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Race Riots

Race riots go way back in the United States. One of the worst occurred in Chicago in 1919; it killed 23 blacks, 15 whites, injured 537, and its arson left 1,000 homeless. As Eve Ewing writes in her new poetry collection, 1919, the melee was in part a reaction to the Great Migration. Her first poem presents the train’s perspective on the migrants it brings up from the South: “

…the lash lives in their shoulders
…I can never take you home. You have none.
And so you go, out into the wind.

Into the wind indeed. The migrants landed in one Windy City neighborhood, the South Side, also known as the Black Belt. They were not welcome elsewhere in Chicago, which remains to this day a pretty thoroughly segregated town. During the 1919 Red Summer, so-called for its many race riots throughout the U.S., the heatwave pushed Chicagoans to lakeside beaches, where, according to an official, 1922 governor’s report, compiled by six white and six black men, the spark lit the riot: “There was a clash of white people and Negroes at a bathing beach in Chicago, which resulted in the drowning of a Negro boy.” Later, as Ewing quotes, “no arrest was made. The tragedy was sensed by the battling crowd, and, awed by it, they gathered on the beach. For an hour both whites and Negroes dived for the boy without results.” Gunfire ensued.

Ewing prefaces each poem with a quote from the report. One, at the end, lists solutions dismissed for the race difficulties, including “the dying out of the Negro race.” Though not considered workable, it was apparently still contemplated. Integration was not. This is not surprising given the virulent race hatred of Chicago’s large Irish population, which, unimpressed by Slavic immigrants’ violence against African Americans, resorted to tricks and subterfuges to provoke the East Europeans to join in their hooliganism.

Not only immigrants raged against African Americans. The city’s elite did too. Ewing quotes the report about blacks “invading” the district, and how this was regarded as the worst catastrophe to strike Chicago since the Great Fire. A prominent white real estate man said: “Property owners should be notified to stand together block by block and prevent such invasion.” Yet still the migrants came, determined to escape the persecution and lynchings of the South.

With the 1919 civil disturbance, any faint mask of racial harmony came off. “As darkness came on, white gangsters became active,” Ewing quotes the report. “Negroes in white districts suffered severely at their hands. From 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., twenty-seven Negroes were beaten, seven were stabbed and four were shot.” Chicago whites had no intention of tolerating black rage at the drowning of a child. With violence on both sides, black people got the worst of it, even though they defended themselves. Everybody had guns. In a precursor to modern drive-by shootings, whites drove their cars through the South Side, armed with rifles and revolvers, firing as they went. Residents shot back from behind barricades.

Ewing argues that the riot cemented fear and mistrust for a solid century. Certainly the segregation has endured almost that long. In her previous book, “Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side,” she documents how white realtors and banks first penned African Americans into the Black Belt; this was later compounded by mid-twentieth century construction of public housing on the South Side. Not until well after much public housing was demolished, with the arrival of a brash neoliberal mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, did a new form of discrimination emerge: gentrification. The city’s real estate community began evicting African Americans from their neighborhoods, especially those conveniently located close to the downtown Loop, and therefore so appealing to wealthy hipsters and young professionals. One strategy has been closing schools, because clearly parents can’t live in a neighborhood without schools. Starving a district of such services resembles economic sanctions, a form of violence against a black community, which began in 1919. As Ewing writes of this brutality,

…we live in a time of sightseers
standing on the bridge of history
watching the water go by
and there are bodies in the water.

More articles by:

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Further Adventures of Feckless Frank. She can be reached at her website.

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