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. (

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”;

“The Chicago Race Riot of 1919”;; 2009

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

“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 Packinghouses: The Assembly Line Jungle

Packinghouse workers in the early 1900s endured hot, loud and dangerous conditions. Irregular working days swung wildly depending upon live animal shipments and production needs. On Mondays and Tuesdays, when cattle shipments typically arrived, sometimes working days stretched from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. or midnight. Summers were a lull period where layoffs were many. Wages were low for the unskilled and injury rates ran high—the Armour plant averaged 23 accidents per day in 1917.

It was a buyers’ market. Packinghouses opened each morning to 200 – 1,000 willing workers waiting for jobs. Foremen or yards policemen went out to the gate and choose the number of workers needed that day from the strongest in the crowd. Only about 10 men in a gang of 200 were “steady time” men, guaranteed a full 6 days of pay. Many others were hired as “casual” workers, meaning that a worker might only be asked to stay the day or only a couple of hours as needed, for as low as 15 cents an hour.

(Pictured Below: Swift Beef Department Dropping Hides and Splitting Chucks 1906: Library of Congress)


The Birth of the Assembly Line

Although Henry Ford is credited with creating the assembly line in the manufacture of his Model Ts, the hog slaughterhouses of Cincinnati were the first to utilize an assembly line process as early as the 1830s.

To help speed the time-intensive slaughtering and cutting processes, the packinghouses used extreme division of labor, where each man might perform a single cut or task. Because of the odd shapes, and differing size, weight and quality of the animals, many aspects did not lend themselves to mechanization. So instead of mechanizing the process of dismantling the animals, packinghouses mechanized how the carcasses were moved from station to station. Slaughtered animals were raised with hoists, and moved along overhead rails and along conveyors. Men no longer brought the hogs and cattle to each station—the work came to them.

The all-around butcher, who had been in use as late as the 1880s, was now replaced by a killing gang of 157 men. The jobs were divided into 78 different “trades.” Each man performed his individualized task 1,000 times a day.

The time-savings were enormous. The slaughtering and hanging process that had taken 3-4 men up to 15 minutes per animal, now could be done by one “shackler” who could hoist 70 cattle carcasses each minute by clipping the shackle around the hind foot and letting steam power raise the animals up.

“Looking down this room, one saw . . . a line of dangling hogs a hundred yards in length; and for every yard there was a man, working as if a demon were after him.” The Jungle

At the Mercy of the Foreman

Packinghouses ran on low margins. The cost of the animals (the raw materials) made up 89 cents on the dollar, leaving little room for profit. Because the work could not be mechanized, the only option was to increase output. In other words, to make the men and women work faster.

armour-hog-scraping-rail-1909In 1908, the endless chain in hog slaughtering was seen as a major breakthrough. It prevented the slowest worker from regulating the speed of the entire gang.

Now, the foremen on the killing floors controlled the speed of the conveyor line with a lever—men who were incentivized to process the highest number of animals at the lowest cost or lose their own jobs. Even small changes in speed could increase outcomes and profits. The pace of the work drew the most complaints from workers.

(Pictured: Armour Hog Scraping Rail 1909: Library of Congress)

The packinghouses worked to break unions and encourage constant competition. The companies established rivalries between houses within the firm and among foremen within the same house. Companies exchanged data on line speed and other factors. The fastest men were given higher paying jobs as “pacers” and were placed at critical points in the production flow, setting the pace for rest of the line. Less skilled “go betweens” were trained to fill the job above them, so positions could be filled when a skilled worker was absent for a day, and the threat of being replaced on a permanent basis kept skilled workers diligent.

“If you need to turn out a little more, you speed up the conveyors a little and the men speed up to keep pace.”A Packinghouse Superintendent

Because of the great number of immigrants and black migrants looking for work, packinghouses also had the power to break strikes. It was the strike of 1904 that brought a new group of blacks up to Chicago.

The Largest Employer of Black Workers in Chicago

Blacks’ reputation as “scabs” began with the strike of 1894 and repeated itself in 1904. During this second strike, labor agents recruited an estimated 10,000 black workers. Special trains carried black workers from Southern states and dropped them into the stockyards and alongside the packinghouses. In a single day, 1,400 arrived. As well, packinghouses brought trainloads of immigrants from Ellis Island and moved skilled workers from small rural plants.


As a whole, the blacks distrusted unions and lay their loyalties with the packinghouses themselves, though some blacks did join forces with their white co-workers in solidarity with unions. Employers went to great lengths to nurture a direct relationship with black workers through donations to black churches, Y.M.C.A.’s and the formation of black baseball teams. Though this courting did not include high wages (blacks held some of the lowest and lowest paid positions), the money was still better than many blacks could earn in their home states, especially if they were employed in agriculture as sharecroppers.

As WWI raged, the combination of plummeting immigration, white soldiers traveling overseas to fight, and the need for increased production to feed and defend U.S. and Allied soldiers, gave Southern blacks an opportunity at new and well-paying industrial jobs. Thousands traveled north to Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland and Evansville, Indiana.

dto1-family-driven-by-mob_t Between 1915 and 1920, roughly a half-million blacks migrated to northern cities. The Great Migration saw Chicago’s black population burgeon. In 1890, blacks made up less than 2% of the city’s population. During WWI, the black population rose to over 100,000.

The Department of Labor figures show that the number of black packinghouse workers in Chicago jumped three to five times from 1917-1918. For example, one major Chicago packing house only had 311 black workers in January of 1916, but employed 3,621 by the end of 1918.

By 1920, the Meat Trust was the largest employer of blacks, holding more than one-half of all of manufacturing jobs in Chicago’s Black Belt. The next largest employer was the steel mills, with less than one-quarter of black jobs.

In total, Chicago would gain more than 500,000 of the approximately 7 million southern blacks during the entirety of the Great Migration. By 1970, blacks would represent 33% of Chicago’s population—one-third of the city’s people.

Great Diversity

Chicago’s Union Stockyards and the surrounding slaughtering and meat-packing plants offered unparalleled diversity. More than 40 nationalities were represented, with diversity in age, gender and work experience.


The early immigrants to the trade included the Irish and German. They maintained the highest paying “knife jobs”. This was followed by Bohemians, (coming from the industrialized region of what is now Czechoslovakia), and later Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, African Americans and Mexicans.

Although they worked side by side within the packinghouses, ethnic groups rarely mixed outside of the walls of their employers, each group staying within its own ethnic neighborhoods within Chicago. This lead to great overcrowding in Chicago’s Black Belt and was one of the factors contributing to Chicago’s Race Riots of 1919.


Chicago and the Great Migration, 1915-1950; Hana Layson with Kenneth Warren; The Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom;

Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago’s Packinghouses, 1904-54; Rick Halpern; University of Illinois Press; 1997

Great Migration; Encyclopedia of Chicago;

The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class & Gender; Edited by Joe William Trotter, Jr.; Indiana University Press; 1991

The Jungle; Upton Sinclair; Barnes & Noble Classics; 2003 (first published in 1906)

Prelude to a Riot—Irish Athletic Clubs and the Black Belt in 1919; American History USA;

Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packinghouse Workers 1894-1922; James R. Barrett; University of Illinois Press; 1990

“World War I and The Great Migration”; History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Historian, Washington D.C., U.S.; Government Printing Office, 2008.