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

The Angelus

According to the Chicago Tribune, the violence at the Angelus apartment building was sparked when two unnamed Black men called two Chicago cops "white trash." One of the Black men then threw a brick at one of the cops. Then someone else (the Tribune never explained who) fired a shot, which prompted officer Hughes to pull out his gun and open fire. Fifty police officers quickly appeared on the scene, followed by nearly 250 Black men and boys. As the Black crowd gathered, white residents inside the Angelus began to throw bricks from their apartment windows. Then the police began to shoot into the crowd.

In contrast, the Chicago Defender and the New York Times agreed that white residents of the Angelus started the trouble when they threw bricks at two Black men walking down the street in front of the building. When their attack drew a crowd of several hundred Black people, the police were called. Not long after they arrived, officers on horseback fired their weapons into the crowd. 
Months later, the coroner's jury investigation into the riots rejected both those versions of the story and blamed the neighborhood's Black residents. Someone, the jury concluded, spread a rumor that a white resident of the building shot a Black child. Police were called to the scene; after searching the building, they reported finding no evidence to support the rumor. These assurances did nothing to allay Black fears; the jury determined that a Black crowd gathered outside of the Angelus. Reinforcements, in the form of more than one hundred patrolmen and twelve officers on horseback, rushed to the area to drive the crowd away. Police efforts to disperse the mob failed; someone fired a shot. That noise startled a police horse, causing it to rear up and throw its rider, Officer Brooks. As he fell, Brooks fired into the crowd, prompting several of his fellow officers to do the same. 

No one ever identified the person who fired the first shot. The Tribune hinted that the shooter was Black; the Defender, that it was one of the police officers at the scene. There were also reports of white men driving nearby, firing guns out of their car window at all the Black individuals they saw. 

What is certain is how deadly the violence was that Monday evening outside the Angelus. By 8:15 that night, five men were dead or dying. Four were Black. Edward Lee had been shot as he walked toward the Walgreen's drug store at the corner of Thirty-Fifth and State Streets to get some medicine because he was ill. More bullets killed Hymes Taylor, Joseph Sanford, and John Humphrey at almost the same moment. There is no record explaining why any of the three were in the area, though Taylor, who was shot through the back and abdomen, seemed to be leaving when he was killed. Humphrey, who was hit in the head, had apparently been shot by someone above him, either on the nearby L tracks, in the Angelus, or on horseback.

The fifth victim, William Otterson, who was white, had been killed by a brick thrown through the window of the car he was in as it passed by the intersection of Thirty-Fifth and Wabash about ninety minutes earlier.

The bullets fired that night outside the Angelus killed only Black men but prompted the Herald-Examiner to tell its readers that, during the fight at the Angelus, a Black mob of several thousand went to the Eighth Regiment armory four blocks away. Papers reported that after breaking through the doors of that armory at Thirty-Fifth Street and Giles Avenue, the mob seized hundreds of guns and rounds of ammunition.

Commanders of the all-Black Eighth Regiment, an infantry regiment recently returned from France, quickly joined leaders in Chicago's Black communities to deny the Herald-Examiner's claims, but the damage was done.

White Chicago’s stories of the violence at the Angelus that night set the stage for the rest of the riot, as Chicago's mainstream press and police department declared that Black residents were armed and posed a serious threat to the city. From that point on, police used the idea that the Black community was heavily armed to justify arrests of Black men, women, and children, to excuse raids on Black homes, and to rationalize white violence against the Black community. At the same time, as the Herald-Examiner made clear, neither Chicago's press nor its police thought the city's Black citizens had any right to defend themselves. 

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