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

Ida B. Wells-Barnett's Warning

As racist violence in the city increased, Chicago’s Black activists tried to force the city government to protect their community.

In June 1919, Ida B. Wells-Barnett led a delegation of Blacks and whites to meet Mayor Thompson to complain about the police department's failure to stop the bombing. One of the delegates was Mrs. Head, the woman whose child had died during the February attack. When the group appeared at the mayor's office in City Hall, the mayor's secretary, Charles Fitzmorris, refused to let them in and told them to take their complaints to the chief of police. After they left, one member of the delegation, R.E. Parker, complained, “We have been to see [the police] and received little satisfaction. We want the mayor to talk with some of the witnesses of these bomb outrages.” Others in the delegation made it clear that the issue was not just one of satisfaction. Kate Rutherford, who was white, worried “that there will be race riots unless the police do something to stop the bomb throwing.”

Causes for concern continued to mount. The day before Wells-Barnett and her group tried to meet the mayor, two white men fired shots at the Brinkman real estate office at Thirty-First Street and Indiana Avenue. Brinkman's firm helped find apartments for Black individuals. Ten days later, on June 12, bombs went off in quick succession at apartment buildings occupied by Black families on 5006 Calumet Avenue and 5143 Prairie Avenue. And at the end of June, a bomb blasted the Lake Shore Drive home of William B. Austin, a white man who had recently rented a home at 4807 Grand Boulevard to a Black family.

On June 30, Wells-Barnett wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune. In it, she pointed to the attacks on Robinson and Harris, several attacks on Black children at neighborhood parks, and an incident in which four white men beat a Black man on the Thirty-Fifth Street Streetcar. It looks, she wrote, “very much like Chicago is trying to rival the south in its race hatred against the Negro.” And she called on the “legal, moral, and civic forces” of the town to act to prevent further attacks on Black individuals. In closing, she wrote:

An ounce of prevention, beats a pound of cure. And in all earnestness I implore Chicago to set the wheels of justice in motion before it is too late, and Chicago be disgraced by some of the bloody outrages that have disgraced East St. Louis.

Her letter to the editor was published July 7, 1919. Twenty days later, Eugene Williams drowned on Chicago's lakefront and the city's race riots began.

This page has paths:

This page references: