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

Separate but Equal

For Chicago's white elites, the riot reinforced the decades-old conviction that separating Blacks and whites was the only way to stop white violence against the Black community. The Chicago Tribune long had taken the position that segregation was the reasonable solution; in an editorial published Tuesday, July 29, that paper argued that it was obvious Blacks and whites could not live together in Chicago. Whites, the paper noted, considered it “encroachment” when Black residents moved into their neighborhoods. 

 "Regardless of the validity of the claims of the whites,” the paper reasoned,

it is a matter of fact that these claims exist. The whites do resent the appearance of colored people in white neighborhoods and this resentment does, whether justly or not, work a chance in neighborhood feeling and in property values. We may as well look the facts squarely in the face and we ask the colored people to consider them.

Disguising the racism it dispensed with sorrow, the paper urged everyone to consider the possibility that the only way to stop racial violence was to separate Blacks and whites.

In another editorial published a week later, the Tribune argued that extralegal practices that segregated Black people and limited their rights created the only circumstances in which Black and white Chicagoans could live together. “Legally,” the paper admitted, “a Negro has a right to service anywhere the public generally is served.” But he “does not get it. Wisely he does not ask for it. There has been an illegal, nonlegal, or extra legal adjustment founded upon common sense which has worked in the past and it will work in the future.”

So long as Black people understood that economic equality did not mean equal access, and political equality did not mean “the election of Negro mayors, judges, and a majority of Negroes in the city council,” the paper promised that Blacks and whites could continue to live together and at peace. But, the Tribune warned, if the city's Black citizens did not understand the limits under which they were allowed to live in Chicago, whites would not stand for it. “The fact is,” the paper wrote,

that so long as this city is dominated by whites whether because of their numbers without force or by their force if they were in the minority there will be limitations placed upon the Black people.

In November, that same paper admitted that what separated whites and Blacks was only a “social bar.” But that bar was a significant one, the paper added. “There can be no living together,” it wrote, “so why not live apart?”

Some whites pinned their hopes on the idea that Black people would chose to segregate themselves from whites. In June 1919, whites in the Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhoods discussed creating special areas for Black residents as a way of solving what the neighborhood perceived to be its race problem. One white real estate broker, L.M. Smith, set out the plan:

Give the Negroes a place to go, and they will segregate themselves and will do so willingly. The better element of the Negroes does not wish to encroach upon neighborhoods occupied by whites.

Black people were “here,” Smith added; “they are a Chicago problem which must be recognized and dealt with.”

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