Chicago Race Riots of 1919-Who Owns the Water?

When World War began in 1914, a decrease in Chicago’s population was observed that can be accredited to the many young men were sent to Europe to fight as well as a decline in immigration from Europe to the United States. In many cities where industrialization had become popular, the loss of people due to the war had left them in search of employees. This loss lead employers to seek cheap labor, leading them to advertise the job opportunities in the North. Seeing this migration as an opportunity to start a new life, many black people migrated from the South to Chicago during the early 1900s, deeming it the name “The Great Migration”. They found themselves in Chicago’s South side black belt, a predominantly black community that doubled in size during The Great Migration. This large influx of people caused the rise of tensions regarding employment, housing, and crime in many different areas in society.

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It all started with an invisible dividing line between the white and colored beaches. While already creating tension between the two groups, it grew even more on July 27, 1919, when an African American boy was stoned to death. Fourteen year old Eugene Williams, as well as a few of his friends, had been floating on a raft in Lake Michigan when they crossed the “line” dividing the white and colored beaches. Young white men began throwing rocks at the boys, hitting Williams in the head and causing him to drown. Once the man who threw the rock was identified, and police refused to arrest him, riots broke out in Chicago that raged for a week. The aftermath of the riots was horrifying; thousands of black families had lost their homes to rioters torching them, 15 white and 23 black people died, and more than 500 people were injured. These riots fueled similar riots around the country and made people begin to think about the cause and solution of such acts of violence.

Thesis: The economic competition for employment and real estate, as well the unpunished crimes against African Americans are three of the most significant contributing factors to the tensions that would prompt the Chicago race riot of 1919.

Employment: Tensions grew around employment as deployed soldiers returned from war with intentions of taking their old jobs back, only to find that they had been taken by black migrants. Most jobs, commonly working in stock yards, were filled by migrants, so finding a new job was not easy to do, though there was an increased demand for products of nature due to the increased population from the Great MigrationAs the stress of unemployment grew, so did the tensions among the white and black communities.

“No city had ever grown so large so quickly; none had so rapidly overwhelmed the countryside around around it to create so urban a world”-William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis

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An image from William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis 



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Real Estate: The housing in Chicago’s black belt was not enough to suffice the large influx of migrants from the South. The black neighborhoods were crowded, underdeveloped, and filled with chemical toxins from nearby factories, a display of environmental racism. This lead some families to seek shelter elsewhere. White Chicagoans viewed it as a lowering of social class to have a black neighbor, and sought to resist the change with violence. Common acts were bombing the houses of black people and real estate agents that sold to black people off the premise of the black belt. Death threats were also made against anyone who associated with the migration of blacks away from the South side.


Unpunished Crimes: It is undeniable that during the early twentieth century, crimes against African Americans by whites were not taken as seriously by law enforcement as crimes against whites by black people. This caused an underlying tension that would fuel the riots in July of 1919 when the white stone-thrower was not arrested, while a black man protesting was. The stone thrower’s actions were justified by the unspoken division of black’s water and white’s water. But really, no one owns nature. White gangs were also a prevalent source of violence against the black population. Injuring and killing many black people, these gangs were not often broken up by law enforcement.

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White gang members stoning a young black boy- a common occurrence on Chicago’s South side that was commonly dismissed by many law enforcement officers.

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