Part 1: The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot

A Commission Forms to Study Chicago’s 1919 Race Riot


In the summer of 1919, Chicago exploded in violence. A Race Riot loomed for over a week—whites against blacks—ending only after the state militia was brought in to quell violence and protect all the city’s citizens. But much damage had already been done.

There were 38 fatalities—23 black and 15 white. Fifteen met death at the hands of mobs. A reported 537 persons were injured. Black homes were ransacked and property destroyed, leaving 1,000 black families homeless. Near the end of the riot, large numbers of houses in the back of the Stock Yards, primarily homes of Lithuanians, were burned to the ground. (Although originally assumed that the fires had been started by blacks, later evidence pointed to the Irish athletic clubs.)


The Red Summer of 1919

Unfortunately, Chicago was not an isolated incident. Although blacks in the South had previously borne the brunt of America’s racial violence and discrimination, there were “race riots” all across the country that year—so many that the season was named “Red Summer.” Riots broke out in Charleston, South Carolina; Longview, Texas; Bisbee, Arizona; Washington, D.C.; Knoxville, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska; Phillips County, Arkansas; Gary, Indiana; and Bogalusa, Louisiana. Between late 1918 and late 1919, the United States recorded ten major race riots, dozens of minor, racially charged clashes, and almost 100 lynchings as white Americans tried to enforce the continual subjugation of black Americans in the postwar era. (Krugler, pg 3)

By November, the “RACE WAR” of 1919 that had shocked the nation arrived at an unsettled and incomplete truce. (McWhirter, pg 236.) The nation grappled with its growing racial conflict.

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Woodrow Wilson served as U.S. President from 1913 to 1921. Photo Source: Wikipedia

President Woodrow Wilson castigated the “white race” as “the aggressor” in both the Chicago and Washington riots, and efforts were launched to promote racial harmony through voluntary organizations and ameliorative legislation in Congress. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Blacks had now seen racial injustice and oppression play out in Northern cities, not just the south. They felt pride and power from the actions of Blacks in the cities where they had fought back with armed resistance—the beginnings of a “New Negro,” who, after fighting for democracy overseas, now demanded democracy in their own country. The NAACP used the violence to try to shame local, state and federal governments into action. (McWhirter, page 236)

Those whites inclined to violence, learned they would be met with resistance, especially in larger cities.

Local governments saw the devastating effects of nonaction against racial violence. Newspapers urged politicians to act with the first signs of trouble, to avoid the carnage and bad publicity riots brought their cities. (McWhirter, page 236) The Chicago Tribune, in an editorial on July 31—the day after the state militia was called in to quell the violence—called Chicago “disgraced and dishonored. Its head is bloodied and bowed, bloodied by crime and bowed by its shame. Its reputation is besmirched. Its fame is tarnished for years. People do not forget cities which have been the scene of mob murders, of savagery and inhuman violence. Chicago may expect to suffer the consequences.” (Chicago Tribune)


Local Leaders Request a Study on Causes and Prevention of Race Riots

Chicago community leaders called for a commission to research the issues and make changes to avoid future riots. The people of Chicago wanted answers. Not just about the causes of the riot, but also about how the city could stop violence from continuing to happen.

On August 1, 1919, even before Chicago’s Race Riot was totally under control, a group of civic, social, commercial and professional organizations met at the Union League to discuss the seriousness of the riot and ways of avoiding a reoccurrence. They sent a letter to the Governor of Illinois, Frank O. Lowden, offering to serve on a committee:

DEAR SIR: A meeting was held today at the Union League Club to take up the matter of the present race riots.

This meeting was attended by 81 representatives of 48 prominent civic, professional, and commercial organizations, such as Chicago Medical Association, Chicago Bar Association, Federation of churches, Association of Commerce, Packing House Industries, Urban League, Woman’s City Club, Chicago Women’s Club, Foreign Language Division representing foreign-born population, etc.

