Sunday, July 27th was sweltering. Temperatures soared to 96 degrees. To escape the heat, hundreds flocked to Chicago’s beaches to cool off in the water of Lake Michigan. But the playful morning would turn violent by afternoon. Skirmishes between blacks and whites would break out at the 29th Street beach.
The First Fighting of the Day
As with much of the violence in the city that summer, the fighting revolved around territory. Several black men and women had strolled to 29th street beach to go swimming—a beach defined by unwritten law as being a “white” beach. The group of blacks was rebuked with curses, threatening gestures and rocks.
Minutes later the blacks returned with reinforcements and hurled rocks. This time the white bathers fled. But soon the whites reappeared, their numbers burgeoned with sympathizers, and they released a new barrage of stones.
The Spark that Began the Race Riot
Among the beachgoers that day was a group of four black teen-age boys from Chicago’s South Side, near 53rd and State. The teens headed toward a secret spot north of 26th Street that they called the “hot and cold,” where hot chemical run-off from the brewery vats mixed with effluents from a nearby icehouse and the cold lake water. There they had a 14 x 9’ raft hidden. They met Eugene Williams, another black teenager from a different neighborhood further north, and he joined their water activities.
The teenagers floated out on their home-made raft. None of the five were good swimmers. Holding onto the raft, they began kicking, driving the raft further out into the lake. For amusement, they set a goal of reaching a marker nailed on a post several hundred yards from shore. Their path took them toward 29th Street.
Unaware of their location or of the earlier skirmishes, the teenagers continued to “swim, kick, dive and play around.” Innocently, they edged into the waters of the “white” 29th Street beach.
The Murder of Eugene Williams
About 2:00 p.m., a white man named George Stauber threw rocks at the teenagers from a breakwater. The boys made a game of it, shouting warnings to each other and ducking as the rocks and bricks hurled toward them. Then Stauber hit his mark. Eugene Williams was struck in the forehead and slipped under the bloodied water.
One of the teenagers on the raft, John Harris, dog-paddled and swam underwater to shore and raced back to get a black lifeguard from down the beach, who sent a boat around. Beachgoers, both white and black, dove into the water to try to save Eugene. But it was too late. Eugene had drowned. Divers recovered Eugene’s body 30 minutes later.
The Beach Explodes
The panic on shore then turned to anger. Blacks pointed out Stauber to the white police officer on duty as the man responsible for the rock throwing, but Officer Daniel Callahan refused to arrest Stauber and prevented a black officer from making the arrest. The policemen argued.
Meanwhile, Harris and others ran back to 25th Street beach and “told the colored people what was happening, and they started running” to 29th Street.
The argument on the 26th Street beach raged on. Still refusing to arrest Stauber, Callihan then arrested a black man on the complaint of a white. Driven by news of the drowning and unfounded rumors on both sides, angry blacks and whites swarmed the beach. The crowd grew to 1,000. When paddy wagons pulled up to take the arrested black man into custody, bricks and rocks were thrown by both parties. A shot was fired at police. James Crawford, black, wounded one of the white officers with his revolver. Jesse Igoes, a black officer, then shot Crawford in the abdomen, fatally injuring him.
More shots were fired. O’Brien shot at the retreating crowd, hitting two more black men. The black crowd grew and attacked white men, beating four whites, stabbing five and shooting another. Within 15 minutes, the original mob was dispersed, leaving 40 rioters and several policemen injured.
The race war had officially begun.
Fighting Spilled Into the Streets
Rioters from the 26th Street beach now spread through the streets of the south side. Individuals of both races fanned out through their neighborhoods to rally reinforcements.
Blacks shared news of Eugene’s death; whites reported blacks’ violence on the beach. But, other unfounded rumors also spread: the white officer had, by gunpoint, prevented swimmers from helping save the boy; blacks drowned a white man; blacks were stockpiling weapons and breaking into armories. Though false, the rumors further fueled the simmering conflict between the races.
Calls for retaliation found their way west of Wentworth Avenue just beyond the western boundary of the Black Belt. The athletic clubs jumped at the excuse to start a rampage. They armed themselves with baseball bats, knives, revolvers, iron bars, hammers and bricks, in search of any black person unlucky enough to be in their territory. Then they made their way into the Black Belt.
The Black Belt
By evening, Chicago’s south side was a battlefield. Skirmishes erupted in and around the Black Belt, the predominantly black area of the city. The south side—from Cottage Grove Avenue and State Street from 29th south to 35th Street—was in pandemonium.
Shots rang out. Rocks flew. Members of both races were shot and stabbed. Blacks pulled a white fireman from a passing engine and beat him. A black man leaning out his window to watch was hit by a stray bullet.
The Deputy Chief of Police, John Alcock dispatched all available police officers to the south side. Hundreds of mounted police stormed up and down the avenues. But just as police dispersed a warring group of blacks and whites, the confrontation would begin again two or three blocks away. Overwhelmed, police concentrated on transporting the wounded to hospitals. Doctors and nurses worked overtime to care for the injured.
Few arrests were made. This allowed attackers and witnesses to slip back into the battles.
Shouts and gunfire reverberated through the streets of the South Side from nine o’clock Sunday night until three Monday morning.
When the fighting on Chicago’s south side finally waned, the injury count was 27 blacks beaten, 7 stabbed and 4 shot.
The Morning After
On Monday, July 28th, Chicago’s riot made national headlines. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported 2 killed and 50 hurt in the Race Riots. Yet the Tribune’s larger front-page headline read: “Full Confession by Slayer of Janet.” The sensational story featured news of Thomas Fitzgerald’s confession to the choking death of Janet Wilkinson after luring the neighbor child into his apartment with candy. He had hidden the girl’s body under coal in their apartment building’s basement.
Big Bill Thompson, Chicago’s mayor, just back from a trip to Cheyenne, Wyoming, rode in a parade dressed as a cowboy. At City Hall, Thompson dismissed a reporter’s question about the rioting saying that it seemed to be over. Thompson was much more interested in talking about Fitzgerald’s confession and fears of an impending transit strike.
Police Deputy Alcock assessed that the fighting had passed.
Blacks returned to their jobs at the stockyards, in factories, in restaurants, as porters and at other jobs. Deliveries were made. The streetcars ran. Chicago seemed back to normal.
But the white gangs were far from done.
Gary Krist; City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago; Crown Publishers; 2012
Cameron McWhirter; Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America; St. Martin’s Griffin; 2011
William M. Tuttle, Jr.: Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919; University of Illinois Press; 1996