Before there was Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Laquan McDonald, there was 17-year-old Eugene Williams.
On July 27,1919, Williams and his friends were enjoying themselves at the 25th Street beach when their raft drifted across an invisible line further south to the “white side” of the sand. While Williams’s friends were able to swim safely back to the Black side, Williams, who couldn’t swim, was left to the mercy of the white beachgoers, who started throwing stones at him.
According to the Cook County coroner’s report, Williams drowned after clinging to a railroad tie for a lengthy period. His lifeless body washed ashore off the 29th Street beach.
Witnesses reported seeing George Stauber, a 24-year-old white man, throw the stones that sent Williams into the lake, but when officers arrived they declined to take Stauber into custody. During the confrontation that followed, police fatally shot a Black beachgoer, and news of the day’s events quickly spread.
Williams’s death and its aftermath sparked the weeklong Chicago 1919 race riots that disproportionately affected the city’s Black community: 38 people died (23 of them Black and 15 white), another 520 people were injured, and 1,000 Black people were displaced by fires that were intentionally set by white mobs.
To mark the 100th year anniversary of the riots, the Newberry Library, in partnership with the Chicago Urban League and several other local organizations, is hosting “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots,” a year of free public programs. Funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Community Conversations grant, the citywide programs are designed to inspire diverse communities to think about the city’s history and the “continued resonance” of that violent week in 1919, according to Liesl Olson, director of Chicago Studies of the Newberry Library, and a Reader contributor.
“Why don’t we know this history? We’re all about engaging people in discussions around race and history in Chicago, which is why we’re working with a lot of other local organizations. We wanted to share this programming with everybody,” says Olson.
Details of Chicago’s race riots have become lost over time because Americans generally do a bad job of honestly discussing our racist, ugly past, says Simon Balto, assistant professor of African American history at the University of Iowa and a scholarly adviser for the program.
“White midwesterners tend to think that racist violence happened elsewhere or in the Jim Crow-era south, not Chicago,” Balto says.”Racial tensions were already high in the city, so the logical conclusion was racist terrorism by white Americans. Anyone who tried to break the sanctity of white neighborhoods sometimes paid with their lives. People would plant bombs in Black people’s businesses and homes.”
Such was the state of alarm during the race riots that Black Chicagoans lived in fear, and simple errands such as going to the grocery store or work compromised their safety. The Urban League, which was founded in 1916 with a mission to “open the doors of opportunity for African Americans through advocacy, collaboration and innovation,” served as a site for Black residents to pick up food and other resources.
“The more people understand the history, the more they’ll know that Black people didn’t have a choice. Racial covenants and redlining segregated the city,” says Calmetta Coleman, senior vice president of external affairs for the Urban League.
Olson echoes that sentiment.
“I want people to walk away knowing that segregation is never natural or innate. It’s a product of institutional forces, people in power, intimidation, strategy. It is never ever natural, it’s created,” says Olson.
The aftershocks of the riots, the most violent week in Chicago history, are so powerful that the Urban League is still helping the Black community navigate the same issues that they were 100 years ago, Coleman says.
“It’s important that people also take away from the programming solutions on how we get equity for all of the city’s residents.” v