Timeline of a Riot: July 27th, 1919

On July 27, 1919, Chicago erupted in one of the most violent riots in the nation’s history. The tensions began weeks, months, even years before the actual riot. Resentment over blacks as strikebreakers, competition for jobs and housing (especially after white servicemen returned home from World War I), and underlying racial discrimination were all key triggers.

Below is a timeline of the Riot’s first day. It began with skirmishes on the 29thStreet beach between black and white beachgoers and ignited after the drowning of Eugene Williams, reported to have been struck with a rock thrown by a white man, causing Williams to slip under the Lake Michigan waters.

Mob running with bricks during Chicago Race Riots of 1919

Members of a white mob run with bricks in hand, during the Chicago race riot of July and August, 1919.

1:00 p.m.

Skirmishes begin between blacks and white swimmers on the 29thStreet Beach


2:00 p.m.

A raft of five black ten-age boys mistakenly ventures into white waters

George Stauber, out on a breaker, throws a stone at Eugene Williams, black, who drowns

Black and white beachgoers jump in to save Williams, but to no avail

Wiliiams’ friends bring the black lifeguard and other blacks from the 25thStreet black beach

The blacks demand Officer Daniel Callahan, white, arrest Stauber, but the officer refuses

The blacks beat Stauber


4:00 – 5:00 p.m.

Eugene’s body is recovered

1,000 blacks return to the beach to demand police turn over Callahan and Stauber

Police attempt to disperse the black and white crowd


The 29th Street Bridge After Eugene Williams’ Death (Chicago History Museum)


6:00 p.m.

Two patrol cars arrive; blacks, including James Crawford, fire at officers

Jesse Igoes, a black officer, returns fire, killing Crawford


6:15 p.m.

Beach mob is dispersed, leaving 40 rioters and several policemen injured

The battle spills out into the streets of the South Side

Individual rioters fan out through neighborhoods to draw in more combatants

Fights erupt – rock throwing, shooting, stabbing—around Black Belt and other areas

Cottage Grove Avenue and State Street from 29thsouth to 35thStreet were bubbling cauldrons of action (The Chicago Tribune has this action at 5:00 p.m., but I feel this timing is more correct)

Deputy Chief Alcock sends out a call to every Chicago station to rush available officers to the South Side

Blacks attack whites—4 beaten, 5 stabbed, 1 shot



White “Hoodlums” Storm the Black Belt Looking for Targets. 



Police and white and black mobs clash at Prairie Avenue and 31stStreet, at State and 35th, and at 37thand Cottage Grove

On 39thStreet, white crowds take potshots at blacks on Streetcars

White gangs beyond the Western edge of the Black Belt attack blacks passing through white neighborhoods

A black man in pummeled with clubs as he waits for a car on Halsted



Riots break out across the city, driven mostly by white men and boys

In particular, young men affiliated with Chicago “Athletic Clubs” descend on the South Side

Hundreds of mounted police storm up and down the avenues to disperse warring mobs

Success is limited—confrontations would be broken up only to reignite 2-3 blocks away

Blacks are armed and stand ready to defend themselves; snipers shoot from buildings


Mounted Police Escort a Rioter 

Shouts and gunfire are heard for many more hours

Few arrests are made

Police focus on transporting the wounded to hospitals

Hospitals work overtime to care for the wounded



Whites: 4 beaten, 5 stabbed, 1 shot

Blacks: 27 beaten, 7 stabbed, 4 shot, 2 dead (Including Eugen Williams)

50 whites and blacks seriously wounded

Scores more suffer minor cuts and bruises

(These figures represent a consensus of several sources—listed below)


Screen Shot 2016-11-14 at 8.28.02 PM

By Monday morning at 3 a.m., the rioting had quieted. Whites, especially the athletic clubs, had invaded the Black Belt using bricks, stones, fists, baseball bats, iron bars, and hammers. Blacks primarily used knives and firearms to defend their neighborhoods from the invaders.

Morning workers commute to work, white business owners in the Black Belt open shops and deliveries are received.

Monday’s papers are more concerned with a murder’s confession of killing a young girl in his building. Little does the city know what violence is yet to come.



1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back; David F. Krugler

City of Scoundrels; Gary Krist

On the Laps of God; Robert Whitaker

Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919; William M. Tuttle, Jr.

Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America; Cameron McWhirter




The Red Summer of 1919: Causes of the Race Riots

In the summer and autumn of 1919, cities and towns across the United States were host to deadly race riots. Hundreds killed. Thousands injured. And many left homeless when houses and businesses were ravaged or burned to the ground. The voracity of the racial violence and number of injured and dead earned it the name “The Red Summer.”

Photo of violence during Race Riots of 1919

Violence Rages in East St. Louis July 1-3, 1917. Ida B. Wells Warned Similar Violence Could Befall Chicago. Her Prediction Proved True.

Violence raged in some of America’s largest cities—Charleston, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Omaha—pitting whites against blacks, soldier against soldier, civilian against police. Some began as minor racial altercations that exploded into riots. Some were the result of mob action against a black man unjustly accused of a crime, usually sexual in nature. And one, resulting in the most black deaths, was simply because a group of blacks dared to stand up for their rights for cotton earnings that were owed them.

One thing remained consistent among all of these incidents. Most of the injuries and deaths were sustained by blacks.

Racial tensions had long been simmering. But what sparked this animosity to turn so violent on such a wide scale?

The reasons ran wide and deep.

A History of Racial Injustice and Intolerance

The bedrock of the racial incidents of 1919 began with slavery and a new system of peonage established In the south following the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment at the end of the Civil War, and Reconstruction. “Jim Crow” laws repressed black rights and upward mobility, and lynchings were a fear tactic used to “keep blacks in their place.”  White intolerance grew in the north fueled by thousands of southern blacks moving north in the Great Migration competing with whites for jobs, housing and voting power.

Lack of Jobs and Conflict Over Unions

In many northern industries in the early 1900s, such as steel and meat packing, workers had rallied to form unions and make demands for better pay, working conditions and hours. Business owners often called in black workers as strikebreakers. As blacks became more integrated into the workforce, many pushed back against joining unions, either from mistrust of whites or loyalty to the plant owners who supported black communities through donations to neighborhood organizations like the YMCA and sponsorship of black baseball teams.  Whites seethed with resentment.

Meatpacking Industry Chicago 1900s

Racial Tensions in Chicago’s Meatpacking Plants of Swift and Armour Began with Blacks Breaking a Strike in 1906

In 1919, with veterans returning from the war and some industries ratcheting back on war-time production numbers, jobs were scarce. Blacks and whites competed for the same jobs which some whites perceived should be theirs.


Cities burgeoned with European immigrants and Southern blacks. In Chicago, millions of blacks had emigrated north during the Great Migration, but were forced into a designated “Black Belt” area, housing up to 3-4 times the number of blacks it should. Other cities also experienced overcrowding, which led to competition for housing and enforcement of imagined color lines.

Amistice Day 1918 NY

Thousands Crowded to the Streets on Armistice Day 1918 in New York City.

War-Time Rhetoric and The Red Scare

During WWI, the United States government unleashed a campaign of speeches, posters and handouts that promoted patriotism and nationalism. It encouraged all citizens, regardless of social or financial status, to contribute to War Bond efforts as a show of patriotism. There was “meatless Thursday” and other programs promoting the idea that Americans should limit their consumption of foods and supplies so that those resources could fuel the bodies and efforts of the troops overseas.

With the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 and the establishment of the world’s first communist state under the dictatorship of Vladimir Lenin, the American government feared communists’ influence and infiltration into American society. It aimed to quell socialist, pacifist or anti-war activists. This became the nation’s first Red Scare. (The second, taking place during the 1940s and 1950s, is widely associated with Senator Joseph McCarthy.)

Passed during WWI, the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act imposed fines and prison sentences for those who were deemed as supporting endeavors against U.S. war efforts, or making insulting or abusive statements against the government, flag, Constitution or military. (History.com) This created an atmosphere of mistrust among neighbors. Who might be listening and turn you in? Anti-communist efforts only strengthened after the war’s end.

