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The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 (High School)

by Roland Marchand, adapted by Sherrill Futrell
Topic(s): Race, African Americans, Cities

Table of Contents


1919 was one of the most violent and angry years of the 20th century in the U.S. Over 4-1/2 million soldiers and sailors were demobilizing after World War I, and about 400,000 were Black. These returning veterans often found intense competition for jobs and a changed racial makeup in Northern cities. During the war Northern employers had advertised in the South for workers, and black newspapers had urged blacks to take advantage of the higher wages and more tolerant racial policies in the North. During the war millions of Southerners, black and white, had migrated north, meeting the demand for workers in Northern industry.

This shortage of jobs for returning veterans only worsened the conflicts between labor and management. Workers believed that they had made sacrifices for the war effort and now, in the face of inflation, deserved higher wages and the recognition of their unions by both government and business. Failing to achieve these goals, over 4 million workers engaged in 3600 strikes in 1919. In Chicago in July, over 250,000 workers were involved.

Anxieties over labor unrest had been intensified by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1918 and the Seattle General Strike of early 1919. Then in March, 1919, the Third Communist International was created in Russia to achieve a world-wide proletarian revolution. These events had awakened fears in millions of Americans of a communist revolution in the U.S. In May, a series of bombings of U.S. government leaders worsened the fear of radicalism. Americans clamored for "protective action". By the end of 1919 government officials and vigilantes attacked suspected communists and other "radicals" in a nation-wide "Red Scare".

In this context of inflation, labor unrest, anxieties over radicalism and the disruption of rapid demobilization from World War I, racial tensions exploded. By July, 1919, a major racial riot had erupted in Washington, D.C., along with several smaller riots and an upsurge of lynching, some of black war veterans.

July 27, 1919, was a hot Sunday in Chicago. Many people were swimming at the racially segregated beaches along the shore of Lake Michigan. Late in the afternoon, Eugene Williams, a young black man playing on a raft, floated in front of a "white" beach. Whites began throwing rocks at him from "their" beach". He was hit, and disappeared under the water. His companions tried to rescue him, without success, as did other blacks who had gathered at the edge of the "white" beach and were allegedly held back by whites. A white police officer refused to arrest the man who had supposedly thrown the fatal rock.

This incident touched off a week of racial violence in Chicago which left 38 dead, 537 injured and over 1000 homeless. The following documents provide possible explanations for the underlying causes of the riot, which was to symbolize the violence of the "Red Summer" of 1919.



You have decided to write a history of the first postwar year. You face the challenge of explaining the causes of the Chicago Riot of 1919. Analyze this racial violence in at least 3 double-spaced, typed pages. Address these questions in your history:



1. Was there one central cause? Or several of equal importance?

2. Did certain conditions in Chicago interact to produce the riot?

3. To what extent were the causes of the riot unique to Chicago?

4. What signs do you find of the survival or rejection of the philosophy of Booker Washington?

5. Are changes in "ideas" important in the causes of the riot? If so, what might have brought about the changes in these ideas?

6. How do you assess the relative importance and interaction of economic, political, ideological and social forces in creating the background for the riot?

7. What individuals in Chicago could have helped to prevent the riot? How?



Document #1: The Chicago Daily Tribune, July 28, 1919 

"Shortly after 5 o’clock...white bathers at the 29th Street beach saw a colored boy on a raft paddling into what they termed ‘white’ territory. A snarl of protest went up from the whites and soon a volley of rocks and stones was sent in his direction. One rock, said to have been thrown by George Stauber of Cottage Grove Avenue, struck the lad and he toppled into the water. Colored men who were present attempted to go to his rescue, but they were kept back by the whites....Indignant [at the refusal of the police to arrest Stauber], the Negroes...commenced to pummel him. The whites came to his rescue and then the royal battle was on. Fists flew and rocks were hurled....Policeman John O’Brien and three blacks were shot...

"The battling spread along Cottage Grove Avenue and outbreaks were conspicuous at every corner....Meanwhile the fighting continued along the lake....Acting Police Chief Alcock...immediately sent out a call to every station in the city to rush all available men to the Black Belt [black neighborhood]. Before they arrived, colored and white men were mobbed in turn. The blacks added to the racial feeling by carrying guns and brandishing knives...

