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)

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


Chicago’s Race Riot of 1919: The Beginning


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

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

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.

Chicago White Diversy Beach

Chicago’s “White” Diversy Beach

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.

Young White Men Running to Beating of a Black Man

Young White Men Running to Beating of a Black Man (Chicago History Museum)

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.

White Men with Bricks on the Chase

White Men with Bricks on the Chase

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.

Sunday’s Tally

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

The Roots of a Riot: Chicago 1919


Black Home After a Bombing

During the summer of 1919, Chicago experienced one of the worst Race Riots in the nation’s history. At the end of the eight-day conflict, 15 whites and 23 blacks were dead and at least 537 seriously wounded.

Although the length and brutality of the riots were unanticipated, the seeds of the riot had been planted in the years and months leading up to that day in July of 1919. Many factors combined to unleash hatred and violence against Chicago’s blacks. And a new-found rage against inequality drove the blacks to fight back.

Crowded Housing in Deplorable Conditions

The Great Migration saw the numbers of blacks rise. Between 1910-1920, Chicago’s black population soared from 44,103 to 109,458—an increase of 148.2 percent, the largest increase rate of any ethnic group in the city. From 1917 to 1919 alone, an estimated 50,000 black migrated to Chicago. (Source: Red Summer) And these new black immigrants were crammed into a small stretch of land called The Black Belt, crowded into dilapidated housing for high rents and without adequate services. The slum conditions were further stretched with more than double the population than before the war.

Tension in the Workplace

Business owners in the meatpacking, corn refining and steel industries used black workers to break strikes, undercut wages and further tensions between the ethnic groups. Southern rural blacks were recruited through ads, some saving to buy their own train fare, and others brought up free on special “company” trains.


Front Entrance to the Stockyards in Chicago

Most black workers were not unionized, which led to tensions with other ethnic groups who did support unionization as a way to increase wages and better working conditions. Blacks were understandably wary, as the factory owners held the power over their jobs and often supported community groups and activities in black neighborhoods.

The end of World War I saw increased competition for jobs combined with a declining demand for goods, and, therefore, jobs. White servicemen looked to return to the workforce, while blacks and other immigrant groups struggled to hold on to the jobs they had gained.

Black Veterans Demand Equal Treatment at Home


The 370th Infantry Regiment of Chicago

Returning black soldiers felt that their service to protect freedom and democracy abroad should also extend the basic rights of adequate housing and equality in their own country. When these rights were denied, many grew angry. (Pictured above are soldiers of the 370th–one of the few black regiments that was allowed to fight in World War I.)

“The return of the Negro soldier to civil life is one of the most delicate and difficult questions confronting the Nation, north and south.”

— George Haynes, Fisk University professor and director of Negro Economics for the U.S. Department of Labor.

House Bombings

A precursor to the physical bodily violence was a rash of house bombings. In a little over a year, 25 homes belonging to blacks or to realtors who sold to black were bombed. One of the bombings resulted in the death of a black girl.

Between February 5 and June 13 of 1919, eight bombs or dynamite containers exploded on doorsteps of buildings in the city’s south division—buildings on streets adjacent to the “Black Belt,” which was about 80 per cent black.

Athletic Clubs

Reports after the rioting lay much of the blame of violence on groups of young white men in so-called social clubs called “Athletic Clubs.” These groups of teenagers and young men, many of the roughest of whom were of Irish-American decent, played baseball and threw parties, but they also wreaked havoc by staunchly defending their territory with the “color” line at Wentworth Avenue. They terrorized blacks for years. They created problems for black packing house workers as the workers needed to cross the Irish “Back of the Yards” neighborhood in order to get to work, making blacks subject to assault and intimidation.

Chicago claimed a number of these “athletic clubs”. Perhaps, the most notorious of these was the Morgan Athletic Club in the Stockyards neighborhood, known by its honorary title of “Ragen’s Colts” after its founder and benefactor, politician Frank M. Ragen. One source cites a membership of nearly 3,000, with a vigilante slogan of, “Hit me, and you hit 3,000.”  While Ragen’s Colts controlled a large neighborhood in the Irish section of the South Side near the stockyards, other groups held additional sections of the South Side. These gangs included Our Flag Club, the Sparkler’s Club, the White Club, and the Hamburgers. (Source: McWhirter)


Ragen’s Colts Sports Team

When the rioting began, the athletic clubs unleashed their full fervor against black residents and workers. They had been waiting for a race riot and fully exploited the opportunity.