A resolution was adopted unanimously, appointing the undersigned as a committee to wait upon you and ask that you appoint at your earliest convenience an emergency state committee to study the psychological, social, and economic causes underlying the conditions resulting in the present race riot and to make such recommendations as will tend to prevent a recurrence of such conditions in the future.

The committee would welcome an opportunity to meet you at any time convenient to yourself and to talk over with you details and give you such information as has been gathered through these various organizations.








Governor Lowden Appoints a Race Commission

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Frank Orren Lowden was Illinois’ 25th Governor, serving from January 1917 to January 1921. Photo Source: Wikipedia

With this and other requests for more investigation of the causes and prevention of riots, and with knowledge from his own investigations during the riot itself, Governor Lowden acted. On August 20, 1919, he announced the appointment of a Commission on Race Relations:

I have been requested by many citizens and by many civic organizations in Chicago to appoint a Commission to study and report upon the broad question of the relations between the two races. These riots were the work of the worst element of both races. They did not represent the great overwhelming majority of either race. The two are here and will remain here. The great majority of each realizes the necessity of their living upon terms of cordial good will and respect, each for the other. That condition must be brought about.

To say that we cannot solve this problem is to confess the failure of self-government. I offer no solution of the problem. I do know, however, that the question cannot be answered by mob violence. I do know that every time men, white or colored, take the law into their own hands, instead of helping they only postpone the settlement of the question. When we admit the existence of a problem and courageously face it, we have gone half-way toward its solution.

I have with the utmost care, in response to the requests above set forth, appointed a Commission to undertake this great work. I have sought only the most representative men of the two races. I have not even asked them whether they had views as to how the question could be met. I have asked them only to approach the difficult subject with an open mind, and in a spirit of fairness and justice to all. This is a tribunal that has been constituted to get the facts and interpret them to and to find a way out. I believe that great good can come out of the work of this Commission.

I ask that our people, white and colored, give their fullest co-operation to the Commission. I ask, too, as I have a right to ask, that both races exercise that patience and self-restraint which are indispensable to self-government while we are working out this problem.


The Commission Members

The Commission consisted of 12 members—6 white and 6 black. They were businessmen, attorneys and esteemed members of the community. They included Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears; Victor F. Lawson, the owner, editor and publisher of the Chicago Daily News; and Robert Abbott, the publisher of the Chicago Defender.

Julius Rosenwald Tribune Screen Shot 2020-07-09 at 10.48.39 PM

The philanthropic contributions of Julius Rosenwald, President of Sears, Roebuck and Company, included creating a fund to help construct over 5,000 schools for Black students  in 15 southern states. He also established the Museum of Science and Industry, founded dental clinics in public schools and contributed to the University of Chicago. Photo Source: Chicago Tribune

White Commissioners

Edgar A. Bancroft, Chairman, Lawyer

William Scott Bond, Real Estate Dealer

Edward Osgood Brown, Lawyer

Harry Eugene Kelly, Lawyer

Victor F. Lawson, Editor

Julius Rosenwald, Merchant

Dr. Francis W. Shepardson, Acting Chairman (after Bancroft stepped down due to ill health) and Director of the State Department of Registration and Education

AbbottRS Watch the Yard

Robert S. Abbott founded the Chicago Defender in 1905–the newspaper credited with encouraging thousands of Blacks to leave the south for northern cities, helping to create the Great Migration.

Black Commissioners

Robert A. Abbott, Editor

George Cleveland Hall, Physician and Surgeon

George H. Jackson, Real Estate Dealer

Edward H. Morris, Lawyer

Adelbert H. Roberts, Lawyer

Lacey Kirk Williams, Minister


A Year-Long Investigation

Beginning in October of 1919, the Commission held 10 meetings to determine the fields of inquiry, and organize the studies and investigations.

Early on the Commission met some stumbling blocks. It was completely without funds, and relied upon private fundraising to begin. It had some difficulty procuring space, as several building agents declined to make a lease upon learning that Commission members, executives secretaries and field and office staff included blacks. A space was found at 118 North LaSalle Street, with a lease beginning February 1, 1920. By March 1 the staff of investigators began its work.


