A Commission Forms to Study Chicago’s 1919 Race Riot
In the summer of 1919, Chicago exploded in violence. A Race Riot loomed for over a week—whites against blacks—ending only after the state militia was brought in to quell violence and protect all the city’s citizens. But much damage had already been done.
There were 38 fatalities—23 black and 15 white. Fifteen met death at the hands of mobs. A reported 537 persons were injured. Black homes were ransacked and property destroyed, leaving 1,000 black families homeless. Near the end of the riot, large numbers of houses in the back of the Stock Yards, primarily homes of Lithuanians, were burned to the ground. (Although originally assumed that the fires had been started by blacks, later evidence pointed to the Irish athletic clubs.)
The Red Summer of 1919
Unfortunately, Chicago was not an isolated incident. Although blacks in the South had previously borne the brunt of America’s racial violence and discrimination, there were “race riots” all across the country that year—so many that the season was named “Red Summer.” Riots broke out in Charleston, South Carolina; Longview, Texas; Bisbee, Arizona; Washington, D.C.; Knoxville, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska; Phillips County, Arkansas; Gary, Indiana; and Bogalusa, Louisiana. Between late 1918 and late 1919, the United States recorded ten major race riots, dozens of minor, racially charged clashes, and almost 100 lynchings as white Americans tried to enforce the continual subjugation of black Americans in the postwar era. (Krugler, pg 3)
By November, the “RACE WAR” of 1919 that had shocked the nation arrived at an unsettled and incomplete truce. (McWhirter, pg 236.) The nation grappled with its growing racial conflict.
President Woodrow Wilson castigated the “white race” as “the aggressor” in both the Chicago and Washington riots, and efforts were launched to promote racial harmony through voluntary organizations and ameliorative legislation in Congress. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Blacks had now seen racial injustice and oppression play out in Northern cities, not just the south. They felt pride and power from the actions of Blacks in the cities where they had fought back with armed resistance—the beginnings of a “New Negro,” who, after fighting for democracy overseas, now demanded democracy in their own country. The NAACP used the violence to try to shame local, state and federal governments into action. (McWhirter, page 236)
Those whites inclined to violence, learned they would be met with resistance, especially in larger cities.
Local governments saw the devastating effects of nonaction against racial violence. Newspapers urged politicians to act with the first signs of trouble, to avoid the carnage and bad publicity riots brought their cities. (McWhirter, page 236) The Chicago Tribune, in an editorial on July 31—the day after the state militia was called in to quell the violence—called Chicago “disgraced and dishonored. Its head is bloodied and bowed, bloodied by crime and bowed by its shame. Its reputation is besmirched. Its fame is tarnished for years. People do not forget cities which have been the scene of mob murders, of savagery and inhuman violence. Chicago may expect to suffer the consequences.” (Chicago Tribune)
Local Leaders Request a Study on Causes and Prevention of Race Riots
Chicago community leaders called for a commission to research the issues and make changes to avoid future riots. The people of Chicago wanted answers. Not just about the causes of the riot, but also about how the city could stop violence from continuing to happen.
On August 1, 1919, even before Chicago’s Race Riot was totally under control, a group of civic, social, commercial and professional organizations met at the Union League to discuss the seriousness of the riot and ways of avoiding a reoccurrence. They sent a letter to the Governor of Illinois, Frank O. Lowden, offering to serve on a committee:
DEAR SIR: A meeting was held today at the Union League Club to take up the matter of the present race riots.
This meeting was attended by 81 representatives of 48 prominent civic, professional, and commercial organizations, such as Chicago Medical Association, Chicago Bar Association, Federation of churches, Association of Commerce, Packing House Industries, Urban League, Woman’s City Club, Chicago Women’s Club, Foreign Language Division representing foreign-born population, etc.
A resolution was adopted unanimously, appointing the undersigned as a committee to wait upon you and ask that you appoint at your earliest convenience an emergency state committee to study the psychological, social, and economic causes underlying the conditions resulting in the present race riot and to make such recommendations as will tend to prevent a recurrence of such conditions in the future.
The committee would welcome an opportunity to meet you at any time convenient to yourself and to talk over with you details and give you such information as has been gathered through these various organizations.
CHARLES W. FOLDS
WILLIAM C. GRAVES
HARRIET E. VITTUM
T. ARNOLD HILL
FELIX J. STREYCKMANS
Governor Lowden Appoints a Race Commission
With this and other requests for more investigation of the causes and prevention of riots, and with knowledge from his own investigations during the riot itself, Governor Lowden acted. On August 20, 1919, he announced the appointment of a Commission on Race Relations:
I have been requested by many citizens and by many civic organizations in Chicago to appoint a Commission to study and report upon the broad question of the relations between the two races. These riots were the work of the worst element of both races. They did not represent the great overwhelming majority of either race. The two are here and will remain here. The great majority of each realizes the necessity of their living upon terms of cordial good will and respect, each for the other. That condition must be brought about.