Jealousy of Black Middle-Class Prosperity

Particularly in the Washington, D.C. area riots, lower class whites resented the success of black businesses. This jealously sparked violence against blacks, particularly black business owners and farmers.

False Accusations of Rape

Ida B. Wells, Ida Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells Began Spent Years Interviewing Victims and Victims’ Families of Lynchings and Other Violent Acts Against Blacks

Many “race riots” began with an unjust accusation that a black man had raped or solicited a white woman, resulting in vigilante murder. As Ida B. Wells-Barnette discovered during her 20 years of anti-lynching advocacy and murder investigations, the majority of accusations proved untrue. In most cases the charges were either fabricated or the sexual relationship between the black man and white woman had been consensual. (Sources: Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and A Red Record)

Solicitous Newspaper Accounts

Sensationalized and sometimes blatantly untrue newspaper headlines and accounts riled up people to engage in violence. For example, one account in the Chicago Tribune inaccurately reported riot death tolls at 17 whites and 5 blacks, when actually the opposite was true. The daily accounting of injuries and deaths during Chicago’s riot incited both sides to even the score.

Other times the headline and language were purposely inciteful. When a series of reported rapes was attributed to a black man, headlines called for the arrest of the “Black Fiend.”

Vigilantism and Poor Police Enforcement

Will Brown and Omaha Race Riot

A Mob Gathers Before the Omaha Courthouse. Later the Mob Would Break In and Kill Will Brown, An Accused Black Man. (From Omaha’s Riot in Story and Picture)

In many “race riots,” vigilantes broke accused black men out of jail and tortured and lynched them, with law enforcement either unable or unwilling to protect the accused. Citizens, or recently “deputized” civilians, has taken law into their own hands. This blurring delineation between government and civil “police forces” created a lack of accountability, fueling the intensity of violence and adding to the duration of the rioting. In some cases, the very militia or police brought in to suppress an outbreak, joined in to beat or kill blacks.

Lack of Accountability for White Instigators, Especially for Chicago’s Athletic Clubs

In the in-depth report by The Chicago Commission on Race Relations, the Commission concluded that the actions of Chicago’s white, Irish athletic clubs during Chicago’s Race Riot began the majority of the violence, adding to the Riot’s duration and level of violence. These clubs, sponsored by powerful city alderman, were often beyond the jurisdiction of police, who looked the other way, leading athletic club members to carry on acts of violence knowing there would be no repercussions. (Source: The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot) Even President Wilson publicly blamed whites for being the instigators of  race-related riots in both Chicago and Washington, D.C. (The Chicago Race Riot of 1919; History.com) There was, however, few indictments and even fewer convictions against white perpetrators.

Black Soldier and Militia Chi 1919

Black Soldiers Returned from WWI to Defend Property and Life in Chicago’s 1919 Riots.  Pictured a Black Soldier and National Guardsman Meet on the Streets After the Militia Was Brought in to Quell the Violence.

The “New Negro”

The “Race Riots” of 1919 drew a line in the sand. Especially in the incidents in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, blacks made a unified attempt to fight back. Black soldiers who had fought for democracy oversees now demanded democracy and equal treatment at home. Black veterans were angry that President Woodrow Wilson had talked of ensuring democracy for the world, yet failed to protect blacks at home. After having risked their lives fighting for the causes of freedom and democracy, blacks were denied basic rights such as adequate housing and equality under the law, leading them to become increasingly militant. (The Chicago Race Riot of 1919; History.com)

As many historians note, soldiers’ and black civilians’ actions to defend lives and property can be held as the beginning of the “New Negro” and the start of the Civil Rights Movement—a long and hard-sought battle for equal rights. A battle that is still being fought today.


1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back; David F. Krugler; Cambridge University Press; 2015

Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration and Black Urban Life; Davarian L. Baldwin; The University of North Caroline Press Chapel Hill; 2007

Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919; William M. Tuttle, Jr.; University of Illinois Press; 1970

Race Riots & Resistance: The Red Summer of 1919; Jan Voogd; Peter Lang Publishing; 2008

Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America; Cameron McWhirter; St. Martin’s Griffin, July 2012

The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot; By The Chicago Commission on Race Relations; The University of Chicago Press; 1922

Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900; Bedford/St. Martin’s; 2016, 1997 (reprint of earlier work)

Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packinghouse Workers 1894-1922; James R. Barrett; University of Illinois Press; 1987

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919; History.com; July 1, 2019; http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/chicago-race-riot-of-1919

U.S. Congress Passes Espionage Act; History.com; November 5, 2009; history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-congress-passes-espionage-act


Carl Sandburg and the 1919 Race Riots

Reporter image

Carl Sandburg as reporter for the Chicago Daily News in 1918-1919

Although many of us know Carl Sandburg by his poetry, “The fog come on little cat feet…”, but Sandburg also supported himself as a reporter. This former socialist, railroad vagabond, traveling salesman (he sold Stereoscopic photographs) had a unique talent for disarming people to confide their thoughts and to tell their stories. Sandburg attributed this talent to his hobo adventures, saying, “I have often thought that this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer.” (Niven; Carl Sandburg: A Biography)

Carl Sandburg was a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize—first in 1940 for his biography of Abraham Lincoln and again in 1951 for Complete Poems. Additionally, he authored children’s’ books, The Rootabaga Stories, written for his daughters when they were young.

Sandburg wrote children’s stories to first entertain his own children

Sandburg as Reporter

Although Sandburg’s reputation as a poet was flourishing and he’d won awards from Poetry magazine, poetry did not pay the bills for his growing family. Carl got a job as a reporter in the newsroom at Chicago Daily News in Chicago, working alongside famed bohemian reporter Ben Hecht, his foray into the “bohemia” of Chicago “down-and-outers” who attended open air lectures, took part in demonstrations and moved on down the rails if they chose. (The Chicago Race Riots 2013 intro by Paul Buhle). They were also “deeply sympathetic” to the growing black population in Chicago.

His most important work as a reporter was his coverage of the racial issues plaguing the city, an assignment he received prior to Chicago’s Race Riot in 1919. The articles ran three weeks before the riot and were later compiled into a separate pamphlet after the riots occurred—The Chicago Race Riots: July 1919—Sandburg’s first non-fiction publication.

Sandburg’s racial investigation article series was later published as a pamphlet and then a book

In this 15-article series, Sandburg investigated the many issues affecting those in the Black Belt—jobs, rents, unions, gambling and lynchings. He found clear racial bias, providing insight into the racial tensions underpinning everyday life for blacks and preventing free movement in jobs and housing. His articles cited hard facts, but also included poignant interviews that spoke to the frustrations and dreams of those living in Chicago’s Black Belt.


The Chicago Race Riots: July, 1919

Notebook in hand, Sandburg interviewed shopkeepers, housewives, factory workers, preachers, gamblers, pimps and others, searching to understand the racial tension in Chicago, trying to place it in a national context, as riots had broken out in other cities in United States that same “Red Summer”—including Washington, New York and Omaha. And he analyzed reports of race warfare in other cities, reviewing crime rates by blacks and researching gambling establishments.

In his article series, he reported the facts. And they weren’t pretty. Infant mortality in the Black Belt was seven times higher than in other neighborhoods close by.

Housing was severely overcrowded, taking in more than double the amount of people in poorly maintained buildings than prior to the Great Migration of 1916-1918. A housing survey deemed Chicago housing for blacks in Chicago as “reprehensible” and “a menace to health”.

Thousands had come north in the hopes of bettering their lives; yet, had little chance of getting skilled and unskilled jobs, with black women taking “the most menial and by far the most underpaid work”.

Women at a lamp factory (Chicago Magazine

His conclusion was that the “race question” was rooted in economic and educational inequity.

