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

Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson described being arrested on August 10 by two officers who told him that he was being arrested for stealing a sack of flour and took him to the Forty-Eighth Street Police Station.

There, the officers asked him if he saw a man cut during the riot and whether he “had seen” Frank Coachman, Walter Colvin, and John Green. When Johnson agreed he had seen the three, where was unclear, the officer questioning him told him that “these three boys said you were with them, you know you were.”

He denied it, at which point one of the officers said, “You black son-of-a-bitch if you don’t tell us the truth we will beat you to death.” Then one of the officers, Johnson thought it was a sergeant or lieutenant, reached across the table and got a club. When Johnson continued to deny knowing anything about the killing, one of the people at the table (Johnson pointed out the assistant state's attorney, McGinnis) hit him in the head with the club.

Then they told Johnson to stand up, and when he did so, the same man hit him in the mouth and said, “You are telling us a lie, you know you killed that man, you helped them boys kill him.” One of the officers stepped on his feet to hold Johnson still, and the sergeant hit him with the club.

Johnson said they told him his life was in his hands and kept beating him with clubs until “I had to say something to keep them from killing me.” 

After being questioned at the Forty-Eighth Street Station on Sunday, he was taken to the station at Wentworth Avenue, where he was questioned again by officers who kept ordering him to tell them the truth.

When Johnson insisted that he was telling the truth, the officers who were questioning him left the room and sent his brother, Joseph, to talk to him. He told Joseph what had happened and that he had made statements to the police to get them to stop beating him.

At some point after that, Johnson said that McGinnis took him to another station. There, Joseph Johnson and several other police officers apparently met with John Green and Charles Johnson. When Joseph Johnson asked John Green if Charles was involved in the Lazzeroni murder, John Green said he was not. Then Walter Colvin was brought into the room, crying. One of the officers in the room asked Walter if Charles had been involved in the killing, and Walter said no. Johnson once again explained that he had been home all day.

Interestingly, Johnson also claimed that when he was paraded in front of Dollie Herman with several other boys at the station, she looked at them and said, “I don’t know them, I can not identify these boys.”

During cross-examination, O’Brien got Johnson to admit that he saw Lazzeroni fall off his wagon and onto the street. He also got Johnson to admit that he told Melaniphy that he had killed Lazzeroni, though Johnson quickly added that he told Melaniphy that because “I had to, to keep them from beating me up.”

Johnson was a tough witness; when O’Brien asked him which day he confessed, Johnson admitted he could not remember, but he did know it was “after they pulled the shades down and beat me up.”

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