The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919

“Destruction is like a snow-ball rolled down a Hill, for its bulk increases by its own swiftness and thus disorder spreads.”― Peter Ackroyd

White gang looking for blacks during Chicago riots of 1919. Public domain. Source: The West Virginian.

One of the best ways to find good books on the cheap is at late spring garage sales near college campuses. Graduating students are oft in a hurry to discard some of the belongings they accumulated. If you’re lucky, and it happens, you’ll find some real gems for pennies on the dollar.

Last night I started re-reading a short volume called The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919 by Carl Sandburg. It was one of a dozen books I picked up for a dime each from a Hamline grad when we were living in the Midway in St. Paul.

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If the Sandburg name sounds familiar, it may be because of the two Pulitzer Prizes he won as a poet. Or it may be because of the Pulitzer he won for his renowned biography of Lincoln. I had not realized at the time I picked up this volume that he was initially a journalist. This printing includes a preface by Ralph McGill and an intro by the legendary Walter Lippmann.

I fetched the book off my shelf after reading a section of Don’t Know Much About History pertaining to the post-WWI South. It’s painfully depressing to read about the raw treatment blacks have received at the hands of whites.

In the Deep South cotton was king, until the boll weevil came along. Few of us today realize how devastating the boll weevil infestation was. If you’re like me, you may have thought boll weevils were a problem cotton growers had always had to contend with.

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Chicago Daily News. Public domain.

The weevil had been a plaque in South America but over time came north through Latin America and Mexico to become a major problem after the First World War. The way this critter works is that it lays its egg in a cotton boll. The newly hatched baby weevil then chews up the inside a bit and thereby kills the boll. Farms that produced thousands of bales of cotton were soon producing hundreds of bales. While the Roaring Twenties roared up North, the Southern economy was in a tailspin.

This, combined with Jim Crow laws, now set in stone, led to an exodus of workers seeking employment in Northern Rust Belt cities.

This, however, produced another problem. Racism in the North wore a different face. If you were black, you couldn’t live just anywhere you wanted. The Chicago black population had been 50,000 at the beginning of the century, but with this influx of families thru the decade there were 125,000 blacks in the Windy City by 1919. (It took more than four decades to place laws on the books that would permit a black family to choose where they could live.*) The lack of housing, Chicago politics and post-war psychology all contributed to the events that happened in July 1919.

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For blacks who stayed in the South at this time, prospects weren’t exactly comforting. Ralph McGill, in his preface to this book, cites three incidents. In Blakely, Georgia, April 5, 1919, A Private William Little returned to his hometown after the war via train. He was “met by a band of whites who ordered him to remove his uniform and walk home in his underwear.” When he continued to wear his uniform (because he had no other clothes), he was found dead, “his body badly beaten, on the outskirts of town. He was wearing his uniform.”

A few weeks later, in Shreveport, Louisiana, a train was held up by an armed mob in order to lynch a black man who had written a note to a white woman. Only after he was shot did anyone seek to find out whether he could read or write. He could not.

Another example from two weeks after that was cited in McGill’s preface but it was so horrible I’m not even going to share it. The account begins, “Lloyd Clay, Negro laborer, was roasted to death last night.” A mob of 800 to a thousand men and women removed him from a jail…

McGill’s preface was to the re-issued 1969 publication of Sandberg’s account, 50 years after its original publication. He laments that race relations, in spite of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, were not wholly better. This (1969) was only a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the race riots that shook more than 100 cities.

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The event that triggered the Chicago race riot of July 1919

A black youth accidentally floated on a raft across an invisible line at a segregated public beach shared by whites and blacks. The boy was stoned for his mistake by whites, knocked off the raft and drowned. Blacks rushed to get help from a policeman to address what had happened. The policeman refused to do anything. Fighting broke out that spread throughout the overcrowded black neighborhoods which Sandburg called the Black Belt. After three days he wrote that 20 blacks were dead and 14 whites, plus hundreds of injured. ( The Encyclopedia of Chicago states 23 African Americans and 15 whites.)

Sandburg’s book is more about the conditions that set off the riot so that it went viral through the black community. This is why the book discusses lynchings in the south. Chicago was a receiving station connected to every southern region. After every lynching somewhere in the south, Secretary Arnold Hill of the Urban League said, about two weeks later there would be more “colored people from that community” arriving. “You can depend on it.”

It was this feature of Sandburg’s story that struck especially close to home when I read it. In my New Jersey hometown of Bridgewater we had a small section that was known as Hobbstown which consisted of two parallel streets about four blocks long. Bridgewater was a mid-to-upscale developing suburb when our family moved there in 1964. As I understood it Hobbstown started somewhere around 1920 or so.

As it turns out, this spring I discovered a book about the community called Hobbstown: A Forgotten Legacy of a Unique African-American Community . Sandburg’s description of how more blacks came north each time there was a lynching down south is precisely what triggered the birth of Hobbstown. The Hobbs brothers lived in Georgia (if I recall correctly) and worked as sharecroppers. One of the brothers was a reverend. At year’s end, their pay minus expenses came to nothing. After a lynching, and this ongoing ripoff financial arrangement, one of the Hobbs brothers decided to go north to New York.

The New York situation was as overcrowded as Chicago, but as luck should have it, a woman showed up who said there was land in New Jersey. Hobbs sprang for it. He and his brothers were soon building a future in Bridgewater.

It’s been a hundred years since the Chicago race riots of 1919 and the book it spawned. Next summer Duluth will be having a remembrance event of its own with regard to the lynching which took place here in 2020. Much has changed over the past century, yet much has not. There is still a lot of pain and anger, frustration and fear.

The promise of social media was that it would bring us all together, but it seems to have done more to drive us apart. It was a false hope.

What we really need is imagination and love, and a willingness to step outside our comfort zones. And a commitment to become our better selves.

  • Even with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, racist attitudes made it difficult for black families to buy homes in many areas of the country. When I was in college at Ohio U (1970–74) a black family bought a home in the county adjacent to Athens County. They were the first black family in the county, and their welcoming went something like this. Windows broken with rocks. More windows broken and vandalism. I do not know the end of the matter, only that to hear of it was pretty darn sad.

Related Links

Tamara Tabel, Historical Novelist, on the Race Riots of 1919
The Lynchings in Duluth by Michael Fedo

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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