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

Sunday, July 27

In the days that followed, newspapers struggled to describe the frenzy that mowed through the South Side of Chicago on Sunday night. According to the Chicago Defender, the city’s leading Black newspaper, Sunday evening was a tale of revenge. That paper reported that Black people enraged by Williams’s death had stopped streetcars near Thirty-Fifth and State Streets and “[e]very white face was taken from the cars and severely beaten.” Other Blacks stopped automobiles driven by whites, destroyed the cars, and beat their passengers with sticks.

The Defender also reported that a Black mob took a white peddler off his wagon just before midnight and murdered him.

In contrast, the Chicago Tribune blamed whites, specifically poor and working class whites, for causing the “turmoil” on the South Side, describing mobs of white rowdies who stopped streetcars, pulled Black passengers off, and beat them. The Tribune also reported that gangs of whites gathered on Halsted and State Streets and clubbed any Black people who walked by.

Yet even as the Tribune suggested the city's poorer whites instigated the violence, the paper also faulted Black residents "who added to the racial feeling by carrying guns and brandishing knives," and, the paper said, made the bad situation worse. 

Both accounts favored drama over data, but while they confuse more than they clarify, their very contradictions and inconsistencies remind us how hard it is to accurately describe a scene of battle. For that was what a patch of Chicago’s South Side had become.

Midnight Sunday, Eugene Williams was dead, and James Crawford was dying. By 3:00 a.m. on Monday, July 28, roughly fifty Chicagoans, most of them Black, had been injured. Six of the injured (four Blacks and two whites), had been shot. One white shooting victim, Charles Cromier, had been sitting at a window watching a fight outside his house at 2839 S. Cottage Grove when he was struck in the head by a bullet. Twelve more people, seven of them Black, had stab wounds. Many others had been beaten and several, like Joseph Wiggins (Black) and John O’Neill (white), suffered head wounds from the attacks. Six police officers and three fire fighters had been injured as well.

Yet while there were a few reports of incidents as far south as Sixty-Fourth Street, most of the attacks took place between the lakefront and Wentworth Avenue, from Twenty-Fifth to Thirty-Ninth Streets. Inside those borders, in the city's Black Belt, some took cover. J.F. Thomas, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church at Thirty-Sixth and Vernon Streets, told his Black congregation to go home while it was still daylight and stay inside. Others stood up against the violence by carrying on as usual.

Against the martial sounds of police officers on horseback patrolling the streets, the saloons and gambling dens near State Street did a steady business and the evening services at Chicago's largest Black church, Olivet Baptist, at Thirty-First Street and South Park (now known as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive), went ahead.

This page has paths:

This page references: