One hundred years ago, 7-year-old Juanita Mitchell should have been playing with other children in the streets during that summer’s heat wave and getting to know her new home on Chicago’s South Side.
She and her younger sister, Iona, had just moved with their mother into their great-uncle’s home near the corner of 35th Street and Giles Avenue, the heart of the city’s expanding black community where new faces were showing up daily and thousands of families were hoping to find the jobs and dignity absent in the Jim Crow South.
But instead, Mitchell and other relatives were trapped inside a stifling upstairs room, sometimes huddled behind a piano, as angry mobs of young white men and boys roamed the so-called black belt looking to maim, kill or set fires.
Mitchell — one of the last living eyewitnesses to Chicago’s most violent racial conflict that began on July 27, 1919 — still recalls her great-uncle Cecil’s signal that white men armed with guns had crossed Wentworth Avenue, the racial dividing line, and entered their neighbourhood.
“My uncle pulled out the biggest gun I’ve ever seen and stood at the window, and I heard him say ‘Here they come,’” Mitchell, now 107, recently recalled at the suburban Flossmoor home she shares with her daughter. “It meant the white folks was coming up 35th Street and that the riot was going to begin.”
Many details about one of the city’s worst weeks are not widely known.
The 1919 riots “didn’t seem to make it into the timeline alongside titanic stories about Fort Dearborn, Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, the World’s Columbian Exposition, the 1968 riot, Richard J. Daley, or Harold Washington,” wrote Eve Ewing in her book of poetry 1919. In fact, only a small marker on the beach near the spot where 17-year-old Eugene Williams was murdered commemorates the days of rioting that followed.
But the cataclysmic event that left 38 people dead (23 black and 15 white), more than 500 injured and hundreds homeless due to arson influenced many of the city’s leaders who would face issues about race relations for decades.
What Mitchell and other newly arriving black families couldn’t have known was that Chicago a century ago was a city on the edge.
That year, much of the country was already engulfed in sporadic, deadly racial violence against blacks that led black author and activist James Weldon Johnson to call it the “Red Summer.” With the hint of revolution in the air around the world, postwar Chicago was dealing with labour strife and an influx of southern black families who doubled its population in two years, shrinking housing options and leading to tensions with neighbouring white residents. World War I soldiers, black and white, returned home with different ideas about equal treatment and were competing for jobs, most notably at the stockyards in Back of the Yards.
And then there was a stifling heat wave.
“You had a situation that was ready to explode,” said Julius Jones, an assistant curator with the Chicago History Museum, who has long studied the riots and their effects on the city.
The riots, Jones and numerous other historians have long since noted, were perpetrated by young white gangs and “athletic clubs” pushing back against what they saw as black intrusion. “Many white Chicagoans felt African Americans had been getting out of their place. So they used this opportunity to remind them of their place in a subordinate and second-class position. All of those things sort of came to a head at that moment,” Jones said.
It all set the stage for a nasty confrontation on a 96-degree Sunday afternoon at the 29th Street Beach, where the era’s informal yet strictly enforced colour line even extended into Lake Michigan. When Williams’ raft drifted south past the imaginary line separating the beach, a white man started throwing rocks at black swimmers.
The teen’s drowning death and the weak police response to the attacks, historians and countless reports and analyses of the riots say, led to some of the ugliest instances of racial animus and violence the city has ever witnessed. The conflict didn’t spread to every corner of the city but did lead to mob attacks from Little Italy to Englewood. The riots’ stop-and-go pattern was aided mightily by wild rumours, propagated by the city’s black and white newspapers (including the Chicago Tribune).
The riots ended after seven days, brought about by the intervention of the Illinois militia — which critics said came too late. The riots changed Chicago in ways it continues to grapple with. Days after the riot, the City Council, for example, proposed formalised segregation on the South Side that remains in place informally today.
The city’s black residents — like those in other Red Summer cities and towns — banded together to fend off white mobs that crossed Wentworth Avenue. Black residents faced white attackers in street clashes and fired on them from rooftops and windows. Between April and November 1919, white mobs instigated more than 30 racial attacks across the country, resulting in hundreds killed of both races in beatings, shootings, public lynchings and burnings.
Consequently, the trauma of the white assault on the black community left another lasting legacy: the black street gang. “To be sure, the 1919 riot contributed directly to Black gang formation in Chicago as Black males united to confront hostile White gangs who were terrorising the Black community,” author James C Howell wrote in his book The History of Street Gangs in the United States: Their Origins and Transformations.
As an adult, Mitchell began to open up to friends and family about her experience arriving “in the middle of the riots.” She would tell them how she expected a grand and mythic spectacle bigger than anything her young eyes had seen in her native Louisiana.
In reality, Chicago had struggled for months with random outbreaks of violence against black residents as their numbers swelled in the city’s industrial sector, pushing them to seek housing closer to their white neighbours.
Several weeks ahead of the centennial for the deadly riots, Mitchell and her family recalled how her dreams quickly turned into a nightmare during that sweltering week: her only access to the outside world being a window where she watched soldiers come and go from the nearby armory.
“It wasn’t any fun,” she said in a low voice, seated in her wheelchair.
Mitchell has slowed down in the past few years, but she still recalls her arrival in Chicago after her great-aunt and family matriarch, Beulah White — called Auntie White — invited them to stay after her father died of pneumonia.
“My aunt was married to a doctor, and when we came here, my sister and I, we came to Auntie White’s house on 35th Street and that’s where we lived,” Mitchell said.
Cecil White, a physician by training, ran a grocery store on 31st Street across from Olivet Baptist Church. “He would see his patients at the back of the store,” Mitchell’s daughter, Mary Muse, said.
Mitchell’s family survived the terror, and she remained in Chicago, graduating from Hyde Park High School. She worked as a seamstress and a schoolteacher before getting married and raising a son and daughter on the South Side.
She’s outlived her husband, son and numerous other relatives. She is committed to sharing her memories with younger generations.
Muse, who heard her mother’s stories countless times while growing up, has been happy to help her share the painful memories of a different Chicago. The director of nursing for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Muse said she’s struck by the irony of black people seeking safety in the North only to be attacked after they arrived.
“They expected the big city of Chicago to be different from things that were in the South. The trauma of that event, I think, stuck with her. My mother never forgot it.”
In the end, despite a number of murder indictments, few if any people were ever convicted and sentenced to prison. Political leaders initially blamed black criminals for sparking the riots. And many displaced black people relocated closer to the chain of neighborhoods that made up the black belt and would remain there through the 1960s.
But on one topic, there was agreement, Jones said.
“In the aftermath, you call it an interracial consensus that the best way to prevent something like this from happening again was to keep the races separate. That was the lesson that was mislearned from the riot,” he said.
It was an idea that helped erect a system of barriers such as segregated housing, covenants and redlining that would keep black and white residents living separately in many communities for generations. —Chicago Tribune/TNS
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