"By nightfall...whites stood at all prominent corners ready to avenge the beatings their brothers had received. Along Halsted and State Streets they were armed with clubs, and every Negro who appeared was pummeled."



Document #2: "Ghastly Deeds of Rioters Told", The Chicago Defender (a black newspaper), Aug. 2, 1919

"In all parts of the city, white mobs dragged from...cars black passengers wholly ignorant of any trouble [and] set upon them....The homes of blacks isolated in white neighborhoods were burned to the ground and the owners and occupants beaten and thrown unconscious in the smoldering embers. Meanwhile rioters in the ‘black belt’ smashed windows and looted shops of white merchants on State Street.

"[Black] workers thronging the loop district to their work were set upon by mobs of sailors and marines roving the streets and several fatal casualties have been reported....The loop violence came as a surprise to the police...as no outbreaks had been expected in this quarter."

Document #3: The Survey (a national periodical), Aug. 9, 1919

"The fury spread like wildfire, first back in the ‘black belt’....Workers in the stockyards, 10,000 or more of whom are Negroes, were at first guarded as they entered and left, but few of them could get to their work when rioting made passage through the streets unsafe....Gangs of white and black hoodlums appeared and ran amuck. Armed men of either color dashed through the district in automobiles and beyond, firing as they flew. Two white men, wounded while shooting up the district, were found to carry official badges, one being thus identified as...a Chicago policeman.

"At last the mayor...called upon the governor for the assistance of the state troops....While a suspension of organized hostilities has thus been secured, sniping continues...

"A colored soldier wearing a wound stripe on his sleeve was beaten to death while limping along one of the main streets. He was heard to exclaim, ‘This is a fine reception to give a man just home from the war.’"

Document #4: The Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago, 1922

"Newspaper reports...showed 6 percent more whites injured than Negroes. As a matter of fact, there were 28 percent more Negroes injured than whites. The Chicago Tribune on July 29 reported twenty persons killed, of whom 13 were white and seven colored. The true figures were exactly the opposite...

"The [Grand Jury] believes that these fires were started for the purpose of inciting race feelings by blaming same on the blacks."

DOCUMENT #5: NAACP leader Walter White, in The Crisis (a national Black monthly edited by W.E.B. Dubois), Oct. 1919.


"The papers of Chicago have played up in prominent style with glaring, prejudice-breeding headlines every crime or suspected crime committed by Negroes. Headlines such as ‘NEGRO BRUTALLY MURDERS PROMINENT CITIZEN’, ‘NEGRO ROBS HOUSE’, and the like, have appeared with alarming frequency...

"For a long period prior to the riots, organized gangs of white hoodlums had been perpetrating crimes against Negroes for which no arrests had been made...and later direct connection was shown between them and incendiary fires started during the riots. Colored men, women and children had been beaten in the parks....All of these cases had caused colored people to wonder if they could expect any protection whatever from the authorities."

 Document #6: Population of Chicago, 1910-1920




% increase from 1910-1920 

All residents




Black residents





DOCUMENT #7: Walter White of the NAACP in The Crisis, Oct., 1919.

"Prior to 1915, Chicago had been famous for its remarkably fair attitude toward colored citizens. Since that time, when the migratory movement from the South assumed large proportions, the situation has steadily grown more and more tense. This was due in part to the introduction of many Negroes who were unfamiliar with city ways....Little was done to teach them the rudimentary principles of sanitation, of conduct or of their new status as citizens under a system different from that in the South....Their carefree, at times irresponsible...conduct caused complications difficult to adjust. But equally important, though seldom considered, is the fact that many Southern whites have also come into the North.....These have spread the virus of race hatred and evidences of it can be seen in Chicago on every hand."

Document #8: Editorial, "Unsettling the Race Problem, Chicago Daily Tribune, March 1919

"White and black will not mix in quantity....The mass of Negroes [do not] want social equality....We believe the Negroes want the opportunity to develop their own society. If this is true there ought not to be widespread objection to social segregation, directed by themselves."