Scope of the Study

From its inception, the Commission saw that it needed to go beyond just collecting and studying the facts of the riot. It determined that of more importance was to study and interpret the conditions of black life in Chicago and the relations between the two races.

It therefore organized into six committees: Racial Clashes, Housing, Industry, Crime, Racial Contacts and a Committee on Public Opinion.

Information was garnered in two main ways. First, the Commission held a series of 30 conferences or informal hearings, where people were invited to offer their special insight and information on the topics at hand. Topics included race friction and its remedies; contacts between whites and blacks in schools and parks, and the courts and correctional institutions; the needs and difficulties of black housing; black labor; black health; the views of police the militia, the grand jury and the state’s attorney on the 1919 race riot; and the role of the white press in relation to public opinion on race relations.

Secondly, research and field work was carried out through a staff of trained investigators of both races, “whose training and experience had fitted them for intelligent and sympathetic handling of research and field work along the lines mapped out by the Commission.”

A broad selection of agencies, individuals and organizations assisted with the research. For example, the Chicago Urban League offered access to many of its files, and gave a leave of absence to its head of the Department of Research and Investigations, Mr. Charles S. Johnson, to be Executive Secretary. The Committee of Fifteen provided a report on the study of environment and crime. Assistance also came from government agencies such as the Census Bureau; the Chicago Public School system’s superintendent, principals and teachers; park boards; municipal, county and state officials; others connected with industrial plants; trades union officers; and leaders in civic and social agencies—which helped facilitate investigations in their respective fields of expertise.

The Commission’s staff researched, interviewed, canvassed, and studied. It was an exhaustive undertaking lasting 11 months, with subsequent multiple edits. The final 672-page document was released in September of 1922.

Objective, in-depth and exhaustively researched, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot, provided insight into the attitudes of the time and the racism that led to violence. And further, the study provided recommendations for how to avoid such riots in the future.



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

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

Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America; Cameron McWhirter; 2011



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)


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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




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.

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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


Secondary; Ida B. Wells: Crusading Journalist Campaigned Against Lynching in America; 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;






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, (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: 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, “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’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 Great Influenza

The Deadliest Pandemic in History

The Great Pandemic of 1918-1919 was the deadliest pandemic in the history of the world, killing more in one year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages in a century. It infected about one-third of the planet’s population. Original estimates during the 1920s put the death toll at 21.5 million. More recent estimates put the global mortality figure considerably higher—between 30 and 50 million, or even as high as 100,000 million. An estimated 675,000 were Americans. More Americans died from the Flu than perished in WWI.

flupandemic secret camp

The Spanish flu was 25 times more deadly than the ordinary flu. There are stories of men coming home sick from work and being dead by morning. Some collapsed where they stood. Many of the infected succumbed within 24 to 48 hours after becoming symptomatic.

But even more frightening was who got sick. Although most flus kill the very young and old, this strain killed healthy men and women in the age group of 20- to 40-years-old in alarming rates. Roughly half of those who died were in their twenties and thirties—the prime of the lives.

Death Was Swift and Horrific

Most infected people had a high fever of 100 – 104 F that lasted a few days. The onset was sudden—people felt dizzy, weak and in pain while at work or in the street. Once the disease became established, the mucous membranes became reddened with sneezing and sometimes hemorrhaged, causing bloody noses. Patients coughed. But the real danger came if the influenza infection progressed to bacterial pneumonia. This phase was often fatal. Victims’ lungs would develop thick, bloody fluid, and the lack of oxygen would turn their faces blue. They would bleed from their noses and ears, and a pinkish froth would spew from the mouth. After hours of anguish, victims would suffocate—drowning in their own lungs.

influenza5 flu.govinfluenza_patients Army

The lungs’ violent reaction was the body’s way of trying to throw out the virus. The immune system toxins designed to destroy invaders went into overdrive and literally scorched the lung tissue. Thus, those healthy 20 – to 40-year-olds—like soldiers in the camps—had the strongest auto-immune response and therefore the highest death rates aside from infants and the old and weak.

