1919 race riots memorial project will honor victims where they died — in streets all over city

The memorials, glass markers that will be installed on city streets, will commemorate those who suffered during some of the worst instances of racial violence in Chicago history.

SHARE 1919 race riots memorial project will honor victims where they died — in streets all over city

Thousands of people pass by Adams Street and Wabash Avenue every day, climbing the stairs to the L, or heading to the Art Institute or other spots in the Loop.

Few may know that corner is a murder scene, part of the 1919 riots during which, for an entire week, gangs of white Chicagoans terrorized their Black neighbors, who also fought back.

In all, 38 people died, and at least 537 were injured. Of those killed, 23 were Black.

Now, a plan is in the works to install memorials at that site and other scenes of the riots.

“It’s about using art to reach the public in a way I never could,” said Peter Cole, a history professor at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Cole has taught the history of the riot to his students since joining the university in 2000.

Cole came up with the memorials idea on a 2018 trip to Germany, where he came across similar memorials documenting the Holocaust. In 2019, he joined longtime anti-violence worker Franklin Cosey-Gay to form the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project, a group dedicated to sharing the history through public art and organized under the Bronzeville-based nonprofit Organic Oneness.

After spending a few years raising money and developing the design, the group recently began making the pieces — glass markers, each bearing a victim’s name. The markers will be installed on the streets approximately where people were killed, one memorial for each person.

The group has made a few markers already and plans to have around seven installed by the start of summer, in time for an annual bike tour of key sites from those riots. The markers will be placed in the pavement or sidewalks, along with information about each victim.

Franklin Cosey-Gay (left) and Peter Cole, co-directors of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project, at Adams Street and Wabash Avenue in the Loop.

Franklin Cosey-Gay (left) and Peter Cole, co-directors of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project, at Adams Street and Wabash Avenue in the Loop, where the project will place one of dozens of markers. The brick-shaped glass memorials are being installed at sites where the victims of the riot were killed or fatally wounded.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Inspiration from abroad

The markers were inspired by Stolpersteine, a series of Holocaust memorials a German artist began making and installing on city streets throughout Europe in the early 1990s.

The Stolpersteine are concrete bricks installed in the street outside the residences of Holocaust victims. Each bears a brass plaque with the name and life dates of the person who lived there.

Cole was moved; the bricks made him think about the story of the Chicago riots.

Glass blower Markisha Johnson, 22, works on a glass marker for the 1919 Commemoration Project at Firebird Community Arts studio on Jan. 24, 2023. The marker will be placed at one of the important sites in the 1919 race riots.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

In 22 years at Western Illinois, Cole estimates he’s taught about the riots to 2,500 students.

But, he noted, “More people than I’ve ever taught walk by those places every day,” and bricks could be discovered by anyone.

“That’s the genius of art in the public space,” Cole said. “They can reach those who never had the time or the interest to care.”

The events of 1919

The marker being installed in the ground near Adams and Wabash will bear the name of Paul Hardwick, a Black man who was about 50 when he was shot to death on July 29, 1919, in the Loop. But he wasn’t the first to die in the riots.

The violence began on July 27, when Eugene Williams, a Black 17-year-old, drowned in Lake Michigan after a white man hit him in the head with a stone after Williams crossed into what was considered at that time the whites-only side of the beach. The failure to arrest his killer sparked the riot.

Eugene Williams (left) and Paul Hardwick. Williams, 17, drowned in Lake Michigan on July 27, 1919, after being hit in the head with a stone by a white man. Hardwick, as shown in Chicago Defender, was shot to death in the Loop two days later. He was about 51.

Eugene Williams (left) and Paul Hardwick. Williams, 17, drowned in Lake Michigan on July 27, 1919, after being hit in the head with a stone by a white man. Hardwick, as shown in the Chicago Defender, was shot to death in the Loop two days later.

Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project/Provided

The history isn’t always taught in schools. Cole, a native of South Florida, first learned about what happened while getting a graduate degree at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Cosey-Gay, a native of the South Side, learned about it from his father, Benjamin.

“He’s not a historian, but he talked to me about the city when I would ride the bus with him,” Cosey-Gay said. When they would pass the 29th Street beach, where Williams was killed, his father talked about the riot. It stuck with him when he became an anti-violence worker as an adult.

“We talk a lot about violence at the surface, but we don’t talk about the root causes. I thought it was an origin story for Chicago that was important,” Cosey-Gay said.

Markisha Johnson with part of a glass marker she designed for the Chicago Race Riot of 2019 Commemoration Project.

Glass blower Markisha Johnson works on a glass marker she designed for the Chicago Race Riot of 2019 Commemoration Project.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Cosey-Gay became director of the University of Chicago Medicine’s violence recovery program in 2018. He began working on the project a year later, after he met Cole at a community meeting on the South Side.

Their project has since received funding from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the Chicago Monuments Project and other donors. That includes $52,000 from Niantic, the company behind Pokemon Go, to pay the artists creating the memorials.

Project Fire

When it came time to find an artist, Cosey-Gay called Project Fire, the flagship program of Firebird Community Arts, a glassblowing studio on the West Side. The program is for youth affected by violence.

“The goal was to get the young people in Project Fire involved in this process, to create these markers and have this opportunity to talk about history and how we experience history in the present day,” said Pearl Dick, the program’s artistic director.

Pearl Dick, artistic director at Firebird Community Arts.

Pearl Dick, artistic director at Firebird Community Arts, where glassblowers are creating glass markers for the Chicago Race Riot of 2019 Commemoration Project.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The studio eventually decided on markers made of six glass sheets, each with a different design, fused together, measuring 8 inches long, 4 inches wide and 2 inches thick.

More than making the memorial, however, commissioning the Project Fire participants for the project was about getting them to engage with the history as they learned about it through newspaper stories from the time.

Markisha Johnson, 22, a Project Fire participant since 2018, said her high school classes touched on the riots but never got to the essence of what started it.

So in working on the memorial, her biggest takeaway has been what sparked it — and also learning that a white police officer prevented a Black officer from arresting the man who killed Williams.

Glassblower Markisha Johnson, 22, works at Firebird Community Arts studio.

Glassblower Markisha Johnson, 22, works at Firebird Community Arts studio to design glass markers for the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“It makes me think of, sadly, many situations,” said Johnson, citing, among other cases, the killing of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer in 2014.

She’s working on a piece for the project based on historical photographs of houses that were destroyed by gangs in the riot. A few of her fellow participants knew about the riot beforehand, but “not one person really knew the intensity of it,” she said.

When visitors come across the memorial pieces on the streets of Chicago, she hopes they learn a little about what happened — but also remember the issues of accountability facing society today aren’t new.

“Don’t be shocked by it happening in your time because it’s always been here. What kind of solution can we come up with to change what’s happening?” Johnson asked. “You can’t find a solution for something that you’re not aware about.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

CRR19_01XX23_13_pieces.jpg

Parts of the glass markers for the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project are shown on a table at Firebird Community Arts studio in the Garfield Park neighborhood Jan. 24. Artists at Firebird Community Arts, in collaboration with the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project, are creating markers, which will be placed in historic places around Chicago where people were killed during the race riots in 1919. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Latest
The right-hander allowed four home runs against the Yankees on Saturday.
The Champions thought they had won the city title after a ground out to first, but had to do it all over again after an umpire revealed his call.
“They’ve been helping us out a lot, so there’s going to be a time where we can help them sometime, and that’s what we’re going to do,” outfielder Seiya Suzuki said.