Document #9: Dr. Scarborough, black educator, in The Chicago Defender, reprint from The New York Independent, Aug. 16, 1919

"The spirit of the Negro who went across the seas -- who was in action, and who ‘went over the top’ -- is by no means the spirit of the Negro before the war. He is altogether a new man, with new ideas, new hopes, new aspirations....He will not quietly submit to former conditions....And may we not hope also that we have new white men?"

DOCUMENT #9: Dr. Scarborough, black educator, in The Chicago Defender, reprint from The New York Independent, Aug. 16, 1919.

"The spirit of the Negro who went across the seas -- who was in action, and who ‘went over the top’ -- is by no means the spirit of the Negro before the war. He is altogether a new man, with new ideas, new hopes, new aspirations....He will not quietly submit to former conditions....And may we not hope also that we have new white men?"


Document #10: From the [white] Property Owner’s Journal for Hyde Park and Kenwood suburbs of Chicago, March 1919 

"The Negro is unwilling to resume his status of other years; he is exalting himself with idiotic ideas about social equality....Keep the Negro in his place, amongst his people, and he is healthy and loyal. Remove him, or allow his ‘newly discovered importance to remove him from his proper environment, and the Negro becomes a nuisance’....Their presence here is intolerable...

"Every colored man who moves into Hyde Park knows that he is damaging his white neighbor’s property. Therefore, he is making war on the white man.

"Consequently, he is not entitled to any consideration and forfeits his right to be employed by the white man.

"If employers should adopt a rule of refusing to employ Negroes who reside in Hyde Park to the damage of the white man’s property, it would soon show good results."


Document #11: Wm. Tuttle, Race Riot, 1977

"The directions in which the black belt could expand were few....To the north...prices were far beyond the reach of the ordinary househunter....To the west...were the Irish, whose hostility excluded blacks from that market...

"Hyde Park was a deteriorating neighborhood, one whose homes blacks could afford....For twenty to thirty years property values had declined because of the odors of the stockyards, the smoke and soot of the Illinois Central trains, the conversion of large homes into apartment buildings and flats, and the fear of an ‘invasion’ of blacks from nearby areas. During the war residential construction largely ceased in Chicago as elsewhere. In the early months of 1918...the demands of whites for dwellings began to exceed the supply. Ugly interracial competition for homes broke out..."

Document #12: Dr. Willis Huggins, Chicago teacher and editor, "Why the Negro Appeals to Violence", Literary Digest, Aug. 9, 1919

"The basis of the trouble is this: the large employers of labor who lured my people to the North with high wages, and the city of Chicago itself, have been derelict in providing housing for them.

"It is impossible to put 80,000 people where 50,000 lived before in utter congestion. Politicians who want to be sure of their political futures have...looked with...pleasure upon the crowding of my people in a given district so that 85% of their vote might invariably be safely held under control.

"Unscrupulous landlords and real-estate dealers have taken advantage of the shortage of houses to gouge my people, [who have] always had to pay $5.00 and up in excess of what white tenants have paid, and that too, minus the care of the buildings and grounds that was given to white tenants.

"My people have moved into white blocks...because white people were willing to sell or rent, because they wanted to avoid the congestion in the Second Ward, and, lastly, because they are American citizens."

Document #13: The New York Times, Aug. 4, 1919

"In Chicago, as elsewhere, Negro families of the better class have always been ambitious to get into better homes and better surroundings....The entrance of colored residents into high-class white neighborhoods has always been met with protests, and sometimes with threats....Colored tenants paid disproportionately higher rent for their apartments which, as a rule, were in poorer repair than those of their immigrant neighbors."

Document #14: Walter White of the NAACP in The Crisis, Oct. 1919

"From January 1918 to August 1919 there were bombings of...houses occupied by Negroes outside of the 'Black Belt'. During this period no less than twenty bombings took place, yet only two persons have been arrested and neither of the two has been convicted."

Document #15: The Chicago Whip (a black newspaper), June 28, 1919

"The Whip informs you, the whites, that the compromising peace-at-any-price Negro is rapidly passing into the scrap heap of yesterday and being supplanted by a fearless, intelligent Negro who recognizes no compromise but who demands absolute justice and fair play.


