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Pocketmags Digital Magazines

Chicago’s Darkest Days

Stonings in the street, houses aflame, families dispossessed. Spencer Mizen takes us back to Chicago 1919, when institutionalised racism, postwar tensions and mass migration ignited outpouring of hate against black Americans

It’s the weekend. The Sun is shining. Temperatures are soaring. Children are heading to the beach and playing in the water. In normal circumstances, these would hardly be the ingredients for one of the worst outbreaks of violence in a nation’s history But then, Chicago in 1919 was no normal city

Entire neighbourhoods in Chicago’s south side were burned to the ground during the riots of 1919

For months, tensions between the Illinois metropolis’s black and white communities had been running high. Resentments had simmered, insults had been thrown, fights had broken out. And now as the mercury topped 30°C, those tensions spiralled out of control.

On 27 July 1919, an African-American teenager called Eugene Williams went for a dip in Lake Michigan, the massive body of water on which Chicago sits. While playing in the water, Williams swum towards a floating railway sleeper taking him towards a nearby beach.

Today this seems an unremarkable thing to do. But, a century ago, Williams was drifting towards trouble – because the beach he was heading for had been informally declared a ‘whites only’ one. African-Americans were definitely not welcome, and the white occupants of the beach signalled as much by greeting Williams with a barrage of stones.

What happened next turned a flashpoint into a tragedy A witness recalled seeing a white male standing on a breakwater and hurling rocks out into the water. Williams was struck on the forehead, panicked and lost his grip on the sleeper. Within a few minutes he had drowned.

BAD BLOOD

Williams’s death would have caused serious repercussions even in the most harmonious of cities. In one as febrile as 1919 Chicago, it was like putting a match to a powder keg. An angry crowd of African-Americans soon arrived at the scene, their anger escalating when the police reportedly refused to arrest the perpetrator. A fight erupted – and then James Crawford, a black man, fired into the police officers before he was himself shot by a policeman.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

On 20 July 1969, Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the Moon – bringing the Space Race to an end. Half a century on, we examine this and 49 other great leaps in history, each of which has shaped the world as we know it today. Plus: Ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II smites his foes, an Indian ‘princess’ becomes a WWII spy in occupied France, the hidden history of drug use in antiquity, plus we examine Chicago’s darkest days – the Red Summer race riot of 1919