The Summer of BYP ACTION


93 years ago, a black youth decided to go swimming in Lake Michigan. The Lake, as most Chicagoans refer to it, had long been recognized as a segregated space. Although I imagine it’s nearly impossible to find a wave steady enough to place a Whites Only placard, folks were generally aware of the boundary. That day, July 27, 1919, the young black man swam into an area observed as reserved for whites. He was stoned and drowned. The police department refused to take action.

The response was a riot that lasted nearly two weeks. By the end of the violence, at least 40 people were killed, most of them black. Many black families were left homeless due to white mobs destroying black businesses and homes on the south side of the city. “Order” was not restored until the militia arrived.

This riot was one of many that occurred during the summer and fall of 1919, an epoch James Weldon Johnson referred to as Red Summer. In many cities across the United States, racial violence had erupted due to the growing number of blacks in northern cities, the tensions in the aftermath of the first world war, and job competition between blacks and white ethnics. The Chicago riot, perhaps the most notable of them all, began with the death of a black youth.