The Deadly Flu Spread Rapidly

Because it was wartime, soldiers crossed from camp to camp, and across oceans, spreading the disease across the world. In the summer of 1918, over 1.5 million Americans crossed the Atlantic in the war effort—some from Kansas. The Flu resurfaced in Europe in all of the armies—including the English, French and German. As it spread, the microbe mutated, becoming more deadly by the day.

Cities were hard hit. In New York, 851 people died in a single day. Over 11,000 died in Philadelphia in October of 1918. Death carts roamed the streets. The dead sometimes lay abandoned in gutters. Cities had to resort to mass graves. Crepe on the doors of house after house marked death inside.


People were terrified. Would this disease ever stop? Would it prove the end of mankind?

The Disease Came in Three Waves

This original version of the influenza occurred in the late spring and summer of 1918 as was relatively mild. As the virus mutated, it became more severe and more deadly. The deadliest was the second wave that erupted in the fall of 1918. The final wave hit during the spring of 1919. The last two waves had a much higher frequency of complicated, severe and fatal cases. The severity and speed of the disease was unprecedented. Never before had three extensive pandemic waves of influenza occurred in rapid succession in the same year.

Why it Was Called the “Spanish Flu”

It is important to remember that at the outbreak of the Flu WWI was still raging. The governments of countries actively involved in the Great War—France, Germany, Britain and the United States—did not want the press to print anything negative that might hurt morale. But Spain remained neutral during the war, and reported freely on the disease, especially after King Alphonso XIII himself fell seriously ill. The disease became known as “Spanish Influenza” most likely because only Spanish newspapers were truthfully reporting the spread of the disease.

Why Couldn’t They Stop It?

Towns and cities did what they could. Most governments imposed curfews, suggested masks be worn and banned any public gathering—including funerals. Churches, schools, theaters, pool halls and saloons were all closed. Some towns tried to close their borders altogether.

flu masks

Yet, the virus continued to spread.

The reasons were many. Because of WWI, governments moved troops within their own bases and sent thousands of troops into battle in Europe despite warnings. Misinformation and lack of Information was rampant, such as the mistaken belief that wearing a mask could stop the virus from entering the lungs. People in close proximity, both in military camps and cities, made it easier for the disease to spread to new victims.


Various vaccines were developed and tried with no success. But the vaccines were based on a false premise. Researchers thought the bacteria collected from the lungs of the dead was the cause of the disease and worked to combat the pneumonia bacteria. What they couldn’t see was the influenza virus itself—microscopes in 1918 simply weren’t strong. That technology would take decades.

The Start of the Pandemic

Many medical and conspiracy theories circulated at the time. Some thought the Germans had planted the germ. The evangelist Billy Sunday blamed it on sin. Those in the medical field scrambled to identify what “it” was, at first misdiagnosing it as malaria or thinking it might be a new kind of infection or plague, as it was more deadly than any flu they had ever seen before.

John M. Barry suggests in his book, The Great Influenza, that The Flu began in America. The first reported cases were at Fort Riley, Kansas. An Army private and mess cook Private Albert Gitchell, reported to the camp hospital early on the morning of March 11, 1918. His complaints: fever, sore throat and headache. By noon, over 100 soldiers were ill. By week’s end that number jumped to 500.

nurse mask

Fort Riley stretched 20,000 acres. Winters were brutally cold, summers sweltering, and dust storms blinding. In addition to housing 26,000 men, Camp Funston also held thousands of horses and mules that produced nine tons of manure each month. The common method of disposing of it was to burn it. On Saturday, March 9, 1918, a black sky and driving wind warned of a coming dust storm; yet, the camp burned its daily manure. The dust and ash of the burning manure combined in a stinging, stinking yellow haze. Soldiers ordered to clean up the soot and ash worked with no protection. Two days later, soldiers began falling ill. The Fort was thought to be “Ground Zero”.