The future mayor, Richard J. Daley, was a 17-year-old member of the Hamburg Athletic Club in 1919, an Irish-American organization later identified as one of the clubs responsible for instigating the riots. It was never concluded that Daley himself participated in the violence.


The Chicago police force was predominantly white, and further, predominantly Irish. There were only about 300 black officers in the entire city. Many white officers had a reputation for being less than fair to blacks. Walter White of the NAACP, in his 4-week investigation of the riot, cited  “police inefficiency”  and “unpunished crimes against negroes” as two of the “eight reasons” for the violence. (White)

Fight for Political Power

The black voting block in Chicago was a force. Mayor Big Jim Thompson had actively sought the black vote during his campaigns, contributing heavily to his wins. Many whites resented this voting power held by blacks, and athletic clubs were known to disrupt black polling places on election day.

A Summer of Race Riots

Prior to Chicago, the nation had seen an outbreak of racial violence. In the summer of 1919, race riots broke out across the country: Washington, D.C.; Knoxville, Tennessee; Longview, Texas; Phillips County, Arkansas. and Omaha, Nebraska. In fact, the months from April – November 1919 were so tumultuous and bloody, it was called “Red Summer”. Riots and lynchings claimed hundreds of lives.  The white supremacist Ku Klux Klan organization revived its violent activities in the South, including 64 lynchings in 1918 and 83 in 1919. (History.com)

Two of Chicago’s Most Famous Predicted the Riot

A well-known prophet of the riot’s outbreak was Carl Sandburg. Although many know of him through his poems, (my favorite line being “The fog comes on little cat feet”), Carl Sandburg was a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. He covered conditions in the Black Belt prior to the riot and also reported on the riot’s aftermath.


Carl Sandburg in 1920

Sandburg went into the neighborhoods to investigate discrimination. He noted that blacks received lower wages and working positions, yet paid higher rents than whites to live in crowded and run-down buildings. He found an infant mortality rate 7 times higher than in other neighborhoods. And blacks told him of their desire to flee lynchings in the south and better their living standards, the quality of schools for their children and their ability to be involved in the democratic process of voting.

Sandburg highlighted these issues in a series of 16 articles for the paper, (which included a summary written after the riot). It appears no one paid too much attention.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was even more direct. She wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune, warning that Chicago was on the brink of riot, and would become another East St. Louis.


Ida B. Wells-Barnett Warned of a Coming Riot

Wells-Barnett knew of what she spoke. The previous summer, she had gone down to East St. Louis, Illinois, to gather facts after that city’s race riot. The two-day riots had left 150 blacks dead and almost one million dollars of property destroyed. As she accompanied black women back to their homes in a Red Cross truck, she saw the devastation. Homes looted. Pianos, furniture and bedding destroyed. Windows broken. Some homes even burned. But more alarming were reports that the soldiers had not intervened when black people were attacked. She reported her findings to Illinois’ Governor but could not get blacks to testify. Her only success was in raising money through an article in the Defender to free Dr. Bundy, a black dentist facing a life sentence for leading a group of blacks to arm and defend themselves.

Here is Wells-Barnett’s letter to the Editor. It is a fervent  plea for action, as she notes how the home bombings and other acts of violence mimicked those prior to the East St. Louis riots.

Chicago Tribune July 7 1919 Ida Letter

Barnett’s Letter to the Chicago Tribune , July 7, 1919

“Will the legal, moral, and civic forces of this town stand idly by and take not notice here of these preliminary outbreaks? Will not action be taken to prevent these law breakers until further disaster has occurred?”

–Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Unfortunately, no one heeded her warning.


