and the Awakening of Black America
By 1919, Chicago had 2.7 million people, up 500,000 from 1909; it was the 2nd-largest city in America behind New York City. The area by Lake Michigan might have been a showcase part of the city, but not far from the lake, much of Chicago was dirty tenements, huge rail yards, sooty factories, slaughterhouses, machine shops, industrial warehouses, and mounds and mounds of coal. In 1919, 30% of Chicago was foreign-born, with a large percentage next-generation immigrants, which largely kept their European traditions & perspectives intact.
Chicago in 1919 was also a city of gangs, each with their defined territorial borders; robbery & prostitution were rampant . . . a twenty year-old Al Capone came to Chicago in 1919, and he fit right in without any transition. Most of the gangs of Chicago were "ethnic whites"; recent or next-generation immigrants that basically felt that they were above the law.
World War I cut off the flow of immigrant labor from Europe, which meant that during the Great War, Chicago had a massive labor shortage. Chicago's Big Businesses found a solution: African-Americans from the South. By 1919, Chicago was second only to Washington, D.C. in terms of the population of African-Americans that lived in the city. African-American migrants were used to break strikes, lower wages, and increase tension within and among unions.
Below: "Up South: African-American Migration in the Era of the Great War
Therefore, labor unions didn't like-or-recruit African-Americans, and African-Americans had little use for labor unions. Big Businesses kept bringing in African-Americans to break strikes and lower wages; exacerbating the tension was a recession with inflation . . . 250,000 workers went on strike in Chicago in 1919.
Ninety percent of African-Americans were confined to the "Black Belt" in Chicago, which was only 27 square miles. That part of Chicago had the worst housing conditions combined with high rents and population density - African-Americans resented being squeezed into substandard/high cost housing. To the southeast was Hyde Park, Kenwood, and the University of Chicago, dominated by wealthy whites that refused to ease their covenants. To the west were Irish, Italian, Polish, and Lithuanian immigrants, and African-Americans were not welcome in their part of the city either.
Federal, state, and local governments did little to ease the tension; the situation was untenable. African-Americans faced segregation in housing, had less-than-desirable jobs, and little access to public areas of the city . . . however, African-Americans could vote, and as a result, they were recruited and conspired against at the same time. Chicago politics were very corrupt, and African-Americans were politically powerless in a city that needed them, and hated them at the same time.
Thousands in Chicago went to the beachfront in the summer for relief from the heat, as well as for cheap amusement. The South Side Beach was segregated: the white beach went for 11 miles, the African-American beachfront was significantly less. Five African-American teens went to the beach without telling their parents, hitched a ride in the back of truck, going through an Irish section of the city where they had experienced trouble before (pelted with rocks by Irish gangs).
None of the five could swim well, yet they didn't go to an African-American beach that had a lifeguard. Instead, they went to a "Secret Beach", an inlet that had an ice cream factory and a brewery on the waterfront, an area that they called "Hot and Cold." At 2 pm, the five teens pushed a makeshift raft in the water, and made for the lake . . . all five were oblivious to the fact that they were drifting towards a white beach.
There was already trouble at that particular white beach, in that a few African-Americans tried to enter the water from the beach (which was legal), but they were forced back by angry whites with rocks and verbal insults. Those few African-Americans went to the nearby "Black Beach" to get reinforcements, but the whites had gathered more people, and for the second time, African-Americans were forced off the white beach.
While this was going on, one of the whites noticed the raft with the 5 African-American teens, and started throwing rocks at them from a fair distance. The teens were far enough away where they believed it was a game (they could see the incoming rocks fairly easily), but one of the teens was hit in the head by a rock, and went underwater.
African-Americans, now incensed, went to the "Black Beach" to get more people, and on their return, the white officer arrested an African-American (The cowardly "Rock-Thrower" was hiding in the middle of the much-larger white crowd on the beach, scared to death). Two hours after the body of the African-American teen was recovered, about 1000 African-Americans gathered at an entrance to the white beach, demanding that the white policeman and the "Rock-Thrower" be turned over to them. A 37 year-old African-American opened fire on white police officers; the return fire killed the shooter, but the crowd of angry African-Americans remained.
Not only did the crowd remain, it started attacking whites (4 beaten, 5 stabbed, 1 shot). Whites left the beach, but soon stories of what occurred at the beach were exaggerated or outright lies; for example, a rumor spread that an African-American had drowned a white man . . . another rumor was that African-Americans were stockpiling weapons. As a result of these lies and exaggerations, gangs of ethnic whites formed, and started attacking African-Americans that were going through their neighborhoods. By 9 pm that Sunday, through 3 am on Monday, 37 African-Americans had already been beaten, stabbed, or shot . . . The South Side gangs of ethnic whites were on a rampage.
On Monday morning, Chicagoans started going to work like any other weekday, crossing through neighborhoods. The riot seemed to be over, and everything seemed to be back to normal. Chicago's politicians not only thought the riot was over, they were actually congratulating themselves on their "Enlightened" approach in dealing with "their people" compared to other cities (e.g. New York City and Washington, D.C.).
The heat was still oppressive, and the lies & exaggerations spread by whites claiming that African-Americans were stockpiling weapons had become "viral". As the day progressed, ethnic white gangs joined together in their attacks on African-Americans. Extra police were on duty, and the state militia was nearby, but hadn't yet been asked by Chicago's mayor, "Big Bill" Thompson, to enter the city. Chicago's political leaders believed that the storm had abated, and there was no need to bring in the militia.
