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.

Mixed messages

Given the wide-spread conviction that Chicago’s racist violence was finally calming down, it was odd that Police Chief Garrity chose the afternoon of Friday, August 1, 1919 to order that all saloons, cabarets, poolrooms, clubrooms, and other places “where men congregate for other than religious purposes” be closed in the area between Twenty-Second Street to the north and Sixty-Ninth Street to the south, and from Ashland Avenue on the west to Lake Michigan on the east.

That evening, the National Guard helped enforce Garrity’s order, closing clubs and other public meeting places. Consistent with the pattern already established by the police during Chicago’s Race Riot, they focused their attention on Black spaces. 

The Fight Moves to the Yards

Thursday, July 31, 1919, was payday at the Chicago stockyards, so the Black men and women employed at the Yards needed to go to work. Some asked for police escorts to help them pick up their wages. The police department refused to let them go beyond the dead-lines to leave the Black Belt, even for a short time, arguing that to do so risked white violence.

Others, determined to be paid, headed to the Yards on their own, apparently reassured by flyers that had been posted throughout the Black Belt advising Black workers to return to their jobs at the Yards. It was never clear who was responsible for the handbills, which were signed by George W. Holt and Eugene Manne, two officers in the all-Black South Side Business Men’s Association. At least one article suggested that the flyers were put up at Mayor Thompson’s behest.

To say the least, the flyers were unwise.

A white mob gathered on Exchange Avenue, just outside the Yards, and attacked thirty-five-year-old Richard Green, who suffered a fractured skull. A group of Black men were rescued by a National Guard troop that had to use bayonets to keep a mob of whites at bay, while whites chased and beat another group of Black workers heading in to the Yards near Forty-Third and Halsted Streets. The white mob beat three of the workers badly before a unit of the National Guard arrived at the scene. 

Self Defense

By Tuesday evening, July 29, 1919, Chicago’s Black veterans began to do what Black Chicagoans had done long before: they organized for the defense of their community.

As Harry Haywood remembered:

“One of the guys from the regiment took us to the apartment of a friend,” he recalled in his autobiography. “It had a good position overlooking Fifty-First Street near State. Someone had brought a Browning submachine gun; he’d gotten it sometime before, most likely from the Regimental Armory. We didn’t ask where it had come from, or the origin of the 1903 Springfield rifles (Army issue) that appeared.”

The “Dead-line”

Tuesday, July 29, 1919 the violence that we now know as the Chicago Race Riot continued. To try to separate the city’s Black citizens from its white ones, Chicago’s police implemented what they called a  “dead-line,” a line of cops down Wentworth avenue, the street that separated a majority Black neighborhood from a majority white one.

The idea was to keep the people on both sides from crossing into the other community. It did trap Blacks residents in their homes; it did not keep white men and boys intent on doing harm out.

Two weeks of racist violence

On this day, 103 years ago, the two weeks of racist violence we know as the Chicago Race Riots began on the lakefront. By the time they had ended, national guard troops had been hired, the city of Chicago had significantly expanded its police force, dozens were dead, and hundreds were in custody. Unfortunately, but predictably, the courts’ response was as racist as the violence itself.

My open-access book, Fight for Rights, covers both the racial violence and the racist legal response.

Everything has a history

This article offers joyous news.

But that good news is built on a tragedy made possible by more than a century of confessions tortured and coerced from people by CPD. Two Black school boys claimed they were beaten into confessing in 1919. The jury refused to believe them.

We can’t solve the current problem until we recognize it’s extensive history.

A Timely (and unheeded) Warning

On June 30, 1919, Ida B. Wells wrote a letter to the editor, warning Chicago of the growing threat of racist, anti-Black violence:

An ounce of prevention, beats a pound of cure. And in all earnestness I implore Chicago to set the wheels of justice in motion before it is too late, and Chicago be disgraced by some of the bloody outrages that have disgraced East St. Louis.

The Chicago Tribune published her letter July 7, but her warning was ignored until it was too late.