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Start: Eugene Williams Marker, 29th St./Lakeshore Trail
On July 27, 1919, on an informally segregated Chicago beach, a white man threw rocks at Black swimmers who were drifting on a homemade raft toward the "white" 29th Street Beach. The turmoil began after the murder of Eugene Williams, an African American teenager who was hit by a stone and drowned. Tensions escalated when a white police officer not only failed to arrest the white man responsible for Williams' death, but arrested a Black man instead. Objections by Black observers were met with violence by whites. A Black man, James Crawford, drew a revolver and fired into the cluster of policemen, injuring one. A Black officer returned fire, fatally injuring Crawford, and the riots began. Attacks between white and Black mobs erupted swiftly.
The 1919 Chicago Race Riots were the bloodiest in Illinois history. With rising racial tensions in the late 1910s, all Chicago needed was a spark to start the fire. Many causes seem to have fueled the 1919 riots: the Great Migration, the return of both white and Black soldiers from World War I, the increased militancy of predominantly Irish "athletic clubs," competition for work at the stockyards, negative portrayal of African Americans in the news, and lack of housing for African Americans that fueled competition for housing around the "Black Belt."
Stop #1: “The Vortex of Violence” - 35th & Michigan at Green Line Station.
Near former location of the Angelus Building where four Black men and one white man were killed during the riots.
After the inciting incidents of the Race Riot, rumors of white mob violence against African Americans began spreading and created feelings of anger among local African Americans. One such rumor said that a white gunman had fired a shot from a window of the Angelus building and had wounded a boy. On July 28, 1919, thousands of African Americans surrounded the corner of Thirty Fifth and Wabash, demanding that police officers investigate the rumor and bring the perpetrator to justice. Police officers found it difficult to investigate the rumor amid the crowd-caused chaos. At 8 p.m., a group of 100 police patrolmen and 12 mounted policemen arrived as reinforcements. One report stated that an officer was hit by “a flying brick” while another suggested that an African American “either threw some missiles or fired a shot at a police officer.” Regardless of what actually occurred, the police fired a volley of gunshots into the mob in front of the Angelus. This resulted in the death of two Black men who had been attempting to flee into the building. As members of the Angelus crowd ran to the nearby elevated train terminal seeking protection, the police fired again. This time they wounded several Black men and killed one. Violence continued to be exchanged between the crowd and the police with stray gunfire killing another Black man. The “Angelus Riot” resulted in four deaths, left dozens injured and no investigation was conducted. By late 1919, the Angelus’ tenants had turned over and the building housed only African Americans. This building no longer stands, instead it is the parking lot of the Chicago Police Department headquarters on the south side of 35th St.
Stop #2: The Chicago Defender Building
Historical plaque on building. The Chicago Defender was founded in 1905 by Robert Abbott. Abbott used the Defender as a forum to attack racial injustice and included a front-page heading on every issue that read, “American Race Justice Must Be Destroyed.” The Defender was a leading advocate in the fight against racial, economic and social discrimination. It championed equal employment and fair housing for Blacks and boldly reported on lynchings, rapes and Black disfranchisement. What began as a four-page handbill had become a popular local newspaper by 1915 with a weekly circulation of 16,000. The Defender, however, saw major growth during the Great Migration and is credited as being a major catalyst for the movement of half-a-million Blacks from the South to the North between 1915 and 1920. Abbott used Black Pullman porters and entertainers to transport his paper across the Mason-Dixon Line. Often after being smuggled into the South, it is estimated that many copies of the Defender were read by four to five African Americans, who passed it from person to person and read it aloud wherever Blacks congregated. Included in its pages were articles and editorials which tried to convince its oppressed southern readers to move north. Abbott even printed copies of train schedules and job listings to entice southern Blacks to relocate. The Black population of Chicago increased 148 percent from 1910 to 1920 with plenty of support and encouragement from the Defender. The Defender grew with the migration north. By 1917, it became the first African American paper to reach a circulation of 100,000 copies and to achieve national circulation. By 1920 its circulation reached 230,000 copies per week. The Defender continues to publish, now from a different location in Bronzeville. Info from Blackpast: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/chicago-defender-1905/
Bombing at 3365 S. Indiana. At this location, just a few months prior to the riots, a house bombing killed a 6-year-old Black girl. In the two years prior to the riot, more than two dozen bombings of Black homes occurred. In none of these acts of domestic terrorism was a single one of the bombers brought to justice by the Chicago police or courts.