Monday night, intense rioting occurred on the border with the "Black Belt". Ethnic white gangs roaming that part of the city numbered from 4 or 5, to over 1000, all of them looking to attack any African-American that came across their path. In one encounter, a white Jew with an axe handle confronted an African-American that was an Army lieutenant in WW I. In defending himself, the African-American thrust his pocketknife into the white Jew's heart, killing him. "Mob Logic" dictated vengeance, but it didn't matter which African-Americans paid the price for their revenge.
Meanwhile, African-American gangs attacked whites trapped in the "Black Belt"; a few white store owners were killed. The overall mood in the city during the riot on Monday night was "Get them before they get you."
By Tuesday morning, 17 were dead, and 172 African-Americans and 71 whites had suffered serious injuries. It was the Working Classes, ethnic whites and African-Americans, killing each other on the streets of Chicago. Later that day, Chicago's transit workers went on strike; over 200,000 Chicagoans were in a dilemma, needing to go to work, but now basically having to walk a significant distance through now-dangerous neighborhoods. Only 19 of 1500 African-American packinghouse workers at Armour showed up for work on Tuesday. The city government ordered African-Americans to stay home; many did, but many decided to go to work, fearful that they may lose their jobs.
The transit strike caused massive traffic jams in "The Loop", Chicago's business district. Since most of the city's police were in the South Side trying to get control of the riot, gangs of ethnic whites took over "The Loop", and deadly and brutal attacks against African-Americans occurred in plain sight in the business district. African-Americans were dragged out of rail stations and restaurants by these ethnic white mobs, and badly beaten outside.
(Above: A photograph of an ethnic white gang searching for African-Americans)
Still, the riot continued unabated in the South Side, with whites attacking & killing African-Americans that were heading home from work. Newspapers, both white and African-American, spread false rumors as fact, fanning the flames that fueled the riot. Politicians did their part as well to make matter worse, publicly advocating that whites should get guns to defend themselves.
Mayor Thompson and the Illinois State Militia Commander were political rivals, each with aspirations for the Presidency in 1920. Thompson refused to ask the militia to enter the city to end the riot, since he wanted to try and maintain the image of a mayor that was in charge of his city. The State Militia Commander did not want to enter the city without permission, since he believed it would harm him politically . . . both avoided their responsibilities for the public good, in that they both refused to use their authority to end the riot.
Never before had Chicago seen such unbridled, uncontrolled mayhem by its citizens. Due to the violence on Tuesday, city offices shut down, and public places were closed. Jails and hospitals were overwhelmed with the numbers of detained & wounded people: African-Americans, by far, had the highest number of people arrested and in need of medical attention in the hospitals.
On Wednesday, 5 more were killed, while 3000 African-Americans showed up for work at a meatpacking plant; they were stopped by a mob of white workers. Wednesday was the start of a series of large arson fires that broke out in the city - the riot had reached a new level of intensity and horror. At 9:30 pm, Mayor Thompson didn't declare martial law, but he asked the state militia for "assistance". 12,000 militia entered the city, under the command of the Police Commissioner: their orders were to maintain the peace, using their bayonet and rifle butt first, but were authorized to fire their weapons if they saw fit to do so.
The militia effectively dispersed mobs, regardless of race; machine guns were placed at key intersections. Most white soldiers in the militia believed that African-Americans were to blame for the riot, but that belief was altered when they entered the city, seeing how badly African-Americans were outnumbered and brutalized. African-Americans were thankful for the militia, while the ethnic white mobs taunted the soldiers before being forced to leave an area.
On Thursday, the state militia worked to get the city back to normal, but the tension in the city was still sky-high. The militia followed the Cardinal Rule in dealing with mobs: NEVER BLUFF. The militia exercised a constant show of massive force, while also providing a massive influx of aid and protection for African-American workers.
Still, on Thursday, a white packinghouse worker killed an African-American worker with a hammer, and a white mob formed as a result. The militia showed up very quickly, and the white mob jeered the militia, but the soldiers advanced with lowered bayonets, and the mob was dispersed. Many incidents that could have rekindled the riot were ended by the state
militia on the last day of July.
As Chicago rioted and burned in the last days of July, 1919, the Federal Government did not provide any assistance to a beleaguered city. This was due at least in part to President Wilson's desire to avoid any political embarrassment in publicly admitting that the U.S. did indeed have "Human Rights" problem after returning from Europe and the negotiations that led to the proposed Treaty of Versailles.
Overall, 38 Chicagoans were killed (23 African-Americans, 15 whites), 537 seriously injured (342 African-Americans, 178 whites, and 17 of unknown ethnicity). 2000 homes / apartment buildings were damaged or destroyed, leaving many homeless and scared for their immediate and distant futures. Chicago whites were horrified, and African-American leaders were thrilled, that African-American citizens fought back when attacked. Chicago showed America that large-scale white violence could be met with large-scale African-American violence.
If Chicago's white citizens (and whites in other Northern cities) believed they could force African-Americans to leave their city, they found otherwise in 27-31 July, 1919 . . . African-Americans were heavily invested in staying in Chicago, and were not going to be forced to leave against their will.
Below: Side-scroll to the 26:20 mark for the Story of U.S. segment on the Chicago Race Riot