Jefferson Pinder, 49, attributes his knowledge of the 1919 Chicago race riots to history books. He credits his understanding of the events, however, to Lake Michigan.
“It wasn’t till I moved here in 2011 and I began to look at the lake that I began to understand perhaps the . . . site,” Pinder says. “It’s one thing to read about this in a book or online, but when you’re actually in that space, it almost demands something from you physically and mentally.”
In late July, Pinder orchestrated Float, a performance art piece in which dozens of volunteers in uniform black inner tubes floated in quiet meditation off the shore of the 31st Street Beach. The piece began 100 years to the minute after the death of 17-year-old Eugene Williams, the first victim of the 1919 race riots. Williams, who was Black, was stoned to death by white beachgoers after he and his homemade raft crossed an unofficial racial divide in the waters of the 29th Street Beach.
The week of violence following Williams’s death left dozens dead, hundreds wounded, thousands homeless, and a city struggling with racial inequality—a problem that persists a century later, but is little talked about.
“Everybody knows about the south side of Chicago, but nobody knows how it really began. This is how it really began,” Pinder says.
There is currently only one memorial to the victims of the 1919 race riots: a plaque set in a boulder near the beach where Williams drowned. It was installed in 2010 by now-retired Elmhurst high school teacher Mike Torney and his students.
Pinder says he didn’t think the fixed stone was “enough.” So, over two years, the artist planned a “living monument” that would offer Chicagoans the opportunity to physically explore the connections between their past and present.
“Art is the opportunity for myself and other creative people to try to find poetry in the horror, find the poetry in these events that happened,” Pinder says. “Somehow, you want to creep in a little closer to it and you realize, ‘Wait a second—Eugene Williams was laying on a flotation device similar to this when a rock hit him in the head and he fell under.’ It’s trying to figure out a way to invite the public in and there to be interaction.”
Franklin Cosey-Gay observed Float from the shore after aiding in the organization of commemorative events for the Chicago Race Riots of 1919 Commemorative Project. Cosey-Gay did not participate in Float, but said that watching his 11-year-old son, Zuri, take part was the most meaningful moment of the day.
“I was overwhelmed with emotion thinking about Eugene Williams and his friends’ experience 100 years ago compared to my son, who was floating with a diverse background of people in harmony,” he says.
Pinder says the diverse participants—and shifts in the tide—altered his perspective of his own piece.
“It’s funny, if I knew that was going to happen, I might’ve named the piece Drift,” says Pinder, who intended for the inner tubes to stick in a group together until the wind blew them into a line. “Eugene got into trouble because he was drifting, not because he was floating. Floating kind of references a static kind of a moment. But actually he broke an invisible barrier, a color line. And I think that what happened on July 27, 2019, is we made a color line, but we drifted. It was a visible color line, but it was constantly moving. I think that was fascinating. I think as an artist you have to be ready for anything to happen and maybe things that are more beautiful or more poignant than what you had the creativity to envision.”
While Float marks the official end of Pinder’s “Red Summer Road Trip”—a series of choreographed and unchoreographed stops the artist has made at sites of racial violence in 1919—he wants this to be the first of many performances meant to motivate reversing racial inequality in Chicago.
“What I’m going to ask is that, just like the Irish celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day by marking territory in the south side of Chicago every year, I want to mark this experience in the lake every year,” he says. “My vision is that this is much bigger than one artist or two artists that are coming together to create a work. This is about marking time and space.” v