Equality in Labor—Others Speak Out for Rights

Sandburg suggested that work for blacks should have three important features:

  • Open doors to new occupations so skilled men won’t have to stay in the common labor pool
  • Train men and women and coach them on the job so they can keep them
  • Create a sentiment among employers that no man or woman of color will be dismissed merely because of race

Sandburg wasn’t alone. Others believed in addressing the labor issue with training and education, and a more open door policy.

At an American Federation of Labor meeting in July, an organizer told the crowd of 2000 blacks, Lithuanians, Poles, Slovaks and Italians that ”there ain’t no Negro problem any more than there’s an Irish problem or a Russian or a Polish or Jewish or any other problem. There is only the human problem, that’s all. All we demand is the open door.”

Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck & Co., was committed to education for blacks, founding over 300 schools in the rural south with plans for 700 more.

Julius Rosenwald of Sears

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called for equal rights—to a fair trial, to education, to defense against lynchings, to equal service on trains,

Joel Spingarn, a white Columbia University professor who chaired the NAACP for six years, agreed that the race issue was national in scope, and advocated for federal aid and a biracial commission to investigate racial problems on a national level.

Blacks Returning from World War I

Black veterans especially felt the sting of bigotry.

Chicago’s black veterans felt deserted by their country

Chicago’s black war veterans told Sandburg that they had made “the supreme sacrifice” and “now we want to see our country live up to the constitution and the declaration of independence.”

Upon their return, white soldiers viewed blacks as taking jobs that belonged to them. But particularly disturbing, was the treatment of black veterans in uniform. Sandburg reported on the case of Wilbur Little, who had been beaten and harassed for wearing his uniform after his return from Europe, and was eventually found dead, badly beaten and still wearing his uniform.

Spingarm stated that “every colored soldier that I have talked with in France, Germany or America has a grievance.”

The Race Riot Begins

Unfortunately, Sandburg’s warnings about the need to address the racial issues went unheeded. On Sunday, July 27th, temperatures skyrocketed to 96 degrees as tensions rose between white and black beachgoers along the Lake Michigan lakefront, with stone throwing and skirmishes throughout the day. That afternoon, a black teenager rafting with friends drowned after witnesses claimed he was stoned by a white man. A white officer refused to arrest the accused. In anger, a black man shot at white officers, who returned fire, killing the black man. The city erupted in violence as each side used the incident to spark anger and vengeance.

A black home attacked during the riots



Sandburg completed an introduction to the book after the Chicago Riots had taken place. He reported that three conditions marked the riots as different from others around the country:

  • The overcrowded Black Belt, doubling during the war from 50,000 to at least 125,000 people; yet, without any new housing, creating vast overcrowding in sub-par conditions
  • The Black Belt of Chicago having probably the strongest effective unit of political power in America. (The blacks had great voting power, driving Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson to victory for another term, which he was still serving during the Race Riots)
  • Thousands of white men and thousands of colored men stood together during the riots as members of the Stockyards labor unions, shaking hands as “brothers”.

Blacks stand in line to receive payment from stockyard jobs during the riots

Sandburg reported on the violence of the Riots, but never had the chance to get to the last part of his series: making recommendations on how to change things so the violence of the Riots never returned to Chicago.

Some of the recommendations made by others in the article series speak to a national/federal level of need.

Spingarn’s suggestion, appearing in Sandburg’s last article in the series, suggested that “the race problem is not a local, but is a national question” demanding federal attention and aid. In particular he cited the poor treatment of blacks in the South and encouraged educated whites to action. “ The intelligent white man who is not informed on the neglect and the wrong training of the negro in the south is as dangerous to future peace and law and order as the so-called bad negro.”

Blacks under police protection after homes were destroyed

“I have fought for my country two years as a major of infantry,” Spingarn was quoted, “and I wish to give it as my mature judgment that no barbarities committed by the Prussians in Belgium will compare with the brutalities and atrocities committed on negroes [sic] in the south. In effect, you may say that the Negroes who come north have issued from a system of life and industry far worse than anything ever seen under Prussianism in its worst manifestations.”

As to the labor issue, Sandburg quoted Dr. George Edwin Hayes, a black scholar with a master’s degree from Yale and a Ph.D. from Columbia. “When the colored man can come into the labor market and bargain for the sale of his services on the same terms as other workers, a great deal of what is termed today the ‘race question’ is going to be settled.”

Author’s Note

The most striking aspect of Sandburg’s reporting is that much of what Sandburg wrote or what was said by others in his series, is as true today and it was then. In the 1969 reprinting of Sandburg’s book, Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution wrote: “How much do cities, a people, a nation learn in fifty years? Not much.”

And I ask now, “How much have we learned in 100 years?” Certainly not enough.

Below is a poem by Carl Sandburg, inspired by World War I, the Race Riots of Chicago and the continued violence against blacks in the south.

Man, the Manhunter by Carl Sandburg

I saw Man, the man-hunter,

Hunting with a torch in one hand

And kerosene can in the other,

Hunting with guns, ropes, shackels.

I listened

And the high cry rang,

the high cry of Man, the man-hunter:

We’ll get you yet, you son of a bitch! *

I listened later.

The high cry rang:

Kill him! Kill him! The son of a bitch!

In the morning the sun saw

Two butts of something, a smoking rump,

And a warning in charred wood:

Well, we got him,

the son of a bitch.

* I have replaced the original notation of “sbxyzch” with son of a bitch, which is what Sandburg intended, but it could not be published at the time.




Carl Sandburg: The Chicago Riots: July, 1919; Harcourt, Brace and Howe; 1919

Penelope Niven; Carl Sandburg: A Biography: University of Illinois Press; 1993

Harry Golden; Carl Sandburg; Prairie State Books, University of Illinois Press, Reprint Edition; 1988

The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg: Introduction by Archibald MacLeish; Harcourt, Brace and Company; 1 edition (October 14, 1970)

Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Activist, Teacher, Suffragist and Journalist

Ida B. Wells was one of the most vocal and active reformers of her time. Her work included fighting for civil rights for blacks and voting rights for women. She herself founded several social organizations and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Ida 2545957

Ida B.Wells-Barnett Was a Voice for Justice

She investigated the Race Riot in East St. Louis in July of 1918, warning in a Chicago Tribune editorial that Chicago’s simmering racism might result in a similar riot. Her predictions proved true, and as the 1919 Race Riots in Chicago raged, Ida was out collecting testimony, to collect evidence that blacks were primarily defending themselves, not instigating the violence. She later reported on the violence in Elaine Arkansas, helping to free a group of black men wrongly accused of planning to kill whites.

But her greatest work was to bring light to the brutality and injustice of lynchings. Prompted by the lynching of her good friend, Tom Moss in1892, Ida began a crusade to make lynchings a national issue. She interviewed families of lynching victims and the accusers themselves. Her findings documented that the lynched men were unjustly killed without trials and sometimes without charges, often for petty crimes, perceived slights against whites, consensual sexual relationships with white women, or for simply being successful businessmen or farmers. . She published these findings in a book (The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States) and newspapers, broadcasted the facts in speeches in America and Britain, brought the findings before governors and the President and Congress, and worked to gain fair trials and freedom for black men unjustly accused and imprisoned.

Ida’s Early Years

Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862 to slave parents, Ida B. Wells was herself a slave, but was freed before she was three years old. Her father was a skilled carpenter, so easily found employment in a South devastated from the war. Her mother, Elizabeth Warrenton, was a cook who had been beaten and sold multiple times as a slave. Both were forward thinking, bright and independent. They passed the belief on to Ida that she deserved equal rights and privileges to whites.


The first page of the Emancipation Proclamation (National Archives)

Unfortunately, Ida lived in a time when many Southern whites did not share this belief and were determined to pass laws to chip away at black’s new independence and their rights to go to school, own property, vote and even hold public office. Ida was active in protesting these “Jim Crow” laws.

When her parents and a brother died of yellow fever in 1878, Ida supported her siblings by working as a schoolteacher while her Grandma Peggy cared for them during the week. At age 19, after her grandmother’s stroke, other relatives took in her siblings. She was free to follow her own path.

