This week we have been remembering the Chicago Race Riots of 1919 which occurred over a period of several days starting on 27th July. The event was part of a wider summer of unrest in the USA generally known as “The Red Summer”.
Ostensibly the Chicago riots were ‘race-based’ – poor black people leaving the hostile environment of the deep south travelled North in search of employment and safer living conditions (there were eighty-three Ku Klux Klan related lynchings in 1919). Indeed the African-American population of Chicago from around 44,000 in 1916 to 104,000 in 1919. Mostly they came in hope of better employment prospects and the prosperity that this might provide. What in fact happened was that the new migrants came up against the long-established communities of poor white people of European (mostly Irish) descent and tensions increased exponentially with the perceived threat to jobs and hence security.
The flashpoint that indicated the start of the riot was the death of Eugene Williams, a young African American, who had apparently strayed from a ‘black bathing area’ on a beach into a ‘white area’. There was no official segregation in Illinois, rather a tacit understanding of non-mixing. Williams was struck by a rock thrown at him by a white youth and drowned. The tensions between communities came to the fore and a week of rioting, violence, looting and arson ensued. Eventually the government of Illinois sent in the National Guard and some sort of order was restored. In total twenty-three people died and five hundred or so were injured. It is estimated that between one thousand and two thousand lost their homes.
As we stated these were referred to as ‘race riots’ as if the colour of someone’s skin was sufficient to differentiate them from someone else. Read it again though and we think that the salient word here is ‘poor’. Poverty and fear for economic survival was the key driver sufficient to set community against community. ‘Twas ever thus. You’d like to think that things have moved on a bit since then (a little over a hundred years). Sadly you’d probably be wrong.