Document #16: Speaker at Hyde Park-Kenwood Association meeting, May 5, 1919, quoted in Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago, 1922

"Why, I remember fifteen or twenty years ago that district down here at Wabash Avenue and Calumet was one of the most beautiful and highest-class neighborhoods of this great city. Go down there today and see the ramshackle broken-down and tumbledown district. That is the result of the new menace that is threatening this great Hyde Park district.

"You cannot mix oil and water. You cannot assimilate races of a different color as neighbors along social lines. Remember this: That order is heaven's first law."

Document #17: White South Side real estate dealer, quoted in Chicago Daily News, summer, 1919

"I told them we might as well be frank about it. 'You people are not admitted to our society,' I said. Personally I have no prejudice against them. I have had experience of many years dealing with them and I'll say this for them: I have never had to foreclose a mortgage on one of them. They have been clean in every way and always prompt in their payments. But, you know, improvements are coming along the lake shore, the Illinois Central and all that; we can't have these people coming over here. Not one cent has been appropriated by our organization for bombing or anything like that."

Document #18: Wm. Tuttle, Race Riot, 1977

"The AMCBW (Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen) had launched its strike [in Chicago in 1905] in the face of a depression. Outside the stockyards each morning as many as 5,000 men stood lined up to replace the strikers....

The arch villains to emerge from the defeat [of the strike] were the packers [employers] and their strikebreakers, especially the black ones. One observer estimated that upward of 18,000 blacks served as strikebreakers....To white workers the disturbing presence of the blacks seemed to be everywhere...

"The bloody teamsters' strike of 1905...made more indelible the image of blacks as a 'scab race'. Lasting over 100 days, the strike resulted in close to twenty deaths and over 400 serious injuries....The hostility of striking whites toward strikebreaking blacks had been generalized into hatred for the black race as a whole; any black man was a potential target....'You have the negroes in here to fight us,' the teamsters' president told the employers' association, 'and we answer that we have the right to attack them wherever found.'

"The strike failures...haunted union members, and it was rumored that the packers wanted a strike (in Sept. 1917) and had imported an enormous labor reserve of blacks to break it and crush unionization."

 (Ed. note: Black workers had helped to break strikes in Chicago in 1916, 1918, and July, 1919. Unemployment levels in the city, particularly among black workers, remained high in mid-1919.)

Document #19: The New Majority, Chicago Federation of Labor, Aug. 9, 1919

Proclamation Concerning the Race Riots

"The profiteering meat packers of Chicago are responsible for the race riots that have disgraced the city. It is the outcome of their deliberate attempt to disrupt the labor union movement in the stockyards. Their responsibility is shared by the daily newspapers which are kept subsidized by the extravagant advertising contracts of the packers...

"Discriminating against union men, [the packers] have fired them and hired nonunion men in their places....Nonunion colored workers have been brought here in great numbers...not...for their own improvement, but are enslaved at low wages and have been used by the packers to undermine union conditions.

"Organized labor has no quarrel with the colored worker: workers, black and white, are fighting the same battle. The unions met the action of the packers by starting to organize the colored workers. As soon as this work commenced, the packers started to fight the unions with foul tactics. They subsidized Negro politicians and Negro preachers and sent them out among the colored men and women to induce them not to join the unions...

"Their purpose in this...was to play upon race prejudice and create dissension between whites and blacks which would prevent the colored workers from joining the unions and prejudice the white workers against them for that reason.

"Neither black nor white union men participated in the rioting, despite the lying accounts published daily by the kept press....The rioting subsided and then someone fired the homes of hundreds of white workers back of the yards and these homes were burned to the ground. The newspapers and the police, jointly tools of the packers, tried to convince the citizens that colored workers had set fire to these homes..."

Document #20: Hyde Park-Kenwood Association, Property Owners' Journal, May, 1919

"Their solid vote is the Negroes' great weapon,...cast solid for the candidate who makes the best bargain with them....This solid block of 40,000 becomes a possible power and might be able to defeat or elect a candidate.

"This vote situation is the foundation of the Chicago Negro's effrontery and his evil design against the white man's property. He feels that he holds the balance of power and that he can dictate the policy of any administration that happens to be elected by his controlling black vote. He therefore becomes arrogant, insulting, threatening..

"The Negro should be consistent. As he segregates his vote and casts it all together in one block, so he should live together all in one block."

