‘Chicago 1919’ explores racial tension, from Eugene Williams to Laquan McDonald
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On July 27, 1919, Juanita Mitchell was 8 years old and only just arrived with her mother and sister from New Orleans to her uncle’s home in Bronzeville, before the city imploded.
It’s 100 years later. The south suburban woman is 107.
“My father had died. My uncle was a doctor, and my aunt had gotten permission from him to take in her sister and her two daughters. We had just gotten to their home on 35th & Giles,” Mitchell told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“We met my aunt. We were in the living room. That’s when I saw my uncle at the window, and I heard him in a gruff voice say, ‘Here they come!’ I didn’t know what he meant. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ My uncle said, ‘The race riot. The white people are coming down 35th Street with loaded guns.’ ”
The centenarian was recalling the hot summer day in history when beaches were packed, and black youth playing on a raft drifted over an imposed invisible line separating whites and blacks at 29th Street Beach — angering whites.
George Stauber, a 24-year-old white man, hurled stones at the boys until 17-year-old Eugene Williams fell off the raft and drowned. Daniel Callahan, the first police officer to arrive, refused to arrest Stauber — angering blacks.
A popular destination for Southern blacks during the Great Migration and World War I, the city was already a tinderbox of racial tensions. It erupted into racial violence.
The black teen’s death and police lack of response triggered what today remains the most violent week in Chicago history, the 1919 Race Riots. It was among a string of nationwide outbreaks of racial and labor conflicts collectively known as “Red Summer.”
And at the end of those five days, 38 people were dead — 23 black, 15 white; 520 Chicagoans were injured — two-thirds of them black. So, too, were two-thirds of the 138 indicted for riot-related crimes after the National Guard was called to quell the violence.
“This city just does not talk about the 1919 Race Riots,” said D. Bradford Hunt, vice president for research and academic programs at The Newberry Library, which is spearheading “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots. “It’s not something we teach. Nor is it well discussed in the history books.”
Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the year-long initiative with 13 other local institutions plans to engage residents in reflecting on an infamous moment in our history believed critical to understanding Chicago’s reputation as one of the most segregated cities in America.
“The riots had long-lasting effects still seen today in how divided we are as a city in terms of race; why police-community relations are still a struggle; educational opportunities still unevenly distributed. We want not only to investigate the history, but to understand just how important an event this was in the shaping of Chicago,” Hunt said.
“Does what happened 100 years ago matter? The answer is yes. It hardened color lines around housing and community.”
Mitchell and her daughter, Mary Muse, were among the 250 who attended the kickoff event recently at the DuSable Museum of African American History, first in a series of community conversations examining the legacy of the riots in arenas where segregation and inequality still exist.
“My mother used to tell us about the 1919 riots all the time,” said Muse. “Every Thanksgiving, she would tell that story.”
And Mitchell picks up where she left off.
“My Uncle Cesar said, ‘Here they come!’ That’s when he grabbed us and hid us in the living room behind the piano. I saw him go in his pocket and come out with the longest gun I’d ever seen. I was a little girl, so it was big to me,” she said.
“My mother began to cry. We stayed hiding with my Aunt Iona behind that piano ’til things quieted down on 35th Street. So that was my introduction to Chicago.”
According to Newberry’s historical summary, after the beach confrontation, “Whites loaded into automobiles and sped through black streets, firing indiscriminately at African Americans and their homes. As whites attacked, black people fought back in unprecedented numbers: a street-level expression of the growing race consciousness catching fire across the country.
“… The riots were terrible,” the summary continues. “So was their aftermath and expulsion from history. Only a handful were tried or saw any prison time — most of them black. Many of the riot’s most vicious offenders were whites protected by law enforcement and local politicians.”
The DuSable is one of the partner institutions in the initiative, and Director of Education Erica Griffin sees an invisible arc connecting Eugene Williams and Laquan McDonald — the 17-year-old shot 16 times by police officer Jason Van Dyke, triggering days of mass protests.
“The murder of that young boy was the root cause of the 1919 riots, but racial tension had already been bubbling,” Griffin noted. “That’s been a continuing trend. Today you have Laquan highlighting the separatist ideology; stereotyping and marginalizing that still exists.”
In the aftermath of the 1919 riots, Illinois Gov. Frank Orren Lowden sought to investigate the city’s race relations. Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson charged the Chicago Commission on Race Relations with the task.
Led by black sociologist Charles S. Johnson, the commission issued a 672-page report 2 1/2 years later, “The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot.” Its findings of systemic racism came with 59 recommendations for municipal reform that went nowhere.
Another partner in the initiative, the Chicago Urban League, was founded three years before the riots.
“We were founded to address those inequities African-Americans were then facing in housing, jobs, education and the like. Sadly, many of those inequities continue, remnants of policies put in place as a result of the 1919 riots,” Interim President and CEO Barbara Lumpkin said.
“We hope these conversations provide an opportunity for folks of all races to come together and commit to not allowing similar history to occur again.”
As for Mitchell, the 1919 riots remain seared in memory, lucid recollections of the week flowing as if it was yesterday.
“My aunt and uncle lived on the corner, 211 E. 35th St. And for the next several days, me and my sister would stand in the window and look out at the National Guard soldiers going back and forth into the Armory across the street. I was afraid,” she said. “But a loving and living God has wrapped his arms around me and continues to keep me safe.”