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

Saturday, August 2

And then it all fell apart.

A little after 3:30 a.m., fires broke out west of the stockyards in the white neighborhood known as Packingtown or “back of the Yards.” High winds quickly spread the flames through the area’s wooden buildings. By the time the fire had been brought under control, the “fire zone” covered all the blocks between Forty-Third and Forty-Sixth Streets west from Hermitage Avenue. Breathless early reports claimed that the blaze left from two to three thousand people homeless. The final numbers were far smaller but still devastating. Saturday afternoon, the Chicago officials who inspected the burned-out area estimated that the damage could run as high as $500,000. Forty-nine houses were completely destroyed; nearly one thousand people were homeless.

Packingtown was home to stockyard workers. Most were white, recent immigrants from Bohemia, Poland, or Lithuania, although a few Mexican families lived there as well. Given the speed of the fire, few could do more than save their families and then watch their possessions burn to the ground. No one died, although several people were badly burned.

In marked contrast to the delays getting relief to people in the Black Belt, help reached Packingtown quickly. The meatpacking companies sent trucks with food and other trucks to help people remove the furniture and goods that had not been damaged in the fire. The city health commissioner set up an office in a neighborhood school, assigned doctors and nurses to the office, arranged with several police stations to take in the people left homeless for the night, and then inspected the damage to the neighborhood. The Red Cross and several local charities swiftly went to work to find food and housing for victims of the fire.

By midday, it was clear the fire was the result of arson. The fire department reported that several of the houses burst into flames at roughly the same time and that the telephone lines into the area had been cut to make it difficult for anyone in the area to call for help. In addition, whoever set the fires seemed to have targeted the homes of Lithuanians.

With that, the rumors began. A few speculated the arson was the work of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) or perhaps Bolsheviks. Some accused whites in blackface (probably boys from one of the Athletic Clubs) of starting the fire in hopes that Black people would be blamed. But many insisted that Black men, angered by word that whites at the stockyards had threatened to kill any Black worker who returned to a job there, had started the fires.

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