The Move to Memphis

Ida continued her own education, studying for the teacher’s exam for the Memphis city schools and reading the Bible, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott and  Shakespeare by fire light. Similar to her first teaching job, Ida worked as a schoolteacher during the week at a country schoolhouse outside Memphis, and returned to the city on weekends to stay with her Aunt Fannie.

On one of her weekly train travels for work, a white conductor refused to take her paid first-class ticket and asked her to move from the woman’s car she always traveled in, to instead sit in the forward car for smokers and blacks. She refused and actually bit the conductor’s hand when he grabbed her.

But three men came and forcibly moved her. Ida got off at the next stop and sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, earning her $500. However, as racism and Jim Crow laws began to openly flourish, the Tennessee Supreme Court reheard her case, reversing the decision and siding with the railroad, costing her $200.

On April 11, 1887, she wrote in her diary:

“I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people.” She prayed in her diary, “ O God, is there no redress, no peace, no justice in this land for us?…Come to my aid at this moment and reach me what to do.” (Welch)

Ida the Journalist is Born

It was in Memphis that Ida began writing for a black-owned newspaper, purchasing a one-third interest in Free Speech and Headlight, owned by Reverend Taylor Nightingale and journalist J.L. Fleming. Her articles highlighted racial inequities, and one critical of black schools and teachers cost Ida her teaching job.

While away on a promotional trip to other states to try to increase Free Speech’s black readership, a horrible incident occurred that profoundly impacted Ida’s life. Her friend, Tom Moss, was lynched. Moss and his two black partners had opened a black store called the People’s Grocery, taking black clientele from a white grocer in town. A group of white men had come to the back door of People’ Grocery and in a shootout, three white men were injured. Moss and the other black storeowners were arrested, dragged from the city jail and shot. When the black community gathered to discuss the incident, a judge ordered the sheriff and his men to shoot if blacks looked like they were causing trouble. Mobs of white shot at blacks, and stole food and destroyed Moss’ store.

Regarding her good friend Thomas Moss, Ida B. Wells wrote:

“A finer, cleaner man than he never walked the streets of Memphis. He was well liked, a favorite with everybody; yet he was murdered with no more consideration that if he had been a dog…The colored people feel that every white man in Memphis who consented in his death is as guilty as those who fired the guns which took his life.”

“…with the aid of the city and county authorities and the daily papers, that white grocer had indeed put an end to his rival Negro grocer as well as to his business.”

— Ida B. Wells, In Crusade for Justice, 1892

Ida went into action. In an article for Free Speech, she decided to hit where it would hurt the whites most—economically—urging blacks to leave Memphis and to go where they could own land, like in Oklahoma.

The Start of Ida’s Anti-Lynching Campaign

Because of her friend’s murder, Ida began a life-long quest to expose lynchings for what they were—a violent attempt to intimidate and control blacks. She investigated lynchings of black men accused of rape, interviewing the families and the accusers. Her findings concluded that the men were innocent and she implied in her article that the white women had been attracted to the black men, falling in love.

The idea that black men were having consensual relations with white women incensed white readers, driving a group of white men to destroy the paper’s office. Though Ida was out of town, she learned that a group of white men lay in wait and planned to hang her in front of the courthouse. She could not return to Memphis.

On to the Big Apple

Invited to write for the New York Age, a black newspaper run by T. Thomas Fortune, Ida’s first article, “Exiled”, detailed the black men lynched for rapes they did not commit. Extra copies were printed and distributed across the country, including 1,000 copies sold in Memphis. (Welch)

She spoke out about lynchings at Lyric Hall and at black women’s clubs on the East coast, and even to an all-white audience in Boston. She relayed facts from her research, including the finding that most of the black men lynched were accused of raping a white woman, even though the white newspapers themselves reported that the men murdered were only charged one-third of the time. Further, she concluded that some of the men were lynched for other reasons—robbery, arguing with a white man or making threats. One man merely talked back while drunk, costing him his life.

A lynching in Paris, Texas, where the accused had been burned alive before a cheering crowd, outraged two female Europeans, Isabelle May of Scotland and Catherine Impey of England. They invited Ida to speak overseas. Having gotten little action from white politicians, Ida felt that if Britain put pressure on the United States, Americans could no longer ignore the injustices happening at home.

Blacks and the White City

Columbian Exposition Unknown

The Columbian Exposition in Chicago

Upon her return from Europe, the Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago. She and Frederick Douglass were among black leaders who strongly objected to the lack of black representation in the planning of and participation in the grand event. She, Douglas and future husband Ferdinand Barnett created a pamphlet for foreign visitors explaining Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was passed out to over 20,000 visitors to the Exposition. Ida also objected to the “Colored American Day,” a day set aside by Fair organizers for blacks only, where 2,000 watermelons would be distributed. Ida boycotted attending.

Ida Moves to Chicago for Good

Ida’s new writing job was for the Chicago Conservator, the oldest black paper in Chicago. Its editor and founder? Ferdinand L. Barnett, a widower and father of two small sons, and the man she would marry in 1895. They would have four children of their own.

Ida and her children Unknown

Ida and her four children,Charles, Herman,Alfreda and Ida



The Red Record Unknown

Also in 1895, Wells published her book: A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Cause of Lynchings in the United States. She used her scrupulous records and interviews to document the atrocities.

After a second trip to England, her anti-lynching efforts began to bare fruit. British groups condemned the murders and Brits formed the London Anti-Lynching Committee. She accepted invitations to speak in California to white and black audiences, gaining support from white ministers, but still not garnering the universal support of the black community. After attending the second meeting of the National Association of Colored Women and campaigning for Republicans during the 1896 Illinois elections, Ida retired to take care of her and Ferdinand’s sons, Charles and Herman.

Back in the Limelight

Her retirement was short-lived. In 1898, a black postmaster’s house was set ablaze killing him and his infant son inside. Whites shot his family as they raced out of the burning home.

William McKinely Wiki Unknown,jpeg

President William McKinley

Money was raised to send Ida to Washington, D.C. She spoke to President William McKinley about the murder, and tried in vain to get Congress to provide money for widow and remaining children, as the man was a public employee; but when war was declared on Spain, Congress and the President moved attention to the conflict.

Ida still wanted to send a strongly worded message to Washington from the National Afro-American Council, but the Council had split—some following Brooker T Washington and his approach to job training for blacks, and others, like Ida, wanting a more radical approach, protesting Southern “Jim Crow” laws. The final letter was a much more watered-down version than what Ida had recommended.

Trouble in Illinois

Ida and Ferdinand, now with four children of their own, moved into a white neighborhood in Chicago. White neighbors raced inside and slammed their doors when the Barnetts sat on their own porch. A gang of white neighborhood boys often attacked the Barnett children, until Ida stepped in. Her words stopped the gang, but the knowledge that she had a gun in the house may have been the final deterrent—a gun she’d had since the threat in Memphis.

RaceRiot Springfield Illinois

The Riot in Springfield Illinois in 1908

In Springfield, Illinois in 1908, a race riot broke out spurred by accusations that two black men had committed crimes—one murdering a white man and one raping a white women. Black homes and businesses were burned and three black men lynched, though innocent of any crimes.

The riot raised great concern for Ida, so she formed the Negro Fellowship League, and was part of the forming of another group to protect and advance life for black people: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The Association, made up of whites and blacks, demanded civil rights be guaranteed to all people—a far cry from the urgings of Ida to demand the U.S. government condemn lynching and make it a national crime.

Another lynching in 1909, garnered the Barnett’s’ attention. A black homeless man in Cairo, Illinois named “Frog” James, was arrested and hanged after a white woman was found dead in an alley. His body was shot with 500 bullets and dragged through town. Ferdinand urged black leaders to speak to the governor to enact a law so officers of the law could be fired for allowing the murder of prisoners in their custody. No one volunteered. In the end, it was Ida who went, urged by her husband and their 13-year-old son Charles who said that if she didn’t go, who would? (Welch)

Again she went to the scene of the crimes and interviewed blacks resident and read all newspaper accounts. Her findings? The Sheriff had not protected James. The only person of color at the hearing for the sheriff, she made an impassioned speech. People were moved. The sheriff was not re-instated, and the governor denounced lynchings and moving forward, required that sheriffs call the governor’s office for troops if racially motivated mobs were forming. It was a victory for Ida and for Illinois’ blacks.

