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

Sunday, July 27-Saturday, August 2

In the summer of 1919, Chicago's long lakefront was segregated by race. Recent custom, ably assisted by the Chicago Police, declared the beach at Twenty-Sixth Street was for Blacks and the beach at Twenty-Ninth, for whites. The imaginary color line between them extended out into Lake Michigan.

On Sunday, July 27, sometime around 4:00 p.m., seventeen-year-old Eugene Williams and four other schoolboys pushed a homemade raft into the lake and headed toward a buoy a hundred yards from the shore. The buoy was south of Twenty-Sixth Street; Williams and his companions were Black. As they kicked through the waves, they caught the watchful eye of a young white man cooling off at Twenty-Ninth Street.

Violence had already flared on the lakefront that Sunday. Earlier in the day, some Black couples tried to claim a spot on the beach at Twenty-Ninth Street, only to be challenged by whites. Harsh words gave way to missiles when whites threw rocks to drive the Black couples back north to Twenty-Sixth Street. Even after the whites-only space had been maintained, white tempers remained raw. When the man at Twenty-Ninth Street, whose name was George Stauber, spotted Williams and his friends on their raft, he marched out to the edge of the shore and began hurling rocks at them.

Initially the boys on the raft treated his attack as a game, ducking to avoid the rocks. Then something went terribly wrong.

Maybe he was hit by a passing rock or bumped his head on the raft. Perhaps he took a mouthful of water at the wrong time or got a sudden cramp. For whatever reason, Eugene Williams suddenly lost his grip on the raft. As he started to sink one of his companions, John Harris, tried to grab him, but the panicked Williams began to drag his friend down as well. Harris shook himself free and swam for help. Edward Winfield, the Black life guard at Twenty-Sixth Street, quickly got his boat and rowed to the raft, but he was too late. Eugene Williams had drowned.

Back on shore, Winfield, Harris, and Williams’s other friends collected the Black police officer working that strip of the lakefront and headed down to find the man who threw the rocks. Someone at Twenty-Ninth Street pointed out Stauber, but Daniel Callahan, the white police officer assigned to the beach, refused to arrest him. When the Black officer tried to make the arrest, Callahan stopped that, too. As the two cops argued, crowds of angry Blacks and whites gathered. Blacks demanded an arrest; whites insisted the police protect Stauber. 

The argument grew, spilling across a bridge and onto Cottage Grove Avenue, which ran parallel to the lake. Callahan placed one of the Black individuals complaining most loudly under arrest and called for a wagon to take the man to the police station. When it arrived, frustrated Black onlookers stoned it.

The police rushed two more wagonloads of officers to the scene; the melee grew. Someone fired a shot into the air. Certain that the shot had been aimed at the police, a white officer, John Keating, fired six shots into the crowd. One hit a Black man, James Crawford; he died of his wounds two days later.

A hundred police officers were dispatched to the lakefront as the fighting spread west into the so-called Black Belt, a mixed race, majority Black neighborhood that stretched between Twelfth and Fifty-Fifth Streets. Several witnesses reported seeing police officer Daniel Callahan leading a mob of white men, shouting, “Let’s get the dirty n****rs.” After the riot, Callahan affirmed in his own words what his actions had already demonstrated:

"It wouldn't take much to start another riot, and most of the white people of this district are resolved to make a clean-up this time. . . . If a Negro should say one word back to me or should say a word to a white woman in the park, there is a crowd of young men of the district, mostly ex-service men, who would procure arms and fight shoulder to shoulder with me." — Daniel Callahan, in a statement to the Chicago Commission on Race Relations

Some of the earliest attacks may have been violence for its own sake. When someone stabbed William Cheelis, who was white, as he boarded a streetcar at Thirty-Fifth Street, he was not sure if his assailants were white or Black. But skin color quickly defined the sides in the battles. Two white sisters, Evelyn and Frances Boyde, said they were hit by stones thrown by Black people. A gang of white youths attacked a young Black man, Charles Johnson, as he walked home from his job at the carnival at Twenty-Fifth and Lowe Streets; they beat him and left him lying unconscious by the road. A white man, Martin Webb, claimed he had his face smashed by a Black group; a Black man, Lewis Phillips, was injured when a white man fired his pistol into the streetcar Phillips was riding. Another Black man, Melvin Davis, said he was beaten by whites as he waited at a streetcar stop. Three whites, Herman Rabinsohn, John O’Neill, and Walter Carson, also said they were hit by bricks thrown by Blacks.

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