Chicago's Red Summer : Code Switch Almost exactly 100 years ago, race riots broke out all across the United States. The Red Summer, as it came to be known, occurred in more than two dozen cities across the nation, including Chicago, where black soldiers returning home from World War I refused to be treated as second class citizens.

Chicago's Red Summer

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This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates, in for Shereen and Gene.


BATES: Exactly 100 years ago this week, some of the bloodiest race riots this country has ever experienced erupted in more than two dozen cities, including Chicago. It was known as the Red Summer, though the violence lasted longer than the heat.


BATES: That was at a time when black folks from the South had travelled by the thousands to northern cities as part of what would be known later as the Great Migration. Chicago was a major destination for these migrants, and in addition to southern sharecroppers, the city became home to artists like New Orleans-born Louis Armstrong. That's him we've been listening to; the song - "Chicago Breakdown."

And breakdown is a pretty good word for what happened. In some ways, what sparked the 1919 riots had a lot of the same elements as the conditions we've had in recent years. Mix together the arrival of a "different population" - using Gene's air quotes here - racial anxiety, biased policing and one of the hottest summers on record, and pow.


BATES: We're going to start by talking to an actual eyewitness to the Chicago riot.


JUANITA MITCHELL: Juanita Mitchell. I'm 107 years old. I came to Chicago from New Orleans.

BATES: Juanita Mitchell came to Chicago with her family in the summer of 1919. She was 8 years old. Unfortunately, the Mitchell family arrival coincided with the day the riots started. Soon after she got to a relative's home, Mrs. Mitchell remembers hearing a roar in the distance and seeing her uncle standing in the big window of his house with a rifle at the ready.

MITCHELL: And I heard him say, here they come, which meant the race riot was coming down 35th and Giles.

BATES: He was determined to protect his family from the crowd of armed white men speeding through the neighborhood, firing into black homes and businesses.

MITCHELL: I remember how afraid my mother was, afraid my aunt was. And I'm going to never forget the tears in my mother's eyes as she cried in her sister's house.

BATES: Young Juanita's mother shooed her children away from the window.

MITCHELL: And she hid my sister and I behind a piano in my aunt's and uncle's house.

BATES: The city throbbed with violence for a week. Many people, including the mayor, were taken by complete surprise. To understand how things escalated in such short order, let's talk about what was happening back then.


TIMUEL BLACK JR: Blacks began to come North for three basic reasons.

BATES: Timuel Black Jr. is a local historian and civil rights activist. He's 100 years old and was only 6 months old when his parents became part of the Great Migration north. But having lived in Chicago for most of his long life and having heard stories from his relatives, Tim Black knows a lot about the elements that led to the Red Summer. He says black people had three reasons that propelled them North.

BLACK JR: One was to escape the tyranny and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan against black activists in the South; two - to be able to vote without fear; and three was to get better education for the children.

BATES: That meant that thousands of black southerners streamed into Chicago daily, most of them on trains that came north from Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana. The publisher of The Chicago Defender, Robert Abbott, had used his newspaper to broadcast plentiful jobs in the Chicago area, jobs that were going unfilled because the European immigrants that had been staffing the slaughterhouses, meatpacking factories and iron works could no longer cross the ocean as World War I loomed.

JOHN RUSSICK: People in Northern cities, especially people with racial issues, saw it as an invasion.

BATES: That's John Russick of the Chicago History Museum. 1919 Chicago was a deeply segregated city. Black residents mostly were relegated to the South Side. In other parts of the city, they knew there were some places that welcomed them and others that wouldn't allow them to cross their thresholds. Lake Michigan, so huge it looked like an ocean, was lined with beaches, but they were only open to black Chicagoans in specific spots.

LIESL OLSON: The moment that instigated this weeklong riot was a moment that took place on a South Side beach, the 29th Street beach, July 27, 1919. It was a very, very, very hot day.

BATES: Liesl Olson is director of Chicago studies at The Newberry library. She's often taught the history of the riot and the conditions that led to it.

OLSON: Many Chicagoans, you know, went to the beach. It was the weekend, and that was the way to cool off.

BATES: Eugene Williams was part of that crowd. He was a 17-year-old black boy who'd come to the beach with his friends. They all went into the water. Eugene was a nonswimmer, or maybe a poor swimmer, says Olson. So he was on a raft.

OLSON: They were out on the water. And, you know, Lake Michigan - you know, you can drift very easily. And they drifted over to a beach that was an unspoken white beach. And beachgoers then witnessed a man named George Stauber, about 24 years old, who started to throw stones at the boys.

