Housing ills a big factor in 1919 riots

Racially charged issue still resonates a century later

About 50 volunteers on Sunday prepare to use inner tubes to float out to the area of Lake Michigan where African-American teenager Eugene Williams death in 1919 sparked the worst rioting in city history. (Photo by Owen M. Lawson)

Staff writer

To commemorate the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, community members gathered at Augustana Lutheran Church to hear the names, race, gender, age, date, time, location and cause of death of each victim who was killed in the deadliest riots in the city’s history during the opening of an installation called “Blood Lines”.

The information about each victim came from a report called, “The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot” published by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations in 1922. The report chronicled the conditions that led to the riots and eye-witness testimony of what happened.

According to the report, the riot unfolded on the South Side over eight days, between July 27 to Aug. 3, 1919. White gangs assaulted any African American they could find on the street. African Americans defended themselves and retaliated against mob action. The days were filled with street fights, arsons, and explosions; no one was safe. At the end of the riot, 38 were killed — 23 Black and 15 White —almost 500 were injured, and many left homeless.

The first victim of the riot who was Eugene Williams, a Black teenager who crossed an invisible line that separated the Black beach from the White beach. A White man started to throw rocks at the Williams. According to some reports, he was hit in the head with a stone and drowned. Black eye-witnesses spoke to police officers about what they saw and identified the White man who killed Eugene, but the police refused to make an arrest. Tensions between Black and White Chicagoans came to a boiling point, and the riot started.

Williams’ death was the catalyst for the riot, but the commission’s report examined how tensions between White, working-class, Eastern European immigrants and African American migrants from the South had been growing years before the riot started.

Black Southerners saw the North, especially Chicago, as a promised land where they could obtain well-paying jobs, quality education and housing. Once they arrived, however, they received low-paying jobs with harsh conditions; under-resourced and segregated schools; dilapidated housing with high rents; police brutality and white supremacist violence akin to what they witnessed or experienced in the South.

According to the commission’s report, the Black population in Chicago grew from 40,000 to nearly 110,000 between 1916 to 1920. Migrants were steered to the city’s Black Belt, which stretched from 22nd Street south to 39th Street and Wentworth Avenue east to the lakefront. Even though the city’s Black population increased, the city’s housing did not. No new housing had been built in the Black Belt prior to 1916.

“When I talk to kids to get them to understand what this means, I always say, ‘Imagine you live on a block with 10 homes and there are 10 families and then all of a sudden there are 20 families that need to live in these 10 homes. How are you gonna make that work?’” said Claire Hartfield, author of “A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919,” in an interview with the Herald.

Unable to move into White neighborhoods, Black families lived in very crowded apartments in unsanitary conditions. Many households lacked bathrooms, lighting, and proper heating. High rents amplified the problem. At the time, it was assumed that in a normal family, rent would not exceed 20% of the household income. In order to deal with this issue, families rented rooms in the community.

For Black families who could buy homes, if they purchased a house in a White neighborhood they would be harassed or worse —some of their homes were bombed, a process that continued decades into the 20th century. White families would flee their neighborhoods when a Black family moved in and property values would drastically decrease.

“Our inquiry has shown that insufficiency in amount and quality of housing is an all-important factor in Chicago’s race problem,” said the commission. In their report, they made several recommendations to improve housing for African Americans which included: demands for more and better housing to accommodate the growing Black population and condemning the depreciation of property values for Black homeowners and landlords’ policy of seeking advance rent payments from Black tenants.

“[The commission] had recommendations and nothing happened because it’s very hard when there is no public will to make a change. In fact, as you can see from looking at housing segregation, there were those who were fighting against change and came up with new ways to keep the old order,” Hartfield said when asked about how Chicago changed after the commission’s report.

After 1919, the use of racially restrictive covenants increased — a policy written into housing deeds and rental agreements that stated that one could not rent or sell to African Americans — until the Supreme Court ruled almost 30 years later in Shelley v. Kraemer that restrictive covenants were unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment.

In 1938, the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) wanted to address the Great Depression’s foreclosure by giving low-cost loans to homeowners. HOLC worked with local real estate agents who created color-coded maps of every city in the country — green areas were safest and red were riskiest. Many working-class and African American neighborhoods were coded red, hence the term “redlined.” Black people were denied financial services such as home loans. Unable to invest in property, African Americans were unable to build wealth like their White counterparts. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975 were designed to end redlining, but its impact on African American families is still being researched.

In addition to laws that were passed to increase racial segregation, White families moved to the suburbs as the city became more racially diverse, a movement labeled “White Flight.” During the early 1920s, Black homes in White neighborhoods were bombed, including Hyde Park.

As reported by the Herald in January, housing woes continue to plague poor minority residents. The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in partnership with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations found that individuals with vouchers were refused for housing, received different terms or conditions for renting or were steered away from the unit that they were interested in renting in Hyde Park. Community organizers have raised concerns about gentrification and the displacement of working-class people of color from neighborhoods throughout the city due to large developments like the Obama Presidential Center (OPC), Lincoln Yards and the 78. #LiftTheBan Coalition has been fighting to repeal the 1997 Rent Control Preemption Act and create rent stabilization for families in the city.

To combat the displacement of working-class families of color, Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) and Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) have partnered with the Obama Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Coalition to introduce a CBA housing ordinance that increases the amount of affordable housing in new apartment buildings among other initiatives to prevent displacement. Under Mayor Lightfoot’s leadership, Marisa Novara is the new commissioner for the Housing Department and will be looking into affordable housing and residential segregation.

To reckon with the history of the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, the Newberry Library planned events throughout the year to educate Chicagoans about the riots. John Clegg, a historical sociologist at the University of Chicago, created an interactive map that shows violence that occurred during the riots. “There is an absence of scholarship,” he said. “So, producing this map was about providing scholars with more evidence that they can use to study. Reckoning in the form of scholarship is actually doing the scholarship.”