Fight for Rights: The Chicago 1919 Riots and the Struggle for Black Justice

Behind the Dead Lines

Wednesday morning, rumors that whites who worked at the Yards were lying in wait kept Black workers away from the stockyards. Fear of white mobs also kept most of the porters at the Pullman Company home.

Although a few Black workers who were particularly light-skinned or worked at companies with few Black employees could go to work, years later the artist Archibald Motley, Jr., remembered that he stayed home with his family, sweltering behind locked doors and closed windows in their Englewood home. Many Black individuals who did venture out armed themselves, unwilling to trust the police to protect them from attack. The future alderman, Earl Dickerson, a veteran and a law student, packed his service revolver in his pocket every morning. Doing so was a risk; a law, known as the Stadler Bill, made it a crime in Illinois to carry a concealed weapon without a license. Those found guilty of violating the act could be fined anywhere from one hundred to one thousand dollars, or sentenced to a year in prison, or both. Over the course of the riot, the police targeted Black individuals, stopping them, searching them for weapons, and then arresting them if they were armed.

Within the borders created by the police department's dead lines, life was disrupted in a variety of ways. The bodies of Black victims of the riots lay unclaimed in funeral homes because family members could not to go to City Hall to get burial permits. Few Black people could get out of the area to get supplies or go to work to earn the money to pay for them. The handful of stores that were still open were rapidly running out of goods because no deliveries had been made since Sunday.

Jesse Binga, a banker and leader in the Black community, complained to the state's attorney, Maclay Hoyne, that the forty to fifty thousand Black workers who were unable to go to their jobs were beginning to have problems getting food. Some Black residents moved out to stay with family or seek other shelters. Black political and religious leaders from the area tried to provide help for the many more who stayed behind. The scene, the Daily News mused, was just “like a regular war story.”

There was no "like" about it. The Chicago Police Department had created a war zone. Police officers holding rifles armed with bayonets stood at street corners; uniformed officers patrolled on foot; and detectives in plain clothes and officers on horseback or motorcycle moved through the streets, guns at hand. Over one thousand extra officers were stationed near the Stanton Police Station, at 454 E. Thirty-Fifth Street, ready to be sent to sites of trouble. Patrol wagons waited outside the building, supplemented by cabs that had been commandeered by the police. Inside the station, which had been turned into the police headquarters for the riot, Assistant Chief of Police Alcock led command and control efforts. The station also served as a waystation for Black people trying to leave, giving them a place to wait until they could be rescued by family members. The activity and organization gave the appearance of protection, prompting the Chicago Daily News to praise the police department's “military precision.”

Inside the dead lines, the police stormed a Black home at Forty-Seventh Street and Prairie Avenue, seizing what one paper described as “a small arsenal of arms and ammunition.” They broke into the home of John Hood, a Black man who lived at 4061 S. Wentworth, after receiving reports that he had barricaded himself in his home and begun shooting out the window. His bullets hit two whites before the police took him into custody for being a sniper. After police raids on apartments at Eleventh and Twenty-Second Streets, eighteen Black residents, two women and sixteen men, were taken into custody and their rifles, revolvers and ammunition were seized.

Chicago's mainstream press ignored the fact those Black snipers were engaged in self-defense. They also ignored the fact that while the dead lines were tight enough to trap the Black community, they were unable to stop white arsonists who continued to target Black homes and businesses. According to the New York Times, on Wednesday, 112 fire alarms went off in the city's South Side alone. Not content with merely starting fires, whites cut electrical lines so that the street lights went out, stretched wires across roads to stop the trucks, and threw bricks at the firefighters when they tried to battle the blazes.

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