By MRINALINI PANDEY
On July 27, 1919, Chicago erupted in flames of racial animosity when Eugene Williams, a black teenager who set out into lake Michigan on a makeshift raft. He drowned when white people on the shore pelted him with stones.
His crime was that he crossed the unofficial line in the water that segregated the beach on 26th Street (that was for white people), and the one on the 29th (which was for Blacks). When police refused to arrest the men who stoned Williams to death, and instead arrested a black man, rioting erupted.
The week-long rioting that followed left 38 people dead, and 537 injured. Almost 1,000 residents of the “Black belt” (a small area on the South Side that contained most of Chicago’s growing Black population) were left homeless due to arson. It is the deadliest incident of rioting in Chicago’s history.
The Interfaith Council of the Augustana Lutheran Church in Hyde Park is organizing three days of events from June 25-27 commemorating the 1919 riots in partnership with the Baha’i community of Hyde Park. The aim of the event is to revive 1919 riots in the collective memory, with a view that this provides an understanding of the city and the racial inequalities that still beset it.
Understanding the history of how things came to be the way they are comes with the possibility of illuminating the way forward. The first day of Augustana’s program will be dedicated to laying out the timeline of the riots, and what has happened since. The second day will involve laying out a map on the floor marking the places where people were killed during the riots. The final day will be dedicated to a conversation with Claire Hartfield, author of “A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race riot of 1919”.
Pastor Nancy Goede of the Augustana Lutheran Church stresses on the importance of reviving the 1919 riots in public memory, and its relevance to understanding our city today. First, there is the general tendency towards violence. As Pastor Goede says, “I can, even today, imagine an adult throwing a rock at a kid for doing something they think is ‘wrong,’ and setting off a similar chain of events.”
Goede explains how part of the tension in 1919 was the fact that Black people were forced to live within the confines of the black belt, a tiny area on the South side. At the time, this racial segregation was enforced by neighborhood clubs and block clubs, who policed sales of houses for this purpose. Today, formal means of enforcing segregation have been outlawed, but still the segregation persists, partly because laws are hard to enforce.
“People still have such covenants on their houses in Chicago, that are racial, and even though they are illegal,” Goede said. “People police each other to ensure that these are enforced. When people are ready to sell houses, they know that their neighbors will have something to say about that if they decide sell to a black family.”
What is the solution then, when racism is so deeply ingrained? According to Goede, one solution would present itself when people move to different neighborhoods where they encounter people that are different from themselves: educationally, financially, culturally, ideologically. But she adds, that this is not something that happens very often. However, there still are avenues that bring together people from different backgrounds and perspectives, as Goede points out. Faith communities bring together people not only across neighborhood lines, but also across other divisions, making them a powerful tool to facilitate these difficult conversations between people of widely varying worldviews.
Goede says that any faith group that organizes such peace camps should start with the historical context of what has already happened, and an understanding of how things are connected. Goede stressed repeatedly how little has changed and how much still needs to be done, but she acknowledges at least one thing that has changed for the better, “With few exceptions, almost every faith group will say that ‘racism is wrong, and it is a sin.’ Many places may not have a majority of members who take that to heart, but at least it is being put out there that the way to truly exercise your faith is through your faith groups anti-racism efforts.”
The registration link for the three-day work shop can be found at https://augustanahydepark.org/2019/05/30/peace-camp-2/.
Also, those interested in learning more about the events of 1919 and how they shaped the Chicago of 2019 can visit https://chicago1919.org/ to find out more about a year long series of events organized by a consortium of Chicago based institutions led by the Newberry Library.