of the stockyard unions and if former mayor Richard J. Daley took part in the riots. Daley was known to be a member of an “athletic club” that was likely involved in committing violence against Black Chicagoans, but his specific involvement has never been officially confirmed. 

At one point, someone asked “With all due respect, what are your thoughts on the racial makeup of the crowd?” Moore looked around at the crowd gathered in front of the Newberry on a Saturday afternoon on the Near North Side and said, “I’m happy that a bunch of white people want to hear me talk about race.”

Afterward people took to several stages scattered around Washington Square to speak on mental health, immigration, water rights, and police torture in Chicago, with dozens of people listening at each soapbox. 

The event was one of several held on that day, including a procession, concerts, and a public art piece in the form of a group floating on the lake at 31st Street Beach, close to where Eugene Williams was killed a hundred years ago. Nearly seventy swimmers went out on flotation rings, meant to symbolize unity as they held hands and offered a space for silence and reflection.

The commemoration of the riots has also inspired and provided relevant platforms for academic, artistic, and journalistic work. At CRR19, Cosey-Gay worked with students from One Summer Chicago, to use interviewing and photography to examine the race riots and explore intergenerational trauma and collective memory. (Some of their work is included in this issue.) Meanwhile, at the UofC event, Adrienne Brown, a professor of English at the university, presented her research findings on language that real estate agents used in the decades before and after the riots and the way it contributed to segregation. 

But it’s not enough to simply start a conversation. For an event as violent and racist as the riots, organizers had to take care with how they commemorated.

For the Newberry, hosting a series of events in collaboration with various Chicago institutions and organizations was the best way to have an open and diverse conversation about the destruction that occurred primarily against Black Chicagoans, and how the pain of said events is still felt in those communities to this day.

“In engaging with the difficult history of the race riots, we needed to make sure we were approaching the subject with the sensitivity that it deserved, understanding that for some folks it would be deeply personal,” said Alex Teller, director of communications at the Newberry Library. “We also needed to make sure we weren’t the only voice in the room.”

At the UofC event, Ewing clearly described the problems that can arise when honoring the victims of any historical event.

How do you think about commemoration? It’s remembering but also honoring, and how does that work when some of the people who died likely died because they were attempting to commit racist violence and others acted in self-defense and killed them? Where their identity as pure victims is questionable?”

There is a messiness that comes with commemorating the dead. Who died as the perpetrator and who died as the victim, and who played both roles? These are the questions posed to projects like Cole’s that work to remember those who died during the week of riots. 

While this is not lost on Cole or his team working on making CRR19 a reality, the power of a physical and interactive memorial remains because they serve as reminders for people who were not necessarily looking for them but were impacted by their existence anyways. 

“Someone walking down the street, thinking about what’s for dinner, just happens upon this painful, perhaps shocking reminder, that someone was killed at that very spot,” Cole said.  

“In that moment, past and present collapse.”

Adam Przybyl contributed reporting

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Marin Scott is a Chicago-based journalist who has covered everything from TIF funding to Indigenous rights in the city to social justice movements. She has been featured in Gateway Journalism Review, 14East Magazine, the DePaulia, and the Chicago Monitor. This is her first piece for the Weekly.

 

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