100 years after Chicago’s Red Summer race riots, the lasting legacy of segregation is crystal clear
White supremacists feel emboldened by America’s racist history, but are also very quick to forget it.
By Terrence Chappell
This summer marks the 100th anniversary of Chicago’s 1919 race riots, which triggered an onslaught of inequality that cost the city’s Black community a second causality behind lives lost—opportunity.
Temperatures (97 °F) and racial tensions were high on July 27, 1919, when a mob of white beachgoers grew agitated after 17-year-old Eugene Williams’ raft floated over to the “white side” of the 25th Street beach.
It was 24-year-old George Stauber who, according to witnesses, threw the first stone that caused Eugene to drown. When white police officer, Daniel Michael Callaghan, refused to arrest Stauber, a fight broke out on the beach, inciting a race war that would last for a week. The rioting, known as The Red Summer, claimed the lives of 38 people (23 of them Black and 15 white), injured 520, and displaced 1,000 Black people with fires intentionally set by young Irish-American gangs.
The tragic case of Eugene Williams may have been a forgotten piece of history to many, but paying the price for just existing as a Black person is all too familiar.
At the time of the Red Summer, Chicago’s racial landscape was changing vastly. According to the Chicago Tribune, the city’s Black population spiked from 44,000 in 1910 to 110,000 in 1920. Black soldiers returning from World War I demanded basic services and human rights after they risked their lives for their country. Black people were voting, working jobs typically held my whites, and moving into neighborhoods inhabited by whites who were immigrants themselves. Living as a Black person was seen as a threat to white superiority.
In response to Chicago’s Red Summer, those in power engineered redlining and housing discrimination as a way to undermine the progress of the city’s new Black population. White real estate agents disseminated messaging to white home-owners not to sell to Black people, which gave way to racially restrictive covenants, upheld by the law.
The aftermath of the city’s 1919 race riots limited Black communities to unequal resources around capitol, employment, and housing, leaving future generations at a deficit. By the 1970s, Chicago was one of the most segregated cities in the country.
My parents, baby boomers who are the children of those who soldiered and survived the 1919 race riots, both grew up on the South Side of Chicago and were just graduating from high school in the early 1970s. My dad was raised in Chatham, known as a central area for Chicago’s middle-class Black families since the late 1950s. He grew up with six other siblings, five boys and one girl. My grandparents sent them all to Catholic high schools. Some went to St. Ignatius while most went to Leo. He remembers attending high school at Leo during the late 1960s and being chased home after school by white students.
My parents made a home for my sister and me in Auburn Gresham, just one neighborhood over from Chatham. In the 1960s, the neighborhood was nearly 100 percent white, but flipped to being 69 percent Black by the 1970 census. Blockbusting and white flight influenced Gresham’s stark racial transition, which had ramifications for the area’s socioeconomic status and education system.
Today, the median household income for Auburn Gresham is $32,684, which is 47 percent lower than the national median household income of $61,858. The overall crime rate in the area is 171 percent higher than the national average.
The state divested in where I grew up: business owners do not set up shop in the area, schools aren’t updated, property values go down, and neighborhood moral is low. But that’s the point of anti-Black legislation, to disrupt and reduce our community.
The Chicago Urban League, founded in 1916—just three years before the city’s race riots—is still helping the Black community with the same issues they faced a hundred years ago: job placement, affordable housing, and educational attainment. The economy and job market may be on an uptick, but not for all. Young Black Chicagoans in their early 20s are still struggling to find work and are actually worse off than they were in the 1960s, according to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s research hub The Great Cities Institute. In a report by the organization, around 40 percent of Black 20-to-24 year-olds in the city are out of work and out of school. Only seven percent of white 20-to-24 year-olds are out of work and out of school.
Our parents invested in us and curated a strategic mix of programs in Auburn Gresham and neighborhoods aboard for exposure. There were many times when my parents went without, so my sister and I could have. But not all Black families can afford to send their kids to Catholic schools, pay for enrichment efforts, or move like my parents eventually did.
White supremacists feel emboldened by America’s racist history, but are also very quick to forget it. Recently, the New York Time’s 1619 project commemorating our country’s 400th anniversary of American slavery and recognizing the contributions of Black Americans has come under a tremendous amount of fire by right-wing pundits and media outlets for this very reason.
Current statistics around Black unemployment and the lack of family wealth illuminates that we’re not that far removed from our history—systemic racism is doing what it’s meant to do. For instance, the late Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley belonged to one of the Irish-American gangs that set fire to thousands of Black families’ homes, though his supporters denied it.
As the late author and activist James Baldwin stated, “people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” We see replays of our nation’s Red Summer in the the destruction of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street in 1921, The 1943 Detroit race riot , LA Watts riots of 1965, the Rodney King riots in 1992 to the more recent Ferguson Unrest protests the day after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. The common themes here are that Black people and the areas they occupy are always already in a state of emergency and the looming intrusion of white superiority. It may not be possible to hold history accountable, but we can put the onus on entities and those who have profited from history.
With a bachelor’s in magazine journalism from the Missouri School of Journalism, Terrence has written about social justice and LGBT issues. He has bylines in: Teen Vogue, Chicago Reader, The Advocate, and Ebony. When Terrence isn’t writing, he heads Chappell Communications Group, a digital marketing firm that helps clients to tap into the power of social media and content marketing.