Riding the 1919 Chicago Race riots: biking across divides to confront the past

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Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series of reflective posts written by winners of awards intended to be given out at the NCPH 2020 annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. The Chicago 1919 Project, organized by the Newberry Library, was the 2020 recipient of the Outstanding Public History Project Award.

Participants in the Chicago 1919 Project Bike Tour. Photo credit: Peter Pawinsky

Difficult history is often hidden from public discourse and public spaces. This is especially true of the painful events of the Red Summer of 1919 in Chicago, where a week of racial violence left 38 dead, 500 injured, and thousands homeless. Still largely unknown to most Chicagoans, the legacies of the 1919 race riots remain etched in the racial divides that continue to haunt the city. With the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Allstate, and private funders, the Newberry Library organized “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots,” a project involving 13 cultural institutions collaborating to produce 11 distinct programs across the city with the goal of confronting this history and exploring its relevance to today. One program—a bike tour through Chicago on the 100th anniversary of the start of the riots—proved particularly valuable in demonstrating the power of place to drive historical understanding and empathy.

Color photograph of the cyclists in front of a large stone gate.

Cyclists at the Chicago Stockyards listen to historian David Bates on the role of organized labor in the 1919 riots. Photo credit: Peter Pawinsky

The bike tour offered both practical solutions and pedagogical opportunities for exploring the history of the riots. Our ride covered considerable ground, as the riots themselves were dispersed; in all, we rode 10 miles with eight stops over three hours. More than 120 riders participated, a number that could be safely shepherded through traffic thanks to bike marshals trained by our partners at Blackstone Bicycle Works, an educational youth program centered around a community bike shop located in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. The ride allowed us to cross boundaries—literally—to understand in visceral terms the racial divides of 1919 and see where those divides remain today. Finally, a large group collectively pedaling through the past generated a sense of community, as we were both taking back the streets and educating ourselves on a dark past.

Our ride began along Chicago’s lakefront at a small boulder with a plaque memorializing 17-year old African American Eugene Williams, who drowned in Lake Michigan on July 27, 1919, after being hit by a rock thrown by a white man. Williams’ death sparked conflict on the beach when a white police officer refused to arrest the perpetrator, which in turn ignited a tinderbox of racial conflict that had been simmering for weeks. The boulder, dedicated in 2009, is the only marker commemorating the events of 1919, and was the result of efforts by students at a suburban high school, demonstrating the extent to which Chicago has buried its history. Our ride would, in part, reclaim that history, blazing new ground.

At times, reclaiming requires unlearning, and the term “race riot,” in white American minds, is often interpreted as an urban uprising by African Americans, as in 1992 in Los Angeles or the urban unrest of the 1960s. Chicago’s race riots of 1919 are best understood instead as terrorism instigated by whites seeking to drive out African Americans, as in cities like Tulsa in 1921. White youth gangs from “athletic clubs” and even middle-class white residents invaded neighboring Black communities using cars and trucks, firing weapons indiscriminately and severely beating bystanders. Black Chicagoans fought back to defend their communities, and, in some respects, the conflict was a draw. Of the 37 dead, 23 were Black and 15 white, with several of the Black victims dying at the hands of the police. Despite a stacked deck, African American residents had held their own. Eventually, the belated deployment of the state militia restrained white gangs and heavy rainfall helped quell the violence.

Harold Lucas, President of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council, with the author in the background. Photo credit: Peter Pawinsky

On our tour, community partners told much of this story. Harold Lucas, head of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council and a longtime community activist, explained that the riots failed to intimidate Black Chicagoans and how, in response, they built strong institutions in the years after. At a stop at Olivet Baptist Church, we learned from the church’s pastor, Rev. John L. Smith (who also participated in the ride), how Black churches served as front-line social service agencies for victims of the riots and how Black ministers mobilized to end the violence. In front of the home of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, two doors down from a house fire-bombed by whites in 1919, we heard from filmmaker Barbara E. Allen about Wells’ righteous calls for resistance. At the epicenter of the conflict at 35th and State Streets, we learned from Franklin Cosey-Gay, project director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention at the University of Chicago, about how police killed four unarmed Black men at the site in 1919 and how police violence continued to plague communities of color in the present day.

A dramatic moment came when we crossed Wentworth Avenue at 33rd Street. In 1919, Wentworth was known as the “Dead Line,” a well-understood racial boundary that people of color crossed at the risk of their lives. That boundary survives today along Wentworth. The divide remains palpable: we moved from Bronzeville, still the historic heart of Black Chicago, but with readily apparent disinvestment, to Armour Square, still a predominantly white community, but with tidy parks, numerous streetlights, and new sidewalks. Even today, racial dog whistles are visible in Armour Square, including signs in windows saying, “We Support the Police.”

We rode on to the Chicago Stockyards, a vital stop for understanding both violence and how labor unions could not bridge racial divides. While unions were able to keep the peace inside racially integrated slaughterhouses, outside the Stockyard’s gates African Americans leaving work were pulled from trolley cars and beaten by white gangs. The riots doomed chances of an interracial labor alliance between Blacks and whites for another generation.

Barbara E. Allen, filmmaker, in front of Ida B. Wells’s home. Photo credit: Peter Pawinsky

Our ride unlocked new meanings for those unfamiliar with the events of 1919 but also left us with the sober reminder that this history still resonates today. Many Chicago residents often see segregation as a natural phenomenon, with neighborhoods sorting themselves as Irish or Italian or African American or Mexican. But as the ride and other programs in the Chicago 1919 series explained, this is a myth. Segregation has deep roots in violence and policy. After the 1919 riots, old tactics—violence and intimidation—continued at the street level, with white people viscerally resisting residential integration. In policy, the white power structure responded not with progressive reform but by creating additional barriers to keep whites and Blacks apart. The Chicago Real Estate Board and newly formed property owner associations developed restrictive covenants in order to legally block the sale of homes to African Americans. In the 1930s, following the lead of the real estate industry, the federal government drew maps that denied black neighborhoods access to federal loans, “redlining” those areas and discouraging potential investment. If African Americans in Chicago were to stay, then whites wanted them in their place—in this case, confined inside a narrow South Side residential area known as the Black Belt, later reclaimed by residents as Bronzeville.

Franklin Cosey-Gay, University of Chicago, addressing the crowd. Photo credit: Peter Pawinsky

The explosion of anti-Black violence in 1919 did not spur a reckoning over racial equality in the U.S. Our ride laid bare, in palpable ways, how decades of structural racism and systematic disinvestment have left deep scars on Chicago’s landscape. Writing this post in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the national outpouring of protest only reinforces the value of on-the-ground experiences in understanding our limited progress in social justice. I encourage public historians to develop more rides, more tours, and find more ways to engage with our ongoing national failures.


~D. Bradford Hunt is chair of the history department at Loyola University Chicago and was formerly the Vice President for Research and Academic Programs at the Newberry. He is also an avid bike commuter, inspiring the bike tour described in this post.

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