The Next Illinois Race Riot

In 1918, a race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois caused almost one million dollars in damage and cost 150 black men their lives. Again, Ida left to investigate, ignoring warnings from the train engineer who told her it was unsafe. In a guarded Red Cross truck, she accompanied black women back to their homes. Some homes had been burned to the ground; others looted, with pianos, furniture and bedding destroyed. But perhaps the most disturbing finding was that soldiers had stood by and watched as blacks were attacked.

East St. Louis Newspaper hqdefault

Upon her return to Chicago, and with the support of the Bethel A.M.E. Church, Ida and a group of church members went to the governor to report on the behavior of the soldiers. The governor wanted testimony; but, thousands of blacks had already fled East St. Louis, and the remaining were too fearful of retribution or of causing new tensions. In the end, all Ida was able to do was raise money for the defense of a black dentist, sentenced to life in prison for leading a group of black to get guns for their own defense. Bundy was eventually set free.

Tensions in Chicago

Now, racial violence was rising in her own city. Throughout white neighborhoods in Chicago, the homes of black residents were being bombed, as were the homes of realtors who had negotiated the sales. In all 25 homes were bombed, including a home just down Grand Boulevard from where the Barnetts lived.

In a letter published in the Chicago Tribune, Ida warned that Chicago was headed toward a race riot of its own unless city officials did something to quell the simmering racial tensions. Unfortunately, her warning went unheeded.

Editor Letter Ida B Wells with Date PM

The Chicago Race Riots of 1919

On Sunday July 27th, some young black men ventured into “white waters” on a raft in Lake Michigan and were stoned, causing one of the young men to drown. After a scuffle on the beach, the police arrived, but refused to arrest, the white man accused of throwing the stone. A shot was fired by a black man at police, who fired back. The riot had begun.


Gangs of young white “hoodlums” attacked blacks in the streets, on streetcars and on their way home from work. Whites drove in cars, shooting into groups of blacks. Blacks attacked white storekeepers in black neighborhoods.

Some blacks defended their streets and homes. The 8th regiment came together to deter whites, taking position and sharpshooting at whites, and also shooting police as many officers had not come to their defense or had even participated in the mayhem. Many blacks stayed behind locked doors in their homes. Yet Ida walked the streets gathering facts. She was troubled that the blacks were being accused and arrested in disproportionate numbers to whites, and wanted to avoid the same inequitable outcome of the East St. Louis riots where fifteen black men had been sentenced to long prison sentences simply for defending themselves.


The rampages went on for days, and despite pleas by Ida and other black leaders, Mayor Bill Thompson refused to send in the National Guard and the governor would not intercede. After four days of violence and the burning of homes, the Mayor finally relented, and the National Guard restored order. The ending result was the deaths of 23 blacks and 15 whites, and the injury of 342 blacks, 178 whites and 17 of undetermined race.

Dallas businessman and NAACP member Charles R. Graggs compared the northern cities to Brutus, who betrayed Julius Caesar. “Thou, too, North, an enemy of the Negro,” he lamented. (McWhirter)

The Slayings in Elaine Arkansas

The violence in Elaine was deep—about 200 hundred blacks and forty whites were killed. (Though more recent estimates put the blacks killed at over 400.) The trouble started when a group of blacks met to discuss their overdue cotton payments. Whites accused the black of plotting to murder whites and the town’s sheriff went to the church, defended by men on guard. Accounts vary as to who shot first, but a white man was killed, spurring a murderous rampage by the whites. Of the blacks arrested, twelve were sentenced to die by electric chair.

Ida interceded by leading a committee to write letters of protest to the president and to the governor of Arkansas. Letters to the governor said there’d be a movement by blacks to leave Arkansas if the men were put to death. Fearful of losing valuable labor, the governor called a group of whites and blacks together to discuss the matter, with the group concluding the men had not received a fair trial. The governor ordered a new trial.

A letter by Ida in the Chicago Defender asked for help with the men’s defense fees. Money came in from all over the country. In January 1922, Ida went to Little Rock, Arkansas, and visited the jail where the men were held by hiding in a group of wives and mothers of the accused.

The men were grateful and surprised to see her. It was still dangerous for her to be in the south after her life had been threatened if she returned to Memphis. The men told her they’d been beaten and given electric shocks to get them to admit to plotting to kill whites and take their property, though they had never made such plans. Further, a mob had tried to break into the jail to lynch them. The men sang to Ida about dying and forgiving their enemies; but Ida told them to pray to live and believe that God would set them free.

She returned to Chicago and wrote a pamphlet about the Arkansas riot. A year later, the men were freed.

The Suffrage Movement

As long as she had lived in Illinois, Ida had been a member of the Women’s Suffrage Association of Illinois. But she was the only black woman member, so she urged others to join the fight to help their race with their votes. Many husbands preferred their wives stay home, so Ida suggested that they tell their husbands they wanted to help elect a black man to the city council.1918 Low Res Nat Women's Party Demonstation Wh House c Everett Hist shutterstock_242816689

In 1913, white and black women were allowed to vote in city elections. Together, white and black women marched to protest for their right to vote in national elections. And when the National Women’s Suffrage Association planned its march on Washington, D.C. on March 3, Ida marched with the thousands of white women from Illinois, despite association leaders fearing her presence would anger the southern white women.

Susan B Anthony 1880 c Evereatt Historical shutterstock_239402281

Ida was friends with Susan B. Anthony, staying at her home on at least two occasions. Although they agreed on the Suffrage Movement, they disagreed on how to gain votes for black women. Anthony felt that the white female vote should come first, and votes for women would follow. Ida believed in attacking the issue simultaneously.


Ida Was Not Without Her Detractors

Some in the black community felt Ida was too radical and outspoken. Some blacks felt she had deserted the cause by marrying and having children. Others felt that protests were ineffective. She had gained a reputation as a “hothead” from the National Afro-American Council. And some were jealous, like the president of the National Association of Colored Women in Chicago, who one year refused to invite Ida to the meeting for fear Ida would steal the show and the association’s presidency.

Her ardent advocate, Frederick Douglas had died the year she’d married, and even her long-time friend and supporter, Susan B. Anthony, chided her for getting married and taking her focus from protests on blacks’ mistreatment.

Yet Ida had never given up her causes. She was passionate and vocal in her beliefs.

A Lifetime of Advocacy and Achievement

Ida B. Wells-Barnett can be credited with bringing national and international attention to the issue of lynching and in bringing about the change that helped stop these murders. She advocated for the rights of blacks and of women, helping to gain the right to vote for all American women and continuing to cite cases of injustice and discrimination in her journalism.


Ida B. Wells-Barnett died on March 25, 1931 at the age of 69.




Welch, Catherine A.; Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Powerhouse with a Pen; Carolrhodabooks; copyright 2000 by Catherine A. Welch



About.com; Ida B. Wells: Crusading Journalist Campaigned Against Lynching in America; http://hisotry1800s.about.com/od/10th-Century-Journalism/fl/Ida-B-Wells.htm

About.com-Womens history; Ida B. Wells Facts; http://womenshistory.about/com/od/wellsbarnett/a/ida_b_wells.htm

Heinemann, Sue; The New York Public Library: Amazing Women in American History; John Wiley & Sons/A Stonesong Press Book

Krist, Gary; City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago; Crown, 2012

Lewsi, Femi; Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Anti-Lynching Advocate; updated November 2, 2015

McWhirter, Cameron; Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America; St. Martin’s Griffin; copyright 2011 Cameron WhcWhirter

Wells, Ida B.; The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States; 1895

Lynching Sites Project Memphis; lychingsitesmem.org






Gibson Girls – The Epitome of Femininity in the 1890s-Early 1900s

The original Gibson Girls artist was illustrator Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944). He made quite a lucrative career of drawing the “New Woman” of America, with his pen-and-ink images first appearing in magazines like Life and Collier’s Magazines. Soon the drawings were everywhere, setting the standard for beauty, fashion and manners, and earning Gibson great professional and popular success.