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

Catherine A. Welch: Ida B. Wells-Barnett; Carolrhoda Books; 2000

Carl Sandburg; The Chicago Race Riots: July, 1919; Dover Publications; 2013 (Originally published by Harcourt, Brace and Howe in 1919)

William M. Tuttle, Jr. ;  Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919: University of Illinois Press; 1996

Walter White; “The Causes of the Chicago Race Riot”; The Crisis,  XVIII (October 1919), p. 25

“Prelude to a Riot: Irish Athletic Clubs and the Black Belt in 1919”; Americanhistoryusa.com

“The Chicago Race Riot of 1919”; History.com; 2009

“Ragen’s Colts”; Saturday, February 7, 2009; The Chicago Crime Scenes Project; chicagocrimescenes.blogspot.com

“The Race Problem in Chicago”; by Ida B. Wells-Barnett on June 30; published in the Voice of the People section, by the Chicago Tribune, July 7, 1919

Chicago’s Black Soldiers in WWI: The 8th Regiment/The 370th Infantry

Black Infantry Soliders Marching Verdun

Black Infantry Soliders Marching Verdun

When the United States finally entered the war in 1917, blacks newspapers and leaders encouraged blacks to join the war. The Crisis stated that “while this war lasts, forget about our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens.”

And young black men responded. The overwhelming feeling among the black soldiers was that if they fought for the principles of democracy overseas, that it wold translate to equality for them back home–equal rights, equal treatment and opportunities equal to whites.

The could not know how wrong they would be.

How Many Blacks Served in the Great War

Upwards of 400,000 blacks serves–a combination of volunteers, regular Army units and the National Guard. Of that number, 340,000 were drafted. But only 200,000 served in France. Many remained stationed at camps throughoutthe United Stated providing manual labor. And of those sent overseas, only 42,000 served as combat troops.


The Harlem Hellfighters – 369th Regiment

Undoubtedly, the most famous of the black fighting troops were the “Harlem Hellfighters” of New York. Yet another regiment fought just as fiercely: The 370th Infantry of Chicago.


The 8th Regiment of Illinois/The 370th Infantry

The Germans called them the “Black Devils”, especially because of the black troops’ ferocious fighting at St. Mihiel, the Argonne Forest and the Meuse. Embedded within the French troops, they earned the name “Partridges” from the French because of their proud military bearing.

The 370th Regiment

The 370th Regiment

The 8th of Illinois was the only regiment in the entire United States Army that was commanded almost wholly by black officers—from Colonel Franklin A. Denison to Lt. Colonel James H. Johnson, to three Majors and a Captain. (Torchbearers page 214).

Though the soldiers’ accomplishments were many, from the beginning they had challenges. The first blow came when Colonel Charles Young, their commander, the highest ranking black officer in the United States Regular Army and a graduate of West Point, was found not physically fit to serve and was retired from active duty, despite his fervent protests. His troops and the black newspapers were angered by this decision, feeling that Young had been unjustly denied active duty in the Great War and denied promotion to Brigadier-General (which he would have automatically received upon being called to active duty) simply because he was black.

The second blow came when the decision was reached to have black combat troops serve with the French army, as Pershing did not wish them to serve under him. Pershing even went so far as to send a letter to the commanders of the French troops warning them not to ruin the negro troops.

Black Soldiers at Rifle Training Behind the French Lines

Black Soldiers
at Rifle Training Behind the French Lines

Despite having to retrain with French equipment, including rifles, the 8th fought gallantly.

For their service, The United Stated awarded 21 of the regiments’ heroes with the Distinguished Service Cross. The French government’s honors extended even further. They awarded 68 soldiers with the Croix de Guerre.

Upon return to Chicago, the 8th Regiment received a hero’s welcome with a parade attended by thousands. But the pride and acknowledgement by the other communities in Chicago was short-lived.


By July of 1919, Chicago would see one of the most violent Race Riots in the nation’s history. But, in Chicago, as in Washington D.c., there was a difference. The blacks, including soldiers of the 8th Regiment, fought back.


The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I; Arthur E. Barbeau & Florette Henri; Da Capo Press 1996 (Originally published by Temple University Press in 1974)

Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era; Chad L. Williams; University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill; 2010

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