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Isaiah Flowers, 7, builds a sand castle with 4-year-old Mara Dues at 31st Street Beach on the South Side.
Isaiah Flowers, 7, builds a sand castle with 4-year-old Mara Dues at 31st Street Beach on the South Side. Much has changed in Chicago since the 1919 race riots sparked by the appearance of black swimmers at what then was a whites-only beach.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

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A century of progress, but still an ‘invisible divide’

Chicago is a much more tolerant place than it was during the 1919 race riots. But until we figure out how to end segregation, our beaches will reflect the racial challenges we continue to face.

On July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams, a black teenager, drowned when he was struck by a rock thrown by a white man, angry that black swimmers had drifted into the whites-only area of the lake.

The 17-year-old’s death ignited a race riot that lasted nearly five days; killed 38 people, 23 of them black; injured 500 others, and rendered nearly 1,000 people homeless.

There was no man-made barrier to keep black kids from swimming with white kids.

But this unwritten rule kept not only the beaches, but also the neighborhoods, the schools, even employment in Chicago segregated long after this violent tragedy was forgotten.

This past week, I visited several South Side beaches to see what has changed since I was a child running across the sand.

On sweltering days, like the day that touched off the 1919 riot, my mother gathered her brood and packed up a red wagon with snacks. We’d pull that wagon from our public-housing apartment at 39th and Langley to the 31st Street Beach.

We had no idea that in 1919, our beach was in an area of the lakefront once reserved for whites.

By then, 31st Street Beach — now known as Margaret T. Burroughs Beach and Park in honor of the founder of DuSable Museum — was a “black beach.”

Despite being located a short walking distance from Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores, high-rise rentals mostly occupied by white professionals, white people didn’t come to 31st Street Beach.

Because we lived in the massive public housing that stretched from 39th Street to 37th and from Cottage Grove to King Drive, we considered 31st Street Beach our beach.

But what was once a “black beach” is now one of the most diverse beaches in the city. I saw all types of families enjoying a perfect summer day in Chicago.

Little curly headed brown boys tossed fistfuls of sand at black and white kids in the water; a black man slathered suntan lotion on his pregnant partner’s white back; brown girls with swirling braids ran through waves; tow-headed boys tossed a ball on the sand.

“This is a friendly place,” said Robin Bruessard, a Mary Kay independent sales director who no longer lives in the area but said she comes to the beach often.

People enjoy the weather at 31st Street Beach on the South Side, Wednesday afternoon, July 24, 2019.
People enjoy the weather at 31st Street Beach on the South Side, Wednesday afternoon, July 24, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

According to historical reports, African Americans in 1919 were allowed to swim at the 25th Street Beach, an area now paved over to form the Lakefront Trail.

And white people generally gathered at what was the 29th Street Beach, an area behind the demolished Michael Reese Hospital.

But while white people were free to choose where to spread a blanket and put up an umbrella, black people were not — even when it came to rafting.

Today, with a few exceptions, beaches on the North Side of the city tend to draw whiter crowds while beaches on the South Side are more diverse.

For instance, on Wednesday afternoon at Rainbow Beach on 75th and the Lakefront, several white people worked with youngsters attending a summer camp program sponsored by the Shedd Aquarium, and two white lifeguards watched the swimmers. But save for a lone white biker passing through, the few people lounging on the beach were black.

“I try to get out as much as possible,” said La’Shawn Mills, 31, a South Shore resident who was with her daughter, two nieces and two pet turtles.

“It’s nice here. I like it. You get a few Hispanics, but mostly it’s black people,” she said.

(From left) Cousins Aalihya Barbara, 11, Andrea Martin, 9, and Samarri Mills, 9, all from the South Shore neighborhood, jump in Lake Michigan at Rainbow Beach on the South Side, Wednesday afternoon, July 24, 2019.
(From left) Cousins Aalihya Barbara, 11, Andrea Martin, 9, and Samarri Mills, 9, all from the South Shore neighborhood, jump in Lake Michigan at Rainbow Beach on the South Side, Wednesday afternoon, July 24, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A hundred years after the riot, the beaches pretty much follow the city’s segregated housing patterns, and people tend to go to beaches close to where they live.

Samantha King, 54, who also lives in South Shore, regularly brings her 11-year-old grandson to Rainbow Beach even though there are fewer amenities compared to other beaches.

“It’s come a long way. There have been great improvements as far as I can tell. Policing has picked up quite a bit. I just wish more parents would come out with their children,” she said.

Chicagoans tend to self-segregate at park facilities for various reasons, including a perception that South Side beaches and parks are unsafe.

This segregation of park facilities often leads to complaints that beaches on the North Side are getting better services — or see different treatment by the police who patrol them.

For example, a South Side group is planning to “take over” Edgewater’s Foster Beach on Aug. 3 in protest of parking restrictions that they claim are being enforced for South Side beaches and not North Side ones, according to blockclubchicago.org. The end result, the group says, is that patrons of South Side beaches don’t have equal access to them — something the Chicago Police Department disputes.

Regardless, it was good to meet Sally Kuhn and her three girlfriends, who regularly drive from the suburbs to spend the day at the 63rd Street Beach.

Kuhn and her girlfriends are white.

“This is my favorite beach. We don’t go to the North Side beaches. The traffic is too much. I come here and bike from here up to McCormick Place. It is a great ride, “ Kuhn said.

“We feel safe here,” added Terre Theis of Naperville.

Ironically, the most dramatic change to the South Side lakefront has been the transformation of the 31st Street Beach that was once at the heart of Chicago’s “Black Belt.” It’s also the beach closest to the site of Eugene Williams’ 1919 drowning.

With the dismantling of public housing and the revitalization of the Bronzeville community has come progress in the form of better beach facilities.

It’s a world of difference than the beach I walked with my family as a little girl in the 1950s. Still, we were luckier than the black youth of 1919.

No one threw rocks at us. And no one gave us bloody noses, something that routinely happened when our black ancestors tried to use the lakefront.

That said, in neighborhoods populated by black people, the city let the racism that ignited the 1919 race riot grow into discrimination, injustice, disinvestment and inequality.

Sadly, the city never came to grips with the horror that unfolded on that hot summer day.

If it had, late Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was a member of an organized group that took part in the 1919 violence, would not have gotten away with ignoring questions about his role in the riots. History is still unclear about whether Daley took part.

If it had, schoolchildren would have been taught this important history in the classroom.

If it had, we would have demanded justice for Williams instead of settling for a marker commemorating the victims of this tragedy.

On many fronts, we’ve come a long way since 1919. Sun-Times photographer Ashlee Rezin captured an image of two beautiful children — a black boy and white girl — playing together at 31st Street Beach during my visit. It offers hope that our metropolitan area is headed in the right direction; such an image wasn’t possible for the better part of the last century.

But until we figure out how to end housing segregation, our beaches, for the most part, will continue to reflect our invisible divide.

Patrons enjoy the day at Oak Street Beach on July 24, 2019.
Megan Nagorzanski/Sun-Times

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