Women clamored to be the next Gibson girl model. Gibson’s studio would be overrun with would-be models hoping for their big chance.

Irene Langhorn Gibson – His Wife

Although the Gibson Girls seemed to fit Charles Dana Gibson’s view of a kinder, gentler New Woman, Gibson’s own wife Irene Langhorn Gibson was anything but demure. Irene, who may have been the first Gibson Girls model, was a known suffragette, the chair of the Eastern Women’s Bureau of the Democratic National Committee (in support of Woodrow Wilson’s reelection in 1916) and a champion of philanthropic causes, such as co-founding Big Sisters, helping troubled girls. A feat she could accomplish with her Virginia fortune and can-do attitude.

Models Evelyn Nesbit and Camille Clifford

 Gibson’s first and favorite model was Evelyn Nesbit. While sources vary on whether she actually ever sat for Gibson, he could easily have found images of Nesbit in the press. She was involved in a love triangle, where her current husband murdered a former lover.

The most famous of his Nesbit drawings was one where Nesbit’s hair formed a question mark. Gibson entitled that image “The Eternal Question”.  It remains one of his most copied and famous illustrations.


Camille Clifford won a contest Gibson ran to find the ideal real-life woman for his stylized sketches. Clifford, with a ridiculously tiny waist, fit the ideal of a woman’s figure with an hourglass figure.

Camille Clifford

Women as Voters
Gibson’s Girls independence and confidence only went so far. You never saw a Gibson Girl advocating for the right to vote or being involved in social movements. It appears Gibson Girls kept their place.

The Gibson Girls were popular in the 1890s through the early 1900s, ending about the time of World War I as a more independent and socially free icon emerged. The flapper.

Library of Congress Exhibitions: The Gibson Girl’s America.


They Wore What?; The Weird History of Fashion and Beauty; Richard Platt; Oxford University Press, 2007.

Why’d The Wear That?; Fashion as the Mirror of History: Sarah Albee; National Geographic

Glamour Daze The Real Gibson Girls

The Gibson Girl Eyewitness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2001)

Komal Charania’s video, called Creativity and American Culture: Gibson Girls.

Why Isn’t the Book Called The Woman on the Train? Are We Demeaning Our Female Protagonists?

In past “Girl” best sellers, the protagonists actually were girls. Griet in Chevalier’s Girl with the Pearl Earring is a 16-year-old servant who ground paint and later posed for her master, Johannes Vermeer. In House Girl, the slave Josephine is just 17 when she plans her escape from the tobacco farm. Lisbeth Salender, the brilliant, edgy protagonist in Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, is 24 years old, but is under guardianship, so she and her funds are under the control of Nils Bjurman, who viscously takes advantage of her. (Don’t worry, she gets him back big-time!)

Yet, more recent best sellers use the word “girl” when actually describing grown women. Think Gone Girl And Girl on the Train.

The twisted and downright wicked Amy Dunne in Gone Girl was followed by Girl on the Train’s protagonist Rachel Watson, a drunk and lonely woman. Both women are unreliable narrators because they are, well, crazy, and not exactly women to be admired.

The Girl on the Train title played off the success of Gone Girl. I’m in marketing, so I get it. You take a successful title and push a book with a similar title, even positioning, “If you liked Gone Girl, you’ll like Girl on the Train”. Editors, and publishers, who by the way title the books, not the authors, seem to still be riding the “Girl” train. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Now Women are “Girls”

A recent trip to Barnes & Noble showed several on the “Best Seller” shelves: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly and All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda. New just this week is The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a suspense thriller/romance about a female tabloid reporter—a grown woman—investigating the murder of a starlet, who I assume is “the girl”. Only one best seller had “woman” in the title: The Woman in Cabin 10, a mystery whose female lead witnesses a murder, but is not believed because she is obviously bereaved from her recent break-up and paranoid from her apartment’s break-in.

A perusal of the bookstore shelves produced a host of “Girl” titles:

 — Cemetery Girl – David Bell

 — The Fireproof Girl – Loretta Lost

 — The Forgotten Girl – David Bell

 — The Good Girl – Mary Kubica

 — The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane – Lisa See

 — The Silent Girls -Eric Rickstad

 — The Girl on the Cliff – Lucinda Riley

 — Vinegar Girl – Anne Tyler

 — White Collar Girl – Renée Rosen

So, what’s up with all the “Girl” titles? Do they simply sound better to the ear? Gone Woman certainly doesn’t have the alliteration of Gone Girl, and The Woman Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.

Or is something more sinister at play here?

Mayim Bialik Encourages Us Not to Use the Word “Girl” to Describe “Women”

In a recent Facebook post called “‘Girl’ vs. ‘Woman’: Why Language Matters”, Mayim Bialik, of The Big Bang Theory and Blossom fame, implores women not to use the word “girl” to describe a grown woman due to the practice’s social implications:

[W]hen you use words to describe adult women that are typically used to describe children, it changes the way we view women – even unconsciously – so that we don’t equate them with adult men. In fact, it implies they’re inferior to men. Even if that’s not what most people intend, words have impact on our unconscious. Case in point: You would never say to someone: “Go ask that boy behind the bank counter if the notary is here today”.

Bialik references two scientists named Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Their hypothesis states, “the structure of a language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought and behavior characteristic of the culture in which it is spoken”. (Source: Dictionary.com.) So in other words, if language is biased, it’s likely your decisions and actions will be, too.

I asked if “girl” versus “women” in literature titles bothered my neighborhood ladies’ book club members. One brushed it off at first. Others gave it some consideration:

  •  When the book titles read Woman on the Train and The Woman with the Dragon Tattoo, then we will know that WOMEN have arrived in literature.
  • Perhaps it says something about the story, or does the word “girl” trigger a different emotional response than the word “woman” and therefore attract more attention? Hmmmmm….
  • I think you are right. The title Girl on a Train elicits tension, fear and danger because a girl is thought to be young and defenseless. When there is a Woman on a Train, you know that she is smart, fearless, a problem solver, and in command of a frightening situation.

We were all discouraged until that first club member, the one who’d given it much weight, made an interesting discovery. Although adult book titles may use the word “girl” in a slightly demeaning way, books for actual girls—picture books to young adult—have much more empowering characters, themes and titles.

The Children’s Section Showed More “Girl Power”

In a review of Sunday’s New York Times Best Seller lists over the past several weeks, we found this. Children’s Middle Grade included the title Women in Science, and new this week, a book called Wolf Hollow about “a small-town girl [who] is compelled to act when a new student starts to bully a veteran”.  Even more encouraging, the Times’ Children’s Picture Books list contained such STEM-focused titles as Rosie Revere, Engineer and Ada Twist, Scientist, by Andrea Beaty—on the Times Best Seller list for 99 weeks and 34 weeks, respectively.

Princess is Still In

A swing through the children’s section of my local B&N did have its obligatory share of Disney princess books, but I also uncovered such books as The Big Book of Girl Power, with Wonder Woman on the cover; Ladies of Liberty by Cokie Roberts; and an “American Girl” history book called The Story of America.

Further, let’s not forgot our teen/young adult heroines. Katniss Everdeen kicks ass in the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, and Veronica Roth’s equally successful dystopian Divergent series features Beatrice Prior/Tris, who, as reviewed on shmoop.com, “learns how to fire a gun and beat people up”. These “girls” act like women; or perhaps, even like men.

Our Teens May Have Better Role Models Than Adults

So what are we to make of this disparity? Are we creating greater fictional role models for our daughters than we are for ourselves?

Perhaps our adult fiction needs to take its cue from the authors for children’s, middle and young adult books. To create more female characters—protagonists who are strong, smart and independent. Woman who overcome adversity. Women who control their own destiny. Women who are not called girls.


