A wrongful conviction from 1919

Today, Sunday October 2, is international #WrongfulConvictionDay. To mark the day, and start a week of recording wrongful convictions from Chicago, I want to start with a case I wrote about in depth in my recent open-access book.

To make a long, convoluted story of injustice short, in the fall of 1919 two Black teens were arrested and charged with the murder of a white peddler during the Chicago Race Riot. The only evidence against them was a confession one of the teens, Walter Colvin, claimed he was tortured into giving, and the testimony of a white woman who admitted she could not tell Black people apart. Not surprisingly, her testimony changed repeatedly under oath, one day she identified on person as the killer, another day she identified another. But the jury convicted, anyway, and both were sentenced to life in prison.

Several African American lawyer pressed to get the teens’ convictions reversed, offering statements from other witnesses that contradicted testimony tying them to the crime. But neither the trial judge nor the Illinois Supreme Court paid those claims any heed. Both Walter Colvin and Charles Johnson went to prison.

It took nearly fifteen years to get the injustice righted. But then, the parole board granted them parole finding that the evidence against the two did not sustain their convictions. It added, the “feeling against [their] race was very bitter on account of the riot and it was not difficult to obtain a conviction.” But while they were able to leave prison, their convictions have never been reversed.


Tomorrow (Sunday, October 2) is International Wrongful Conviction Day. This is a present day problem with a long and sad history that has often been deliberately erased.

That is certainly true in Chicago, and my own work over the years has tried to capture some of those stories and show how and why they happened. To honor the victims of wrongful convictions (and those who fight to right those wrongs) this coming week, beginning October 2, I will post a story a day about a case of what appears to be a wrongful conviction from Chicago’s history.

Legal lynching

September 17, 1919, two Black teens went on trial for the murder of a white man during the violence we know as the Chicago Race Riots. Notwithstanding the efforts of the team of African American lawyers who represented them, their trial was a farce. A tragic farce.

The Race Riot Finally Ends

Monday, August 11, 1919, two weeks after Eugene Williams drowned, Adj. General Dickson declared that Chicago’s race riots were finally over. Dickson headed back to his office in Springfield.

That morning, as other, less celebrated workers returned to the stockyards, the police department remained worried. Alcockwarned police captains that they would need to keep reserves ready for several weeks “until all possibility of further race troubles” was at an end. 

The First & Last Deaths in Chicago’s Race Riot

On Saturday, August 9, 1919, the Cook County coroner issued his report on Eugene Williams’ death. Williams was the Black teen whose death in Lake Michigan on July 27 marks the beginning of the two weeks of racist violence that we know as the Chicago Race Riot.

There was another tragic milestone August 9. That evening Henry Goodman, whose death was officially counted as the last riot related killing, died of tetanus.

Whose Rights Matter?

Friday, August 8, 1919, as tensions between white and Black workers at the Chicago Stockyards still seethed, the Chicago City Council returned its attention once again to policing the city’s Black citizens.

The council’s police committee met with the chief of police in Detroit. He explained that he had prevented a race riot by ordering his men to seize all guns, blackjacks, rifles and other weapons from dealers in the city. Asked how he managed to do so legally, he said: “I happened to be out in the country when I received word that the Negroes were buying blackjacks and shotguns. At that minute I ordered the police to collect all of the blackjacks, shotguns, and other weapons from all of the dealers. They obeyed orders. I did not ask for any legal view on the subject.”

Problems at the Stockyards

Thursday, August 7, 1919, as national guard troops still patrolled Chicago’s streets, the meatpackers welcomed roughly three thousand Black men and women back to work under armed guard. The three thousand Black workers had been off work, and unpaid, for days.

Police were posted on routes to the Yards and at the stockyard gates by 5:00 a.m. that morning, while thirty-five mounted police rode up and down Halsted Street on their horses and companies of the Illinois National Guard patrolled the streets around the Yards. 

It did not help. No sooner had the Black workers walked through the stockyard gates Thursday morning, than nearly five thousand white workers walked off the job.

Justice Denied

On August 4, 1919, a grand jury issued an indictment that declared that “one Walter Colvin, one Charles Johnson, one John Green, and one Frank Coachman” were guilty of murdering “Morris Lazzeroni” during the Chicago Race Riots.

Morris Lazzeroni wasn’t the victim’s name. Nor was it clear that any of the four school boys listed in the indictment had anything to do with a death during Chicago’s racist violence. What the subsequent trial made clear, however, was how badly the legal system failed. As I show in my book, the courts made no attempt to even try to do justice.

Lessons Learned?

On Sunday, August 3, 1919, the Rev.  L. K. Williams took the pulpit at Olivet Baptist Church, in Chicago.

Rev. Williams offered a pointed lesson in geography for those who had tried to blame Chicago’s Black residents for the racist violence of the past week.

East of Indiana Avenue to the lake, and from Thirtieth to Thirty-Ninth Street, where the greatest number of our people live in a ratio of 500 to 1 white, and in a district through which thousands of whites pass daily, there was but one outstanding unfortunate occurrence. Let those who charge us with responsibility for the riot explain this fact.

The situation was actually more extreme than Williams claimed. While riot violence had been spread around the South Side, there were more incidents of racist violence west of Wentworth Avenue, in the majority white neighborhoods around the stockyards, than there were in the Black Belt.