On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in July, Eugene Williams and four friends hopped a produce truck to the lakefront. There they recovered a large raft they’d hidden and went out on Lake Michigan. The year was 1919, and the day was July 27, but it might as well have been this year and yesterday when it comes to explaining why Chicago is the city it is, and faces the problems it does.
“A pivotal moment in the city’s history, and significant in the nation’s history,” said Adam Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago.
The raft drifted away from the “race’s answer to Atlantic City,” the Black beach at 25th Street and toward the beach at 29th Street, which white Chicagoans had staked out as their own private property.
“He happened to float across a perceived line,” said Green.
A white immigrant, George Stauber, stood on the breakwater and began throwing rocks at the boys. One hit Williams in the forehead, and he slid off the raft and drowned. His friends rushed to a lifeguard, and then the police. A white officer refused to arrest Stauber, and stopped a Black officer from doing so. Seven days of riots followed Williams’ death. People were shot, stabbed, stoned, pulled from streetcars and beaten to death, houses burned, blocks reduced to ruin. Thirty-eight Chicagoans died in the unrest.
“People lost a sense of existing within a shared civil community,” said Green, referring to 1919, though it sums up too many situations today. “They engaged in this primal battle to enforce upon African Americans a subordinate place. We think of it in such macro terms, we lose track of the individual people. The 38 who lost their lives.”
Williams was buried in an unmarked grave. A century passed.
Two years ago, on the centennial of the riots, Chicago magazine published a story by Robert Loerzel, “Searching for Eugene Williams,” collecting what little is known of Williams’ brief life.
“Just a regular kid like us,” a friend recounted to an academic, half a century later. “A pretty smart boy.”
The article ends with Loerzel, a peripatetic historian, searching Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island for his grave and finding only grass.
“I thought to myself, ‘That’s not right,’ ” said attorney Scott Priz. “It is not right that this, the most consequential murder in Chicago’s history. A kid’s murdered in this incredibly tragic way, and there’s not even a marker over his grave.”
Priz had a thought too few have. “I told myself, ‘This is something I can actually help fix.’ I want to fix this wrong.”
So Priz and others raised $5,000, and had a marker made, which they are dedicating Saturday.
The ceremony is particularly significant now, as state legislatures across the country throw rocks at our nation’s actual history, trying to drive it away.
“The campaign against the truth of racism,” is how Green put it, pointing out the aftermath of the riots: the creation of restrictive covenants, dividing the city racially, restricting where people could buy houses.
“All of these things began to be codified and determined and structured and institutionalized in a way that gave rise to Chicago’s status among the most segregated cities in America,” Green said.
This ceremony pushes back against the move to forget history.
“By remembering the person, by remembering this individual, by restoring their identity, by placing a headstone, we connect back to the fact that there is this human cost, encapsulated within a life that had value,” said Green. “Then and now, into the 21st century, prejudice exists, these very retrograde and benighted attitudes. People are inclined to not credit each other as full human beings, even in our contemporary discourse today. This prejudice is something we have to address.
“We’ve got to remember Eugene Williams as a person, and have to agree the legacy of the race riot has shaped our city much more to the worse than to the better, and we’re still dealing with the problems today,” said Green. ”We have to tell this history. We have to remember people in this history. This is the truth of what we have been. Let’s face that truth so we could move toward a better future.”
The Eugene Williams Memorial Committee headstone unveiling is 3:30 p.m., Saturday, July 24 at Lincoln Cemetery, 12300 S. Kedzie Ave., Blue Island. Prof. Green and others will speak.