To say that we cannot solve this problem is to confess the failure of self-government. I offer no solution of the problem. I do know, however, that the question cannot be answered by mob violence. I do know that every time men, white or colored, take the law into their own hands, instead of helping they only postpone the settlement of the question. When we admit the existence of a problem and courageously face it, we have gone half-way toward its solution.
I have with the utmost care, in response to the requests above set forth, appointed a Commission to undertake this great work. I have sought only the most representative men of the two races. I have not even asked them whether they had views as to how the question could be met. I have asked them only to approach the difficult subject with an open mind, and in a spirit of fairness and justice to all. This is a tribunal that has been constituted to get the facts and interpret them to and to find a way out. I believe that great good can come out of the work of this Commission.
I ask that our people, white and colored, give their fullest co-operation to the Commission. I ask, too, as I have a right to ask, that both races exercise that patience and self-restraint which are indispensable to self-government while we are working out this problem.
The Commission Members
The Commission consisted of 12 members—6 white and 6 black. They were businessmen, attorneys and esteemed members of the community. They included Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears; Victor F. Lawson, the owner, editor and publisher of the Chicago Daily News; and Robert Abbott, the publisher of the Chicago Defender.
Edgar A. Bancroft, Chairman, Lawyer
William Scott Bond, Real Estate Dealer
Edward Osgood Brown, Lawyer
Harry Eugene Kelly, Lawyer
Victor F. Lawson, Editor
Julius Rosenwald, Merchant
Dr. Francis W. Shepardson, Acting Chairman (after Bancroft stepped down due to ill health) and Director of the State Department of Registration and Education
Robert A. Abbott, Editor
George Cleveland Hall, Physician and Surgeon
George H. Jackson, Real Estate Dealer
Edward H. Morris, Lawyer
Adelbert H. Roberts, Lawyer
Lacey Kirk Williams, Minister
A Year-Long Investigation
Beginning in October of 1919, the Commission held 10 meetings to determine the fields of inquiry, and organize the studies and investigations.
Early on the Commission met some stumbling blocks. It was completely without funds, and relied upon private fundraising to begin. It had some difficulty procuring space, as several building agents declined to make a lease upon learning that Commission members, executives secretaries and field and office staff included blacks. A space was found at 118 North LaSalle Street, with a lease beginning February 1, 1920. By March 1 the staff of investigators began its work.
Scope of the Study
From its inception, the Commission saw that it needed to go beyond just collecting and studying the facts of the riot. It determined that of more importance was to study and interpret the conditions of black life in Chicago and the relations between the two races.
It therefore organized into six committees: Racial Clashes, Housing, Industry, Crime, Racial Contacts and a Committee on Public Opinion.
Information was garnered in two main ways. First, the Commission held a series of 30 conferences or informal hearings, where people were invited to offer their special insight and information on the topics at hand. Topics included race friction and its remedies; contacts between whites and blacks in schools and parks, and the courts and correctional institutions; the needs and difficulties of black housing; black labor; black health; the views of police the militia, the grand jury and the state’s attorney on the 1919 race riot; and the role of the white press in relation to public opinion on race relations.
Secondly, research and field work was carried out through a staff of trained investigators of both races, “whose training and experience had fitted them for intelligent and sympathetic handling of research and field work along the lines mapped out by the Commission.”
A broad selection of agencies, individuals and organizations assisted with the research. For example, the Chicago Urban League offered access to many of its files, and gave a leave of absence to its head of the Department of Research and Investigations, Mr. Charles S. Johnson, to be Executive Secretary. The Committee of Fifteen provided a report on the study of environment and crime. Assistance also came from government agencies such as the Census Bureau; the Chicago Public School system’s superintendent, principals and teachers; park boards; municipal, county and state officials; others connected with industrial plants; trades union officers; and leaders in civic and social agencies—which helped facilitate investigations in their respective fields of expertise.
The Commission’s staff researched, interviewed, canvassed, and studied. It was an exhaustive undertaking lasting 11 months, with subsequent multiple edits. The final 672-page document was released in September of 1922.
Objective, in-depth and exhaustively researched, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot, provided insight into the attitudes of the time and the racism that led to violence. And further, the study provided recommendations for how to avoid such riots in the future.
1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back; David F. Krugler; 2015
The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot; The Chicago Commission on Race Relations; 1922
Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America; Cameron McWhirter; 2011