Document #21: The Survey, Aug. 9, 1919

"Against the united and bitter opposition of every daily newspaper in Chicago, William Hale Thompson was elected again as mayor, due, as it was claimed, to the Negro and German vote. While it is not possible to state that the anti-Thompson element deliberately brought on the riots, yet it is safe to say that they were not averse to its coming.... First, it would alienate the Negro set from Thompson...when it was seen that the police force under the direction of the mayor was unable or unwilling to protect the colored people from assault by mobs. Secondly, it would discourage the Negroes from registering and voting and thus eliminate the powerful Negro vote in Chicago...

"A contributing cause [of the riots] was the woeful inefficiency and criminal negligence of the police authorities of Chicago....Prostitution, gambling, and the illicit sale of whisky flourish openly and apparently without any fear whatever of police interference..."

Document #22: The New York Times, Aug.3, 1919

"Thompson had been mayor only a short time when...the old underworld...flocked to the neighborhood. White men bought saloons and cabarets, and pushed negroes to the front as their ostensible owners. Soon the Black Belt became known as the district where everything 'went'.

"All-night cabarets were jammed with whites and blacks until the morning sun streaked the sky over Lake Michigan....Jazz bands filled the air with syncopated sound, while in the cabarets whites and blacks intermingled in carousal....The rattle of dice and the click of poker chips were seldom stilled in the heart of this district...

"Then came vice in a new form:...dance halls. These new places had no liquor licenses, although most of them sold intoxicants...

"Early in 1918 the City Council passed an ordinance which put a damper for a time on the night life of the city. Last Spring, however, the mayoralty election came around again. Mayor Thompson was a candidate for re-election and was re-elected. The Black Belt did its duty...when the primary campaign opened....The Black Belt became again the center of night activities..."


Document #24: The Literary Digest, Aug. 9, 1919

"Maclay Hoyne, Illinois State Attorney, reports that 'large quantities of firearms, deadly weapons, and ammunition' were stored by negroes in Chicago's Black Belt, that negroes had been 'arming themselves for months', before the recent 'race war' began, that an outbreak of negro violence in Chicago had been 'planned for July 4' and that 'a secret organization' is counseling the negroes to 'obtain what they regard as social equality, by force if necessary'.

"...This 'changed attitude', as a Chicago Negro puts it, would seem to have been the underlying cause of the Chicago riots..."

Document #25: Editorial, "Reaping the Whirlwind", The Chicago Defender, Aug. 2, 1919

"The recent race riots at Washington resulting in the death of a number of white and colored citizens, followed by similar occurrences in Chicago, are a disgrace to American civilization. One does not have to seek very far to find the underlying cause....America is known the world over as land of the lyncher and of the mobocrat [corrupt politician]. For years she has been sowing the wind and now she is reaping the whirlwind.

"The color madness of the white man is alone responsible. Not content with inflicting upon [the black man] every form of humiliation that could be devised at home, he carried his infamous color propaganda to Europe. With the close of the war the returning black soldiers brought back the most harrowing tales of abuses at the hands of the American military contingent. The stories have carried across the land and have inflamed our people as few things have done.

"Under the promise of a square deal our boys went cheerfully into the service of the country hoping that the aftermath of the struggle would find our people in an improved social and industrial condition....Industrially our position has undoubtedly been benefitted by the war. Socially it has grown decidedly worse. On all sides we have been made to feel the humiliating pressure of the white man's prejudice. Hence the race riots."

Document #26: Wm. Howard Taft (U.S. President, 1908-12), "Causes of Race Riots", Chicago Daily News, Aug. 1919

"Negro leaders are divided into two classes. There are those who...believe that the real way to ameliorate conditions is to educate the negro for life by vocational and character training, and by thus increasing his value to his community and himself to moderate and neutralize the prejudice...

"There are other negroes, educated men, who with no restraint have poured out their agony of soul and sense of outrage in addresses and editorials and roused fellow negroes as they have never been roused before. The lynchings...have led to desperation among the blacks. The retired negro soldier, used to arms, returning from the war environment, resenting the ingratitude he sees in all of this, is prompted to 'direct action' to remedy his wrongs."