On this dayJul 31, 1919

White Mobs Attack Chicago’s Black Communities

Image | De Agostini via Getty Images

By noon on July 31, 1919, more than thirty fires had been set in Chicago's African American neighborhood. Set by angry white mobs, these acts of arson were part of an extended barrage of violence targeting Chicago’s Black community during a summer filled with racial violence in America. This season was dubbed "Red Summer of 1919," and saw attacks targeting Black communities erupt in major cities throughout the country. The five days of riots and attacks that upended Chicago are widely considered the worst of the Red Summer riots.

The violence began on July 27, 1919, when a 17-year-old Black boy named Eugene Williams drowned in Lake Michigan. Eugene and some friends had been swimming at the segregated beach when a white man grew angry that the teens had drifted into the "white side" of the lake. The man threw a rock at the group, striking Eugene in the head, knocking him unconscious, and causing him to drown despite onlookers attempts to save him. 

This terrible tragedy took place near the start of the Great Migration, a period in which African Americans still living primarily in the southern states were relocating in large numbers to the North and West. Fleeing racial terror lynching, racial discrimination, and economic oppression, millions of Black people left behind their homes and communities seeking, jobs, safety, and the still elusive dream of freedom. Many headed for urban centers like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago -- often to find low-paying jobs, discriminatory treatment, and informal but strict residential segregation policies that relegated them to over-crowded and poor quality housing. Chicago's Black population nearly doubled between 1915 and 1940; in 1919, that wave was new and growing, and tens of thousands of Black migrants had already arrived. Many white residents of the city saw Black Americans as an economic and social threat.

On May 10, 1919, the Chicago Tribune published a letter to the editor from a 52-year-old white man and Chicago homeowner blaming Black migration -- rather than white prejudice or institutionalized racism -- for his falling property values. "The blacks came into our neighborhood and the white people are moving out as fast as they can," the letter read. "My property has depreciated 50 percent. I hate the Negroes on this account; they ruin the property where they live. Wish the whites would organize a protective league to keep the blacks in their place."

Just weeks later, on July 27th, young Eugene Williams was drowned for being Black. Police responded to the scene but refused to arrest the white man witnesses identified as the rock thrower; instead, officers arrested a Black man at the scene for not following their orders to calm down. Black onlookers who protested this injustice were shouted down and attacked by growing white crowds. Soon, a conflict sparked by the murder of a Black boy became an opportunity for white mobs to act on the tension and anger they felt toward Chicago's growing Black community. For several days, white mobs terrorized Black Chicago, attacking people and destroying property. The violence continued until August 3rd

Chicago Tribune | May 10, 1919, Page 12

Image above | Chicago Tribune, May 10, 1919,  Page 12

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