Yet, other evidence shows that the flu hit the United States, Europe and Asia at approximately the same time—in March of 1918. Viral sequence data suggest that the 1918 virus was novel to humans, and not a “reassortant virus” produced from old existing strains. Evidence points to swine and avianlike viruses jumping to humans—an H1N1 strain. Older individuals, those born before 1901, may have already been exposed to an earlier strain of The Flu, thus providing them with some immunity to the disease.

Whether Fort Riley was the lone source of the virus will likely never be definitely proven.


The Great Pandemic: The United Sates in 1918-1919;

The Great Influenza; John M. Barry; Penguin Books; 2004, 2005, 2009

Influenza 1918: The Worst Epidemic in American History; The American Experience; produced by PBS; 1998

Pandemic Continuity Specialist;

1918 Influenza: The Mother of all Pandemics; Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens;

The Worst Flu Pandemic on Record;

The Medical and Scientific Conceptions of Influenza;

Pathogenic Responses among Young Adults during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic; G. Dennis Chanks; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Volume 18, Number 2 – February 2012

Cotton and the Sharecropper



Sharecropper cabin

Cotton was King

In the Deep South, cotton was king, not only prior to emancipation, but long after. Sharecropping evolved as a way for white cotton plantation owners to have their cotton cultivated and picked by free black farmers and landless white farmers for low wages and long hours of toil. They were called sharecroppers.

Typically sharecroppers were given a plot of land to work. In exchange for the privilege of using the land, they owed the landowner one-half of the profits at the end of the season. The owner provided the tools and the farm animals. The sharecroppers had to purchase the rest–the seed, tools and fertilizer–and planted their own small gardens. But, while waiting for Settling Day at the end the season, the families often needed help with food and clothing, which was procured on credit from a local merchant or from the “company store”–a store on the plantation itself–all at inflated rates.

On Settling Day, these purchases were deducted from the sharecroppers’ half of the profit. Not surprisingly, the books were often rigged in the landowners’ favor so that the sharecropper was shown to OWE money at the end of a long season. This left many sharecroppers in perpetual debt, tying them to the owner and the land.

Cotton was extremely labor-intensive. Work began in March to  break up the soil, running “Middle-busters” over it to form furrows and mounds. In May, sharecroppers would dig narrow trenches in the mounds and drop cottons every 18″. As the plants sprouted in Spring, the grueling task of chopping began, working down the rows with long-handled hoes to cut back weeds from the tender cotton plants. This job fell to children as young as 6 years old. The heat was stifling and the sun pounding. Bugs, especially mosquitoes and flies, were rampant and cabins were often smoked or sprayed to drive off flies, shuttering windows for the night.


Early in season, light-hued blossoms would appear. These would darken and wilt, falling off  in about three days. Pollination would occur. Soon the tiny green pods would form at the base of the flower.

By July or August, these pods would swell into a bolls–seeds wrapped in willowy fibers. By late August the bolls would split, turning the fields into a sea of white. Stooped or on their knees, the sharecroppers would work their way down the long rows, using one hand to plunk the cotton from its spiky clutch; the other to stuff into a long white bag draped over their shoulders. Some sacks had tar on the bottom to help them slide more easily along the ground. A bag held 100 pounds of raw cotton. A good picker could pick 100 pounds by lunch and another 100 pounds by the end of the day. Fields required several passes as the cotton did not ripen at the same time.

A typical yield was 1500 pounds per ten acres, which translated into 500 pounds of ginned cotton or ten bales. In 1918, cotton was selling at 30 cents a pound.

Cotton House d992c0074e7b65f7e90c24dae5268d59

Settling Day usually took place in late November. With many blacks illiterate, and with the whites not believing figures even if a black man had the ability to kept track, many sharecroppers were taken advantage of.

In 1917-1918, this left sharecroppers with very few choices: to move to another plantation in the hopes of finding a more honest overseer; or to move north, often in the dead of night to avert detection. (See the April 3 Blog on The Great Migration.)

Cotton plantations continued to need large labor forces to hand-pick cotton until the rise of harvesting machines in the 1950s, virtually eliminating the need for manual cotton labor.