Fanning the Flames

Chicago’s fragile peace collapsed on August 2, 1919, raising the risk of more racist violence.

A little after 3:30 a.m. that morning, fires broke out west of the stockyards in the white neighborhood known as Packingtown or “back of the Yards.” High winds quickly spread the flames through the area’s wooden buildings. By the time the fire had been brought under control, the “fire zone” covered all the blocks between Forty-Third and Forty-Sixth Streets west from Hermitage Avenue. Breathless early reports claimed that the blaze left from two to three thousand people homeless. The final numbers were far smaller but still devastating. Saturday afternoon, the Chicago officials who inspected the burned-out area estimated that the damage could run as high as $500,000. Forty-nine houses were completely destroyed; nearly one thousand people were homeless.

Many politicians were quick to blame their favorite targets. Some pointed the finger at Chicago’s Black residents. Others accused labor unions.



Writer. Formerly civil rights attorney. Currently professor. Working on new book about mental disability and criminal law in the 20th century.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s