Friday, July 23, 2021

First victim of 1919 race riots will get grave marker


     On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in July, Eugene Williams and four friends hopped a produce truck to the lakefront. There they recovered a large raft they’d hidden and went out on Lake Michigan. The year was 1919, and the day was July 27, but it might as well have been this year and yesterday when it comes to explaining why Chicago is the city it is, and faces the problems it does.
     “A pivotal moment in the city’s history, and significant in the nation’s history,” said Adam Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago.
     The raft drifted away from the “race’s answer to Atlantic City,” the Black beach at 25th Street and toward the beach at 29th Street, which white Chicagoans had staked out as their own private property.
     “He happened to float across a perceived line,” said Green.
     A white immigrant, George Stauber, stood on the breakwater and began throwing rocks at the boys. One hit Williams in the forehead, and he slid off the raft and drowned. His friends rushed to a lifeguard, and then the police. A white officer refused to arrest Stauber, and stopped a Black officer from doing so. Seven days of riots followed Williams’ death. People were shot, stabbed, stoned, pulled from streetcars and beaten to death, houses burned, blocks reduced to ruin. Thirty-eight Chicagoans died in the unrest.
     “People lost a sense of existing within a shared civil community,” said Green, referring to 1919, though it sums up too many situations today. “They engaged in this primal battle to enforce upon African Americans a subordinate place. We think of it in such macro terms, we lose track of the individual people. The 38 who lost their lives.”
     Williams was buried in an unmarked grave. A century passed.
     Two years ago, on the centennial of the riots, Chicago magazine published a story by Robert Loerzel, “Searching for Eugene Williams,” collecting what little is known of Williams’ brief life.
     “Just a regular kid like us,” a friend recounted to an academic, half a century later. “A pretty smart boy.”

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15 comments:

  1. Pleased the story is getting out. Robert & Scott are both part of a formidable Twitter Chicago history crew who, now along with Sherman Dilla Thomas, keep bringing oft-overlooked aspects of the city's rich history to light on what can be an oft-misused forum. This represents a great accomplishment on their part and congratulations & many thanks are in definitely in order.

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  2. yes, thak you Neil for reminding us of the attacks on our black citizens in 1919 . I believe there is well informed speculation that one of our mayors participated in these activities as a yoot

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    1. It’s always been the rumour, but no ones ever been able to pin down much more than that.

      Honestly, even as a teenager, he might have had the brains to stay away from it.

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    2. Royko wrote about Daley's possible participation in the riots. His "athletic club" murdered at least two Blacks during the riots, and possibly more. He always claimed to be "at home helping his mother"...despite his home being within screaming distance of several fatalities. He would never talk about 1919, and was known to leave the room when the subject came up.

      When I posted the above, after the murder of a Black citizen in Mount Greenwood at the time of the 2016 election, I was banned from all further commenting at ABC. Yes, THAT A-Bee-Cee. First time I have ever been banned at the network level. Must have hit a nerve...ya think?

      The comprehensive 1922 textbook about the riots--"The Negro In Chicago"-- was still on the shelves in my local library in early 1960, when I was twelve. That's how I learned the all details about the event. I believe that Carl Sandburg, then a reporter for the Daily News, helped to write parts of the book.

      There's a series of images in the book that show, in graphic detail, a Black man being stoned to death by a gang of Whites. The tagline on the photo, which was carried by a wire service, claims he was "caught while sniping." The reality is that he was hunted down and chased and killed while on foot, in much the same way that gangs of kids in my neighborhood would chase rabbits out of the weeds in the empty lots--and club them to death.

      Why? No reason. Just because they were there, and because they were rabbits. The last time that happened was about the same time that I found the riot book. I thought about those bunnies while reading it. And, please, no racist jokes, okay?

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  3. I'm not sure I could identify "critical race theory" on sight, but if this article falls under that umbrella, I welcome it. We need to know how the world got to be what it is before we can deal with the present state of affairs. Those who want to spare themselves and their children from viewing the ugliness of history aren't doing anyone a favor. And if being "woke" means an awareness of history and its continuing effects on education, government, business and individuals, I'm all for it. Let's all get "woke," folks.

    john

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  4. A sad, yet informative historical post.

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  5. Appears one of your fans Tweeted the link to your article & it's getting lots of RT's. Is this what the kids call "Viral"? Most appropo, I would say.

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    1. Thanks. Though I would hardly call it viral. There is a strong network of shoe leather historians on Twitter in Chicago. Does much to redeem the platform, in my eyes.

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    2. That shoe leather crew is wonderful, and how I got involved in this.

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  6. I learned about that race riot even though (because?) I didn't go to high school in Illinois. But I never heard boo about the Tulsa massacre two years later. Never learned about it until about 10 years ago.

    IMO Tulsa was worse. At least in Chicago the cops didn't hand out guns to the murderous racist bastards.

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    1. No question. Tulsa was a massacre. The 1919 riot in Chicago was closer to a battle—lopsided, based on the an inherently unfair system that marginalized and undercut one side over the other. But Black Chicagoans fought back hard, and committed their own excesses in the process. It wasn't a fair fight, but it was a fight, not a slaughter.

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    2. Interesting distinction.

      john

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  7. That shoe leather crew is how I got involved in this. Great folks.

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  8. The racial divide along Lake Michigan beaches in the Chicago area is still entrenched, enforced by sky high access and parking rates on the North Shore. Case in point is Highland Park which this year invoked onerous fees for non-residents. Why are beaches free in Chicago, and off limits in suburbs? We all know why. Apologists will say it’s a parking issue…Highland Park’s park district is sponsoring a Tolerance exhibit this summer. Go figure.

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    1. Evanston has a number of beaches, but once upon a time, South Blvd. Beach, Evanston's southernmost beach, which lies just north of where Sheridan Road enters Evanston, was the designated "Black beach." It was enforced by custom, not by law, and I've always thought that was pretty ironic, given the fact that many pricey White-occupied houses and apartments line the opposite side of the street that borders the beach.

      My first wife briefly lived around the corner, on Sheridan, and one of my mother's old friends from high school lived in a house facing the beach, and it had its own private elevator. As a kid, I was very impressed. We used to go there to acquire the little metal tags that only Evanston residents could buy if they wanted to access the city's beaches. They were sewn onto our swimsuits every summer.

      On the Jersey Shore, they are known as "beach badges", but in Evanston they were called "beach tokens." You had to have one to get through a fence and onto the sand. I don't think they sold daily non-resident passes until many years later. The Black beach required tokens, too. The Evanston system wasn't meant to exclude Blacks, just a certain class of Blacks...city Blacks. Chicago Blacks.

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