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This week in history: Violence escalates in 1919 Chicago race riots

The murder of 17-year-old Black boy and the refusal of white police officers to arrest the man responsible for his death sparked what became known as the 1919 Chicago race riots. Here’s a look at coverage the day after the boy’s death.

Armed National Guardsmen and African American men stand on a sidewalk during the 1919 race riots in Chicago.
Armed National Guardsmen and African American men stand on a sidewalk during the 1919 race riots in Chicago.
Chicago History Museum/The Jun Fujita negatives collection/Distributed by the Associated Press

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

On July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams drowned in Lake Michigan. A 17-year-old Black boy, Williams was enjoying the cooling waters when his raft floated across the invisible barrier separating the white and Black sections of the 29th Street beach, according to the Chicago History Museum. A group of white people saw Williams and threw rocks at him and his friends. One of them struck Williams in the head, knocking him off the raft and into the water where he drowned.

Williams’ murder and the refusal of white police officers to arrest the man responsible for his death sparked what became known as the 1919 Chicago race riots. It became part of what is known as the Red Summer, in which white mobs attacked Black communities in cities across the country and caused countless deaths, injuries and damaged properties.

The day of the murder and the ensuing violence fell on a Sunday — the only day of the week in which the Chicago Daily News did not publish. Instead, the paper picked up the story the next day.

Already the violence had escalated to the point where Chief of Police John J. Garrity told reporters he would call in the state militia “if new outbreaks of race warfare in the ‘black belt’ should prove to be beyond the control of the police department and the reserves,” the paper said. He also assured former Ald. Oscar Stanton De Priest and Dr. George C. Hall, both prominent members of the Black community present at the time, that he “would do his utmost to protect [Black residents].”

Police stations in the district received “one riot call after another ... and patrol wagons were kept busy all morning,” the report said. But violence continued, including:

  • A group of white people forced Black passengers from streetcars at Canal and West 26th streets and drove them out of the neighborhood. The gang became so menacing that “streetcar conductors warned [Black] passengers from riding beyond Wentworth Avenue for fear they would be seriously injured.”
  • Three white men stabbed Henry Lee, a Black man, in the back at Throop and 31st streets. Lee was “rushed to the People’s hospital.”
  • Not long after Lee’s attack, a group of Black people attacked Thor Schnetderbeck, a white man who “suffered serious injuries to the abdomen.” He was also transported to the hospital.

Violence soon spread to the neighboring stockyards district, where police received a riot call describing an incident at Halsted and 31st streets, the paper said.

When police arrived, they found Robert Darchton “lying in the street. Four of Robert Darchton’s teeth were knocked out and his face was bruised. He told police that a crowd of 20 whites had attacked him, and had escaped after beating him. He was taken to his home.”

The violence did not spare children. Two Black boys working as messengers for the Postal Telegraph company sought shelter in a bicycle shop on Wentworth Avenue after a group of 10 white men attacked them. The paper reported that the shop owner protected them and reported the incident to the police.

Meanwhile down at the beach where the riots began, two police officers patrolled the lakefront, the paper reported. Williams had not yet been named, but officials examining his body said it “showed no bruises indicating that he had been attacked.” The police — ultimately incorrectly — believed “the boy drowned when he got into deep water.”

Dive deeper into the Daily News’ coverage of the 1919 Chicago race riots in this Saturday’s “This week in history” newsletter, part of Afternoon Edition. Sign up here.