By MARK MELTZER
For Claire Hartfield, the history of race relations in Chicago has a special meaning rooted in the stories her grandmother told her. Those stories inspired her to write “A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919,” which was awarded the prestigious Coretta Scott King book award.
“When I was a little girl, I used to go visit my grandmother once a week and she would tell me stories that I found fascinating,” said Hartfield during an interview.
On a summer day in 1919, at a South Side beach that no longer exists, a white man became enraged when he believed a black swimmer came too close to the section of the beach reserved for white bathers. The black swimmer was killed, and racial of violence erupted in neighborhoods throughout the South Side.
Her grandmother told her about being caught up in the rioting on her way home from work to the “back belt” – which today is the northern section of Bronzeville – that then housed the city’s black population.
The trolley Hartfield’s grandmother rode got embroiled in the violence, so much so that the driver wouldn’t let passengers get off until the end of its route. After she got off the trolley on that day, she had to walk home amid the violence.
In the rioting, 38 people died; 500 were injured; and $1 million in property was destroyed. Two-thirds of the victims were African American, one-third were white.
“The city stationed heavy concentrations of police officers in the riot area,” she said. “But hardly anyone was arrested. That begs the question, what were they doing?”
In recent years, Hartfield said, explaining her decision to write the book, which is aimed at young adult readers, she would see turmoil in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. “That would call up my memory of the story that my grandmother had told me.”
Hartfield drew comparisons between life for black Chicagoans today and back in 1919, such as the distrust between blacks and the police. She said there were incidents on a weekly basis back then about injustices that were occurring.
The lifelong Hyde Parker said she has focused her life’s work on helping young people achieve their potential. As a lawyer (she attended University of Chicago law school) she pursued school desegregation litigation. Later she headed a non-profit organization that runs the charter school in the impoverished East Garfield Park neighborhood.
“Young people know what’s going on even if adults don’t talk to them about it,” she said.
“But their world is sometimes very narrow. And so they sometimes can come away with the feeling that what they’re going through today has never happened before…
“And knowing their history is so important to having a context for what is going on today and also for them to be able to be proactive in not repeating mistakes that were made but also building upon some of the positive things that might have come out of that time period. And taking them even further so that as they walk forward into the future they are able to contribute to making society here a lot better. So that’s what I was thinking of when I decided to write the book.”
While the book is aimed at seventh graders and higher, she said adults are “very interested” in it, too. “Part of that (interest) is because a lot of people living in Chicago have never heard of the 1919 race riot,” she said.
Hartfield said she hopes the book will inspire people to become involved today toward helping to make life better for others.
As for the Coretta Scott King award, “it was unexpected, it was a tremendous honor. I’m thrilled. And I’m still a little bit numb about it.
“But after the initial moments I think that the biggest feeling that’s really deep inside me is it’s so exciting, as I have more interactions with people who are interested in learning about this history, that by shining a spotlight on this it’s now moving beyond Chicago and Illinois to be known nationwide.
“I’m able to reach all sorts of people who don’t know about this history and it’s really relevant not just to Chicago not just to the south side, not just Illinois but to the nation as a whole. In fact, that summer of the Chicago race riot there were 25 riots across the country. And that summer is now known as red summer because of all the bloodshed. And the reasons for those riots really are rooted in the same causes that” led to the Chicago riots.
Hartfield, 61, said the “challenges that we face now across the country run parallel to each other and so I think there should be a national discussion about not just what happened in Chicago in 1919 but what was going on nationally 100 years ago. How it’s different. How it’s the same. What can we do better. So that’s one of the beautiful things of having an award that’s nationally recognized.”