Chicago Race Riot Day 3: Tuesday, July 29, 1919

On the third day of the Chicago’s Race Riots, another level of chaos was added to the fighting. The streetcar workers went on strike. Starting at 4 a.m., surface and elevated trains stopped running. This left no transportation for workers attempting to commute into the Loop or to the Packing Houses. The shutdown meant the nation’s main stockyards were closed. Mail was delayed. Financial markets dropped.


Many Black Workers Stayed Home

The city ordered 1200 black municipal employees not to report to work. Most black Packing House workers elected to stay at home. Only 19 of Armour Packing Company’s 1500 black employees showed up for work; only 23 of 2,5000 at Swift; with Morris, Wilson and other packers reporting low turn-out as well. (Source: Tuttle) In order to get to their jobs, blacks had to cross the Back of the Yards—the primarily Irish neighborhoods “policed” by the athletic clubs. This was enemy territory. Most decided not to chance it.

Back of the Yards Neighborhood

Back of the Yards Neighborhood

Staying home was a wise choice. A July city ordinance outlawed concealed weapons, so blacks faced a choice: don’t carry a weapon and risk being unarmed if attacked, or carry one and risk arrest. (Source: McWhirter) Some black workers who tried to report to work were killed. Edward W. Jackson was beaten to death by five white men on his way to work at a South Side factory. White workers were also killed. A Polish railroad worker was shot and a Jewish shop owner stabbed to death. (Source: McWhirter)

Blacks who traveled to work in the Loop were primarily service workers: waiters, kitchen help, shoeshiners, porters at hotels and Pullman Porters. 

The Loop was in Chaos

Nearly the entire Chicago police force had been pulled to the South Side, surrounding the Black Belt to discourage white gangs from entering, and to break up ongoing fights between blacks and whites. This left the entire Loop virtually unprotected. One estimate put the total number of police in the Loop at four—three officers and one sergeant. (Source: Krist) None of the city’s 175 traffic cops or 75 mounted police were on duty. One hundred unpaid civilian directed traffic in the city’s center, only half of the volunteers the city had asked to step forward. (Source: McWhirter)

Marshall Fields During Calmer Times in 1919 (Tumbler)

Marshall Fields During Calmer Times in 1919 (Tumbler)

With no public transit, Chicago residents garnered any transportation means possible. Workers walked. Men hung on vegetable trucks and hitched rides on milk trucks, delivery trucks and furniture drays. Drivers turned their flatbed trucks into jitneys by lining the beds with kitchen chairs, sometimes charging exorbitant prices. Workers rode bicycles. Old carriages and surries were dredged out of storage and horses put again into service. (Source: Krist) Automobiles, trucks, carts, bicycles and wagons clogged the streets—all driving toward the city’s center.

The sights and sounds had to be almost comical. Engines rattling, hoofs clapping, bicycle bells ringing. One young boy reportedly pointed to the stream of assorted transportation modes, delighted by the “circus parade.”

Brutal violence Broke Out in the Loop

Blacks workers in the Loop were targets. With virtually no police presence, white gangs went on a rampage. They pulled black service industry workers out of restaurants and hotels, and workers out of factories, and beat them on the streets. A white mob chased a black man into a lunchroom as he fought them off by hurling cups and plates. The mob eventually captured him, beating him and trying to drown him in a sink. The man was saved by a police officer. White mobs also attacked Pullman Porters at the train stations and black barbers at all-night barbershops. (Source: McWhirter)

Whites Attacked Black Workers Throughout the City: the Black Belt, Back of the Yards, West and North Sides and Even in the Loop

Whites Attacked Black Workers Throughout the City: the Black Belt, Back of the Yards, West and North Sides and Even in the Loop

Police on the Scene After the Murder (Jun Fujita)

Police on the Scene After the Murder (Jun Fujita)

To quell the rioting, police set up roadblocks to deter more blacks from entering. By noon, the Loop’s black workers had disappeared. Restaurant owners waited their own tables or closed. Even the dining room of the Palmer House shut down. (Source: McWhirter) A group of 500 had stormed the Palmer House to attack its kitchen employees, shooting one black and stabbing another, as the terrified workers raced to escape their attackers and other roving mobs. Hundreds of onlookers watched in shock. (Source: Krist)

Violence Spread North and West

On the North Side, “nearly 5,000 whites hunted down black people in the streets.” (Source: Tuttle) An apartment building where 100 black men, women and children lived was inundated by a mob of Sicilians. In the Gold Coast, white crowds took “potshots” at pedestrians and threatened violence against the black household help of rich whites.

White mobs attacked and killed blacks returning from work. A black cyclist on the Italian West Side was knocked from his bike, chased and dragged into the street where the mob “riddled his body with bullets, stabbed him and beat him.” (Source: Krist)

Police Remove the Body of a Black Man

Police Remove the Body of a Black Man

Fighting Continued on the South Side

Though the police presence in the Black Belt thwarted big groups of rioters, smaller skirmishes continued. Gangs of both whites and blacks fought using bricks, knives and clubs. Cars of whites infiltrated the black neighborhoods, shooting indiscriminately. Black snipers took posts on rooftops and balconies. Any white in the Black Belt was a target—even police officers.

One report cited a group of 12 armed black soldiers patrolling the South Side and shooting at whites. The men were reportedly former members of the old 8th Division. (Source: Krist)

The Cook County Coroner had jury members, under oath to do their duty, visit riot scenes to view the corpses. (Source: McWhirter)

Whites Burned and Damaged Black Homes, Stealing or Throwing Valuable onto the Street

Whites Burned and Damaged Black Homes, Stealing or Throwing Valuable onto the Street

A black worker walked 5 ½ miles toward home only to be knocked down at 22nd and Halsted streets, his face stomped. A Jewish peddler took the victim to the Black Belt in his cart, but the man was refused treatment as he had no money.

By night, the Black Belt erupted anew. Nonfatal shootings increased, especially shootings of police. A shootout at Provident Hospital left three officers wounded. Blacks shot at whites from their darkened homes. And now a new horror faced residents mostly of the Black Belt—entire multi-unit homes were set ablaze. Attempts by police and firefighters to respond were met with bullets, bricks and stones. (Source: Krist)

Rumors Ran Rampant

Police surrounded city hall with 60 armed detectives to protect it and the Mayor against a rumored mob assault. False rumors that blacks planned to systematically burn down white homes on the South Side caused alarm, driving the Fire Marshall to hold all city firemen in reserve. (Source: McWhirter) Rumors swirled that blacks had stores of weapons and ammunition, and that they were breaking into armories, preparing to invade.

The Infamous Bubbly Creek - a Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River Where So Much Organic Waste Flowed from the Meat Packing "Disassembly" Factories and Industrial Plants, the Creek Literally Bubbled (Steven Casey)

The Infamous Bubbly Creek – a Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River Where So Much Organic Waste Flowed from the Meat Packing “Disassembly” Factories and Industrial Plants, the Creek Literally Bubbled (Steven Casey)

Other rumors were perpetrated by both the white and black press. A black man was hanged from a building on Madison Street. Blacks were killed and thrown into the Chicago River and “Bubbly Creek” in numbers ranging from 4-100. Black men were attacking white women, especially in the stockyards district. A white child was snatched and dismembered by blacks. The Defender claimed a white mob killed a black woman attempting to board a car, cutting off her breasts and displaying them on a pole, and beating “the baby’s brains out against a telephone pole.” The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that the body of a slain black cyclist was saturated with gasoline and set on fire, calling it “the most atrocious lynching of the whole series of murders.” (Sources: Tuttle, McWhirter, Krist, Chicago Tribune archives)

All were untrue. No women or children died, and only ten women were hurt during the rioting. And although the black cyclist had indeed been stabbed and then shot 16 times due to rumors in the Italian neighborhood that a black man had murdered a neighbor girl, the victim’s body was not set on fire. (Source: Tuttle)

The newspaper stories incited more violence, and the constant daily injury and death tallies, which were sometimes incorrect, inspired a feeling that the sides needed to “even the score.” (Source: Krist)

That evening, rumors that Provident Hospital, a mainly black hospital, was treating two white patients, caused angry blacks to engage in a shootout on the street with police. (Source: Krist)

Black Leaders Meet.  Some Ask for Calm.