Stop 3: Armour Square Park
Armour Square Park, named after Philip D. Armour, opened in 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt commented on the park’s opening, along with nine other related properties, calling them, "The most notable civic achievement in any American city." Since its opening, the area surrounding Armour Square Park has been primarily working class, first with German and Irish immigrants, then Chinese immigrants and eventually African Americans as the city’s “Black Belt” expanded. Because of the changing demographics, the park has been a site for racial violence since as early as 1913 and as recent as 1997, when a young white man assaulted two Black boys, nearly killing one.
Armour Square is in Bridgeport, a new and very different neighborhood from Bronzeville (though in 1919, the neighborhood was often called the “Black Belt”). While biking westward, you crossed over the Dan Ryan Expressway, which was completed in 1962. Just to the west of the Dan Ryan is Wentworth Avenue, a north/south road that was nicknamed the “dead line” because Black people who crossed Wentworth into Bridgeport risked getting killed just for being in the neighborhood. For instance, in the summer of 1918 and on his first visit to Chicago, the legendary writer Langston Hughes took a walk on his first Sunday afternoon in the city—heading west out of the Black Belt—and was beaten up in Bridgeport. Bridgeport was overwhelmingly Irish and Irish-American, along with other people of European descent. Just like the dozens of bombings of Black homes prior to the riots, white people used violence to intimidate, “teach” and punish Black people who were in the “wrong” place. Similarly, there were thousands of towns across the United States where a Black person could be attacked or even killed simply for being present after sunset — Wentworth Avenue being one such racial boundary. However, since the stockyards were the city’s largest employer of Black labor, in 1919 and for decades to come, Black men and women had no choice but to travel from the Black Belt (Bronzeville) through Bridgeport to get to their places of work.
Stop #4: Hamburg Athletic Club
Ethnic-based “athletic clubs” were common across the city’s immigrant neighborhoods. These were social clubs where children and young men, generally of the same ethnic group, gathered to fight each other, play sports and find their identities. They often were sponsored and funded by local politicians including Aldermen. However, these groups also served nefarious purposes including using violence and the threat of violence to “get out the vote” for the “right” candidate and party on election day. The “Hamburg Boys” from this athletic club were enforcers of the racial boundaries that were then being defined across the city. Importantly, one Hamburg member was Richard J. Daley, who in 1919 was 17 years old and had just graduated from De La Salle High School on 35th St. (just steps from the Angelus Building). While there is no direct evidence Daley was involved in the Chicago Race Riot, from the very first night and throughout the week, the Hamburg Boys were one of the key forces in escalating violence. A few years later, Daley was elected president of the Hamburg Athletic Club.
Stop #5: Union Stockyards
Historically notable as the capital of U.S. meat production at the time, the Union Stockyards were staffed by predominantly Black and immigrant workers. Black stockyard workers had no choice but to commute through racially charged Irish neighborhoods and their jobs in the yards were always tenuous.
The Union Stockyards were established in 1865 as meatpacking grew to its height in Chicago. The early facilities were constructed from wood, and later built with stone. The Stockyard Gate was built in 1879, likely designed by Daniel Burnham and John W. Root, who were responsible for the design of other structures in the yards.
Stockyards were significant in the 1919 Race Riots as meatpacking jobs were being picked up significantly more by African American workers traveling north during the Great Migration. These workers were sometimes used as breakers by stockyard owners against the unions, as they served as replacement labor for white workers on strike. This was typically because there had been cases of African American workers not being supported by unions after a strike, while white workers would keep their jobs as a condition of the strike resolution. As more and more competition for jobs and housing in the area around the stockyards grew, so did tensions between African American and white residents.
