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100 Year Later, Chicago Examines What The Red Summer Means To The City And Its People


A century ago, Chicago erupted into one of the bloodiest race riots the U.S. had ever seen. It was one of the more than two dozen cities that experienced racial violence in what came to be known as the Red Summer. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch podcast looks back.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: In July 1919, Chicago was hot for a lot of reasons. The scorching weather was one factor. So was crowding, not only from soldiers returning from World War I, but from thousands of black Southerners moving to the mostly white city.

TIMUEL BLACK: Blacks began to come north for three basic reasons.

GRIGSBY BATES: Timuel Black is a local historian and civil rights activist who came to Chicago when he was 6 months old. He's 100 now and has lived in Chicago for most of his long life. He grew up knowing what propelled black folks north.

BLACK: One was to escape the tyranny and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Two, to be able to vote without fear. And three was to get better education for their children.

JOHN RUSSICK: But at the time, people in northern cities, especially people with racial issues, saw it as an invasion.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's John Russick, a historian at the Chicago History Museum. 1919 Chicago was a deeply segregated city. Most black folks, including the new arrivals, were squeezed into substandard housing on the city's South Side. The shores of Lake Michigan offered relief from the crowding and heat and became ground zero for the riot, says Lisl Olsen, who directs the Chicago History Project at the Newberry Library.

LISL OLSEN: The moment that instigated this week-long riot was a moment that took place on a South Side Beach, the 29th Street Beach, July 27, 1919. It was a very, very, very hot day.

GRIGSBY BATES: Eugene Williams, a 17-year-old black boy, had come to the beach with his friends. Eugene was on a makeshift raft riding the lake's currents.

OLSEN: And they drifted over to a beach that was an unspoken white beach. And beachgoers then witnessed a man who started to throw stones at the boy.

GRIGSBY BATES: Eugene fell off the raft.

OLSEN: Perhaps because he couldn't swim very well, and perhaps also, too, because he was having rocks thrown at him, he drowned.

GRIGSBY BATES: The police are called, and they refuse to arrest the man who threw the rocks. That doesn't surprise the Chicago History Museum's John Russick.

RUSSICK: The white police were a tool of white supremacy in Chicago at this time, too. All of the tools of power were in the hands of white people.

GRIGSBY BATES: Then, perhaps emboldened by that, gangs of young white men, many from the Irish West Side, climbed into cars and began to speed through black neighborhoods randomly shooting into homes and businesses. Others marched through the streets, assaulting the black people they encountered.

JUANITA MITCHELL: I remember how afraid my mother was, how afraid my aunt was.

GRIGSBY BATES: Juanita Mitchell is now 107. She'd just moved to her uncle's Chicago home when the riot broke out. She was 8 years old.

MITCHELL: I remember my uncle standing in the window. And I heard him say here they come.

GRIGSBY BATES: The violence lasted a week. When the smoke cleared and the ashes cooled, 38 people - 23 black, 15 white - were dead. More than 500 had been injured. And it was worse in other parts of the country, where similar racial tensions had boiled over. In Elaine, Ark., more than 200 were presumed dead after a riot there.

In Chicago, 1,000 black homes had been burned, with no consequences for the white rioters. Again, John Russick.

RUSSICK: It shouldn't surprise anyone looking back 100 years later to imagine that the response to the violence perpetrated on African Americans in the wake of the incident at the beach wasn't aggressively prosecuted or even investigated after the fact.

GRIGSBY BATES: Not immediately, anyway. Although a few years later, a commission report on the riot was published. It became a key guide for poet Eve Ewing, whose new volume, "1919," revisits the riot. Ewing says although 100 years have passed and progress has occurred, some things stay the same.

EVE EWING: Time is always folding in on itself. And so what does it mean for us to have the story of Eugene Williams, which then becomes the story of Emmett Till, which then becomes the story of the Laquan McDonald, right? What does it mean for us to be constantly living this kind of recurring nightmare?

GRIGSBY BATES: This weekend, Chicago residents will be pondering that as they commemorate the centennial of their Red Summer.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.