THE CHICAGO RIOT 1919

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BOMBS, BULLETS & HOUSING

I was born and raised in the Douglas neighborhood in an area near the northern border of Bronzeville. I lived in the (CHA) public housing development Prairie Courts. The boundaries were 26th street between Martin Luther King Junior Drive and Prairie Avenue to near 29th street. The building my family resided at; was located 2822 South Calumet. Prairie Courts; was demolished in 2002-2003.

Unknowingly at the time, I grew up less than a mile west of the beach that sparked the Chicago riot of 1919. It was the tragic death (Murder) of 17-year-old Eugene Williams. He drowned after he and his friends were assaulted, pelted with rocks by Whites at the 29th street beach.

Growing up, we knew the area as 31st street beach. In 2015 the beach was renamed Margaret T. Burroughs beach, founder of the DuSable Museum. 

Several socio-economic factors led to the riot; competition for jobs, sub-par education and schools, lack of transportation, and restrictions regarding areas of relaxation and recreation that made life tough for blacks. 

More importantly; Black people needed housing. But the campaign of bombing waged by Whites upon Black homes, apartment buildings, and offices of Black realtors. 

Coupled with the callousness of the police and city officials. Created a volatile atmosphere of frustration, anger, and resentment; throughout the Black communities of Chicago.

Chicago was; founded by a Black man Jean Baptiste Point DuSable. Chicago’s first resident settled near the mouth of the Chicago River and built a trading post in 1779. DuSable resided there until 1795. Ironically, from 1860-1870 laws; were enacted banning Blacks from living in the state of Illinois. 

Once Blacks were able to again migrate to Chicago during the 1870s-the majority of Blacks were forced to reside in segregated communities on the city’s South Side in Woodlawn, where white-property owners looked upon Blacks as invaders and declared war. It was difficult for Blacks to remain amidst the threats and intimidation they received from Whites who were opposed to them living in “their community.”

Chicago’s Black residents mostly resided between 12th street (Roosevelt road) and 57th street between Wentworth and Cottage Grove Avenues. The area we know as Chicago’s “Black Belt”; Blacks also resided in large numbers on the West Side, and some were living on the Near North SideHyde Park, and Englewood.

The Black Belt’s population had soared from 34,000 to 93,000 during the first Great Migration; of Blacks from the South. Ninety percent of Chicago’s Black Population resided on the South Side.

Black and white landlords charged excessive rents. Because; there was no shortage of Black people desperately in need of housing. Many; of these tenements were old rundown buildings built before city building codes became enacted.

Numerous apartment buildings had toilets outside; and were in deplorable condition. Leaking roofs, doors without hinges, broken windows, unsanitary plumbing, and rotting floors.

Unfortunately, the more established Black residents were not pleased with the lifestyle of their newly migrated brothers and sisters. They desired to move to more refined; areas of the city-but the White racist opposition was against it. Racism does not care about how genteel; you are “you are what you are” in the eyes of whites; who believe that the only way to keep their homes and buildings from depreciating was to keep their neighborhoods White; By All Means Necessary. Even if that meant violently attacking Black families via guns and bombings, no methods were off the table.

Blacks who wanted to escape the crowded Black Belt began to migrate to Hyde Park. Since; they could afford to live there. Many of the buildings were deteriorating and vacant. Property values were falling, and the polluted environment was becoming increasingly unbearable to Whites who could afford to move elsewhere.

Residential construction ceased during World War I. By the end of the war, Chicago was beginning to experience a severe housing shortage. Whites and Blacks needed housing, and realtors took advantage of the opportunity; hence the practice of blockbusting began.

The Chicago Real Estate Board attempted to get the city council to initiate zoning laws to restrict Blacks from moving into predominately White neighborhoods. The Illinois general assembly blocked Their actions. Their hatred of Chicago; and a landmark decision, given by the U.S. supreme court in Buchanan v. Warley, which stopped Louisville, Kentucky from enacting a racial zoning ordinance; Prompted Whites to begin the practice of restrictive covenants.

The most vocal group in opposition to Blacks moving into Hyde Park was the Kenwood and Hyde Park Property Owners Association. An association filled with realtors who held extensive property holdings in Hyde Park. In their meetings, they referred to Blacks as “Niggers and Undesirables.” They promoted the use of bombs and bullets to stop the invasion of Blacks moving into Hyde Park.

The first bomb landed in the vestibule of the home of Mrs. S.P. Motley in July of 1917. For; Eight months after a series of twenty-five bombings; were launched against the home’s of Blacks, and realtors both Black and White. The police were not diligent in going after these terrorists who would also stone buildings inhabited by Blacks-brandishing bricks, bats, missiles, and other weapons to intimidate Blacks into vacating the neighborhood.

During the first six months of 1919, there were fourteen bombing attacks. One killed a six-year-old Black girl. Another bomb damaged the home of J.Yarbrough. Who, recently purchased the house from Jesse Binga, a Black realtor. Yarbrough filed a $300,000 lawsuit against the Hyde Park-Kenwood Association.

In the summer of 1919, Blacks began to favor arming themselves; since the police and Mayor were not interested in pursuing the matter. During this period before the riot. The housing shortage reached 50,000 units-affecting 200,000 people. Rents continued to skyrocket throughout the city, and another series of intensive bombings ensued. Seven bombings occurred six weeks before the riot. 

The riot began July 27, 1919, and lasted five days. Blacks and Whites; were embraced in bloody combat. Until six regiments of state militiamen; were brought in to stop the carnage. 

When the riot ended, Thirty-Eight people were dead. Twenty-Three Blacks and Fifteen Whites, and over 500 were injured (two-thirds of which were Blacks).

However, the rioting did not stop the bombings. There was one in August and Five in December 1919; In 1920, the rash of bombings continued; six in February and one in March, April, September, December, and two in October. 

The police continued to be in accord with the bombers and did nothing to stop the terrorism. Eventually, the bombing campaign ended; and there was no reoccurrence of the riotous bloodshed that had occurred in 1919.

Writer and poet Carl Sandburg did the most in-depth and honest reporting of the issues; Black people were experiencing leading up to the riot. His articles were issued; as a book through the publisher Harcourt, Brace, and Howe entitled Chicago Race Riots, 1919.

In an Ironic twist, Carl Sandburg had a public housing development named after him. (Sandberg Terrace) located on the city’s Near North Side several blocks east of the Cabrini-Green housing projects.

However, the powers to be felt it was to close to the well to do Gold Coast area. Its modern-looking architecture changed the minds of city officials and developers who decided to convert the development into condo units.

The city’s legacy of segregation, economic and racial via gentrification, and restrictive access to public spaces for relaxation, and public transportation, school and hospital closures, and a lack of economic development. Which; leads to high unemployment, poverty, and violence. Are; a well of constant heartache and oppression for many Black Chicagoans.

MICHAEL DONLEY

CO-FOUNDER

PEOPLES INSTITUTE FOR HOUSING JUSTICE