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


Because the violence seemed to be under control, the Chicago Daily News took a moment to celebrate the National Guard, loudly praising the way the “citizen in uniform” modeled democracy. After spending their days guarding the city streets, the “prosperous business men and high salaried professional men in privates’ uniforms” that made up the citizen-soldiers went back to their barracks where they swept and performed other military chores, just like common grunts. Although he did not frame the National Guard's role in quite those terms, Governor Lowden echoed that enthusiasm, thanking the troops for going “into a district where murder, arson, and anarchy existed for four days” and bringing peace and quiet. Careful not to tread on any political toes, Lowden also acknowledged the work the police had done in the days before the guard came into the city, and the coordination between the police and militia (he did not mention the sheriff's special police) once the guard had been ordered into the city.

Where earlier stories described unsmiling men with machine guns stationed at various street corners or grim troops with bayonets at the ready marching through the streets, by Friday, most of the riot-related articles in Chicago’s mainstream press focused on the warm relations between the troops and Chicago's citizens. One paper reported that Frank Gunsaulus, the President of the Armour Institute, a college at 3300 S. Federal Street, sought out the commander of Company B at 5:00 in the morning to thank the men for letting him finally have a good night’s sleep.

An article in the Daily News recounted tales of Black and white Chicagoans offering gifts to the soldiers. Whites and Blacks on the South Side brought the guardsmen food and coffee; the owner of a Chinese restaurant on State Street opened his business to one troop, while the manager of a cabaret at Twenty-Sixth and Indiana allowed another to turn his bar into a shower. A Black church at Sixty-First and Loomis Streets let some soldiers use it as a barracks; the Prairie Theater, at Prairie Avenue and Forty-Seventh Street, became headquarters for another regiment. An aged Black woman approached an officer at Sixty-Second and Ada Streets and, after curtseying to him, offered him a handful of small coins she had gathered from other women in her neighborhood. The officer turned down the money and told her to tell the people in her neighborhood that they would help the militia the most if they went to bed early and stayed off the streets.

The National Guard troops may have represented democracy at its finest, but the actions of some troop commanders raised questions about their understanding of the constitution. Based on reports he had gotten that all the Blacks and many of the whites in the city were armed, Colonel Lorenzen, commander of the First Battalion, tried to obtain permission to search all the houses in the Black Belt. “The riot zone,” he warned, “is filled with private arsenals.” Attorney General Edward Brundage squelched that idea, reminding Lorenzen that Chicago would need to be placed under martial law before he could permit such unconstitutional actions. Colonel Anson Bolte, commander of the Third Regiment, created his own share of controversy when he seized and destroyed all the copies of the Chicago Whip to prevent its distribution on Saturday on the grounds that the coverage of the riot in the issue was inflammatory.

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