BATES: Eugene Williams slipped off the raft.

OLSON: Perhaps because he couldn't swim very well and perhaps also, too, because he was having rocks thrown at him, he drowned.


BATES: So for inadvertently drifting into waters tacitly reserved for whites, Eugene Williams had his life taken from him. Outraged black onlookers called for the police to arrest George Stauber, the rock-thrower. But, says Liesl Olson, when a white policeman arrived...

OLSON: He refused to arrest the white man who had just killed this African American teenage boy.

BATES: Anger on the black side of the beach escalated. The crowd grew bigger and more vocal. Sensing trouble, more police arrived. One especially distraught black man, James Crawford, pulled out a gun and shot into the group of policemen. In response, a black policeman called in to help restore order shot Crawford dead.

Soon after, young white men clambered into cars and drove down black streets, randomly shooting at people and buildings. And a crowd of white men with weapons marched down 35th Street, beating many of the black people they encountered along their route. The mob also trashed and set fire to many of the black homes and businesses in its path. The police did nothing, which doesn't surprise historian John Russick.

RUSSICK: The white police were a tool of white supremacy in Chicago at this time. All of the tools of power were in the hands of white people in 1919, and we can't lose sight of that.

BATES: But, says Timuel Black, the mob encountered something it hadn't expected - resistance from black veterans, who broke into an armory and seized rifles and other weapons to counter their attackers.

BLACK JR: And understand that was the first time that these northern Negroes fought back from an attack and been successful.

BATES: The young black men of the Fighting 8th were a National Guard reserve unit that fought gallantly in France. Many received decorations for their bravery. The Germans called them black devils, and the nickname stuck. The men of the 8th had already faced death abroad; they were willing to do that at home to protect their loved ones and communities. And, says Timuel Black, that had a singular effect.

BLACK JR: From what I have been told by my family who was here, the riot was soon over because the West Side rioters felt that they were in danger now that these returning - these Negroes had weapons equal to their weapons and determination to fight back with equality when they were attacked.

BATES: The West Side turf Tim Black was talking about was mostly first- and second-generation Irish. The West Siders were furious and anxious that the things they'd scrapped for - jobs and growing political power - might be eclipsed by black Chicagoans' growing numbers. At the same time, the city was a media hub with several daily and weekly papers, many catered to specific readerships. Liesl Olson at The Newberry Library says coverage of the riot was blatantly biased.

OLSON: There's profound misrepresentation of what's going on and who's at fault and just how biased the papers were and inaccurate, actually, too, in terms of listing people who actually hadn't died or getting the numbers wrong.

BATES: When the smoke cleared and the ashes cooled, 38 people had died in the violence - 23 of them black, 15 white. There were more than 350 casualties, and those were only the ones that were reported. Some 1,000 black homes had been burned down in this place that black families had come to escape racial violence.

OLSON: This is a story of the North, even though it seems like it might be a story of the American South.

BATES: The Newberry Library's Liesl Olson.

OLSON: You have these agitators, these, you know, white perpetrators of violence, who are not the KKK but who are members of these young men's athletic associations, many of whom are Irish Americans. And they're not wearing white hoods and acting at night but, in fact, you know, they are well-organized, visible, upstanding citizens.

BATES: And Chicago wasn't the only place where this happened. The Red Summer occurred in more than two dozen cities across the nation, including Houston, Washington, D.C., Omaha and Elaine, Ark., where well over 200 may have died.

Part of the resistance to white supremacy came from a new black consciousness that was developing in several areas of the country. Part of it came from anti-lynching editorials in The Chicago Defender. The paper was published in Chicago but had national distribution, thanks to black Pullman porters on Southern train routes. Liesl Olson says the affected cities may have been different, but they all were being pummeled by the same forces.

OLSON: The struggle over jobs, the return of black soldiers from the war not being treated with respect and not finding employment - those tensions were in so many places.

BATES: There were no consequences for the white rioters, although fatalities and casualties had been high, said the Chicago Museum's John Russick. No restitution was offered to the hundreds of black families who'd lost their homes when they were burned and looted. The lesson black Chicago learned from this - you are on your own.

RUSSICK: It shouldn't surprise anyone looking back 100 years later to imagine that the response to the violence perpetrated on African Americans in the wake of the incident at the beach wasn't aggressively prosecuted or even investigated after the fact.


JELLY ROLL MORTON: This is the first blues I, no doubt, heard in my life.

BATES: Chicago's Red Summer was a scar on the city's history, but out of the ashes came a black cultural renaissance in the following years that would rival the one that was occurring in Harlem at the same time; it lasted longer, too. Writers like Richard Wright, Margaret Walker and Gwendolyn Brooks were all part of it. Jazz masters Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton...