Stop #6: Metcalfe Park
The Grand Boulevard community, once the center of Bronzeville, Chicago's thriving African-American neighborhood, became overcrowded between the 1920s and 1950s, then fell into decline. The lifting of segregated real estate codes allowed residents to move into other less-crowded neighborhoods leaving Grand Boulevard with vacant homes and businesses. In the 1960s, the government responded with major urban renewal initiatives including the construction of the Robert Taylor Homes, 28 high-rise Chicago Housing Authority buildings that were one of the nation's most densely-concentrated housing projects. To create recreational opportunities for the increased population, the Chicago Park District began efforts to acquire an old coal yard in 1971. After obtaining Community Block Grant funds, the park district finally acquired the land in 1979. Because it had been used as a dump site for many years, the park district had to undertake an extensive effort to remove garbage and debris and to demolish the site's existing structures. Finally, between 1981 and 1983, the land was transformed into a park with a densely-planted landscape, playground equipment, a spray pool, tennis courts, a shelter building, a little league baseball field, a jogging path and a picnic area. In 1984, the park district named the site to honor Ralph Metcalfe (1910-1978), an accomplished African American athlete and politician from Chicago. Metcalfe won silver medals in track and field at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, and also shared a gold medal with Jesse Owens in the 400-meter relay in 1936. He went on to become the first African American to serve on the Illinois State Athletic Commission in 1949. After serving as Democratic Committeeman for the 3rd Ward in 1952, Metcalfe was elected as Alderman in 1955 and Congressman for the 1st District in 1970. From the Chicago Park District.
Just north of Metcalfe park, 4021 S. State St. is Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, where Emmett Till’s body was displayed in 1955 after his murder in Mississippi and where Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “godmother of Rock n’ Roll,” performed in the 1920s. Listen to this WBEZ story for more info.
Stop #7: Chicago Bee/Chicago Public Library
The Bee was a rival to the Chicago Defender and owned by Anthony Overton, who ran a number of businesses, especially cosmetics, out of this art deco building in the 1920s and 1930s. The Bee held a contest that resulted in the unofficial renaming of the “Black Belt” to “Bronzeville” in the 1930s, the name still widely used for this neighborhood today. More on the building from the National Park Service.
Note: If the Library is open, there are restrooms inside.
Stop #8: Ida B. Wells Historical Marker - 37th & MLK
Ida B. Wells, a journalist and activist, was born on July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She started her career as an educator, but eventually shifted to journalism, never hesitating to call out injustice. One highlight of Wells’ activism was filing a lawsuit against a train car company in Memphis for unfair treatment (she had been thrown off a first-class train, despite having a ticket). She also wrote an expose about lynching in 1892 in response to her friend, Thomas Moss, being lynched, which started riots in Memphis. Her main point in the expose was that lynching was not so much a way of punishing criminal behavior, but more a way to keep Black people — who were becoming economically competitive — low on the faux-caste ladder.
Later, after moving to Chicago, she rallied to boycott the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition due to its anti-Black behavior. Wells’ activism relating to lynching peaked during and after the 1919 Race Riots — not only was she on the street looking to break incidents of violence during the riots, she took testimonies from victims and appeared before a grand jury on their behalf afterward. In the years before her death, she ran as an independent for a seat on the Illinois state senate. Wells married Ferdinand Barnett in 1895 and died at age 69 in 1931. Her legacy lives on in both the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, both of which she helped found.
In 1941, the first “public housing” available to African Americans opened in Chicago, named the Ida B. Wells Homes. A commemorative marker was placed on a small boulder on the SE corner of the intersection in 2019. The Ida B. Wells Homes had more than 1,600 units in garden apartments and row houses that ran from 37th St. on the north to 39th to the south and from what now is MLK (which first was named Grand Boulevard and then South Park Way before being renamed after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968) on the west to Cottage Grove on the east. The entire community was demolished in the early 2000s. A small portion of this land has been used to create the new Oakwood Shores community. Funds have been raised for a statue of Wells, created by the prominent artist Richard Hunt, to will be placed nearby sometime in the near future. The historical home of Wells is at 3624 S. Martin Luther King, less than half a block north on the west side of the street.
Stop #9: Victory Monument - 35th & MLK
This monument was built to honor the Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, which was renamed the 370th Infantry during World War I, an all-Black Army unit. (The U.S. armed forces were not desegregated until after World War II). Due to racism, most Black soldiers were not sent into battle and instead dug trenches, graves, etc. However, the 370th fought with French forces and saw major combat in the Aisne-Marne region in Fall of 1918 against the Germans. Chicago’s Black community was enraged by the state’s failure to recognize the soldiers after they returned, so they held a major parade in this neighborhood in early 1919. Although there are several hundred World War I memorials throughout Illinois, the Victory Monument is the only one that honors Black soldiers. From this location, looking westward, you can see a smokestack. That is 3519 S Giles Ave. and is the location of the Illinois 8th Regiment’s Armory, which is now the Chicago Military Academy, a Chicago Public School.