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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