MORTON: (Singing) Two-nineteen (ph) done took my baby away.

BATES: Gospel greats Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson called Chicago home during this period; so did painters Charles White and Archibald Motley. And when we come back, an inheritor of that tradition....

EVE EWING: (Singing) All dressed in black, black, black. All dressed in black, black, black. All dressed in - and he never came back, back, back.

BATES: ...Poet Eve Ewing talks to us about a powerful moment that became the catalyst for Chicago's Red Summer. Stay with us.


BATES: Apparently, the 1919 riots were something that were given only a couple of lines in Chicago history classes - until recently. Poet Eve Ewing teaches at the University of Chicago. She grew up in the city and doesn't remember hearing much about the Red Summer. She says she didn't know who'd been killed on the 29th Street Bridge (ph) 100 years ago.

EWING: It wasn't something I really heard folks talk about much, which is very surprising to me in retrospect because Chicagoans - we talk about our own history a lot, and I never heard the name Eugene Williams until I started working on this project.

BATES: Her project is a book of poems called "1919," which retells the cataclysmic events of the Red Summer through poems. Ewing thought poetry would be uniquely suited to tell this tale, a way people could take history personally.

EWING: We can read facts and figures and statistics and understand it on a kind of quantitative level, the history of the people that have come before us. But I think part of what poems are able to accomplish that's a little bit different is to build the pathway for that imaginative work.


EWING: And to actually invite people to think, you know, how would you feel if this were you?

BATES: One of the research materials Ewing relied on heavily was a report that was released a few years after the riots. "The Negro In Chicago: A Study Of Race Relations And A Race Riot" was a 1922 report from a municipal commission that examined the root causes that led to the riot. The commission members - all men, half of them black and half white - hoped that what they learned would prevent a riot from ever occurring again.

EWING: When I read this report, I was really intrigued by how much poetry I saw hidden within it, both in terms of the actual writing style and in terms of just the stories and the events that I was reading about.

BATES: Ewing included a poem about Eugene Williams' drowning that was set to a children's jump rope chant. It's called "Jump / Rope" (ph), and Ewing sings it in a child's cadence.

EWING: (Singing) Little Eugene, -Gene, -Gene, sweetest I've seen, seen, seen. His mama told him, him, him, them white boys mean, mean, mean.

BATES: The poem goes on to describe Williams' drowning.

EWING: (Singing) Down, down, baby. Down, down, the water's tugging. Sweet, sweet, baby, don't make me let you go. Swallow, swallow, grab the sky. Swallow, swallow, dark. Swallow, swallow, grab the sky. Swallow, swallow, dark. Grandma, Grandma, sick in bed. Call on Jesus 'cause your baby's...

BATES: Eve Ewing says part of the lesson of "1919" is this - time moves on, but it's not linear.

EWING: Time is always folding in on itself or moving in a more circular fashion. And so what does it mean for us to have the story of Eugene Williams, 17-year-old black boy, which then becomes the story of Emmett Till, which then becomes the story of Laquan McDonald?


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) 16 shots, 16 shots.

EWING: What does it mean for us to be constantly living this kind of recurring nightmare?


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Black lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black lives matter.

BATES: This year and especially this month in Chicago, there are programs and lectures, even a walking tour, that are examining Red Summer 1919 and what's come out of it. And that's a good thing, says Chicago History Museum's John Russick.

RUSSICK: I can't think of a moment in Chicago history that has more relevance for the time we currently are living in than this one.


RUSSICK: We think these things can happen again. I think that's often the mistake we make - we think of the past as being past. But the past is the present and this moment, the race riot of 1919, is with us still because we're still struggling with how to get along with each other.

BATES: True that.


BATES: That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're at @nprcodeswitch. You can follow me at @karenbates. And we want to hear from you. Our email is Sign up for our newsletter at It's a mouthful, I know, but it's worth it. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was produced by Jason Fuller and Maria Paz Gutierrez. It was edited by Sami Yenigun and Steve Drummond.

Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH family - Gene Demby, Shereen Marisol Meraji, Leah Donnella, Adrian Florido, Kat Chow, Kumari Devarajan and LA Johnson. Our interns are Jess Kung and Michael Paulino. Special thanks to Chicago's Newberry Library, the Chicago History Museum, the University of Chicago's Civic Knowledge Project and to our former intern Angelo Bautista for his production help. We'll be back next week. Till then, see you.


MITCHELL: Thanks for listening to my story.

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