Wells-Barnett met with representatives from every black congregation in the city, each reporting on the violence in its neighborhood, with all in attendance trying to decide what to do. Carl Sandburg reported on this meeting and an interview with Dr. George C. Hall of the National Urban League, in his articles for the Daily News. (Source: Krist)

Handbills, created by Chicago Defender publisher and two other black businessmen, asked blacks to stay inside and obey police. “This is no time to solve the Race Question.” (Source: McWhirter)

Blacks in the Streets (Chicago History Museum)

Blacks in the Streets (Chicago History Museum)

Racial Discrimination Caused Black Outrage

Blacks were killed, hurt and arrested in disproportionate numbers to whites. Roughly twice as many blacks as whites were being arrested, while double the amount of blacks were being killed and injured on the streets. In one instance, a group of 12 blacks and whites was arrested for carrying concealed weapons; yet, the whites were set free and given back their ammunition and told, “You’ll probably need this before the night is over.” (Source: Krist)

In an article on the front page of Tuesday’s Daily Journal Ida B. Wells-Barnett, chided the city and called for the formation of a biracial committee to immediately address the violence. (Source: Krist)

“Free Chicago stands today humble before the world. Lawless mobs roam our streets. They kill inoffensive citizens and no notice it taken. They are Negroes—they are only Negroes—and it doesn’t matter. …[Chicago] is weak and helpless before the mob. Notwithstanding our boasted democracy, lynch law is king.”

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

A black weekly, the Broad Ax, blamed the current violence on Mayor Thompson’s inaction in addressing past bombings of black homes and his refusal to meet with Wells-Barnett and her committee that June. Thompson’s enemy, Victor Lawson, took the opportunity in his paper, the Daily News, to accuse Thompson of catering to the blacks for votes, but only being “able to harvest a crop of race riots.” (Source: Krist)

Dysfunctional Government Delayed the Release of the National Guard

Waiting behind the scenes were thousands of National Guard. Four regiments of the militia stood ready at armories across the city. All Tuesday, the militia waited while the killing continued outside.

So why wasn’t the National Guard allowed to act?

Sadly, the reason was political. The Mayor and the Governor were at a standoff. Both sought the Republican presidential nomination for 1920, so neither politician wanted to be the one to call in the militia.

Mayor Big Bill Thompson was Flamboyant And Colorful. His Refusal to Call in the National Guard During the Outbreak of the Riot Led to More Deaths and Injuries (Chicago Tribune)

Mayor Big Bill Thompson was Flamboyant And Colorful. His Refusal to Call in the National Guard During the Outbreak of the Riot Led to More Deaths and Injuries (Chicago Tribune)

Mayor Big Bill Thompson didn’t want to appear weak and ask for the help from Governor Frank Lowden, his political enemy. Besides, Thompson’s advisors reported that things were under control. The head of the militia, General Frank S. Dickson, and Charles Fitzmorris, Thompson’s private secretary, had together toured the riot districts that morning and did not sound alarm. (Source: Krist)

Governor Frank O. Lowden Also Refused to Send in the Militia, Though He had the Power to Do So

Governor Frank O. Lowden Also Refused to Send in the Militia, Though He had the Power to Do So

Governor Lowden was also hesitant to act. He enjoyed seeing his enemy suffer. Plus, Lowden knew that Thompson would head the delegation at the upcoming Republican National Convention so didn’t want to cause tension by overriding Thompson’s authority. (Source: Krist)

Both men feared that bringing in the National Guard could repeat the chaos and atrocities of the East St. Louis, Illinois riot, where, two years earlier, the National Guard and local police had added to the mayhem by participating in attacks and murders—shooting, burning, and hanging blacks. The death toll had reached 40, leaving hundreds wounded. It had taken three days for a battalion of troops to arrive from Springfield. (Source: Tuttle)

A Mob Stopped a Street Car During the Bloody East St. Louis, Illinois Riots of February 1917

A Mob Stopped a Street Car During the Bloody East St. Louis, Illinois Riots of February 1917

In addition, neither leader wanted to ask the Chicago commander of military installations in the Midwest, Major General Leonard Wood, for help. Wood, a contender himself for the presidency in 1920, would then be the hero if the troops were successful in reigning in the violence. General Wood chose not to involve himself in suppressing the riot, although he had his own authority to do so; and Mayor Thompson did not act on his power to ask for Wood’s assistance. (Source: McWhirter)

President Woodrow Wilson (Harris Ewing WIKI)

President Woodrow Wilson (Harris Ewing WIKI)

Thompson and Lowden also had the option to ask for help from the president; but, neither Republican wanted request Federal help from the Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson.So both waited it out—Mayor Thompson, in City Hall, and Governor Lowden, in the Blackstone Hotel.

Lowden released a statement saying he would gladly send in the militia if martial law was formally requested; and, Thompson, in turn, said that Lowden could send in troops on his own authority. Meanwhile, the troops sat idle.


Midday-Midnight: Still No Troops

The two politicians met briefly midday at the Blackstone and reported at a news conference that the worst of the rioting was over and that they were “cooperating heartily.” Chicago Police Chief Garrity said, “Things are quieting down steadily. The police have [the situation] as well in hand as it could possibly be.” (Source: Krist)

The Blackstone Hotel was Governor Lowden's temporary Headquarters During the 1919 Riots

The Blackstone Hotel was Governor Lowden’s temporary Headquarters During the 1919 Riots

“We found the situation much improved. The commanding officers reported a great change in feeling since last night and an improved out look and disposition on the part of the people generally. All the commanding officers we talked with felt they had the situation well in hand, and did not anticipate any recurrence of the deplorable events of last night.”

General Frank S. Dickson, head of the militia at Tuesday’s news conference (Krist)

This was blatantly untrue. The morning had been bloody. Hundreds of black arrestees rioted at the city jail just as the news conference reported all was well.

Man with Machine Gun at the City Jail Where Black Prisoners Had Rioted

Man with Machine Gun at the City Jail Where Black Prisoners Had Rioted

Stopping briefly in the hottest part of the day, the violence rose up again. Chicagoans on both sides were still being shot, stabbed and beaten over dozens of square miles of the city. Meanwhile, combat-ready troops sat nearby, waiting for orders. (Source: McWhirter)

At midnight, Mayor Thompson decided to go home without sending in troops, saying he would “not ask for the state troops before morning. I will await developments.” (Source: Krist)

By Tuesday’s end, 11 more blacks and whites were dead and 139 severely injured. (Source: McWhirter)

Hoodlums, by Carl Sandburg

Reporter and poet Carl Sandburg was so distraught by the violence, he penned his famous poem “Hoodlums” that night, written from the point of view of a rioter:


I AM a hoodlum, you are a hoodlum, we and all of us are a world of hoodlums—maybe so.

I hate and kill better men than I am, so do you, so do all of us—maybe—maybe so.

In the ends of my fingers the itch for another man’s neck, I want to see him hanging, one of dusk’s cartoons against the sunset.

This is the hate my father gave me, this was in my mother’s milk, this is you and me and all of us in a world of hoodlums—maybe so.

Let us go on, brother hoodlums, let us kill and kill, it has always been so, it will always be so, there is nothing more to it.

Let us go, sister hoodlums, kill, kill and kill, the torsos of the world’s mothers are tireless and the loins of the world’s fathers are strong—so go on—kill, kill, kill.



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/Urbana and Chicago; 1996

“One Death in 14 Hours Puts Total at 26”; The Chicago Daily Tribune; Wednesday, July 30, 1919; archives.chicagotribune.com

“Then & Now: Bubbly Creek – Chicago”, The Herald News; Published Sunday, Dec 20, 2015

“Hoodlums”; Carl Sandburg; written Chicago, July 29, 1919; Smoke and Steel, 1922