Claire Hartfield

A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919

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A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Summary

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Through analysis, historical scholarship, and rarely-seen photographs, American author Claire Hartfield details the violence that erupted after a white man killed an African American teenager with a rock, which resulted in 38 deaths and 537 injuries over the course of a week in her non-fiction book A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riots of 1919 (2018). In 2019, the book was awarded the Coretta Scott King Author Award.

With its high casualty count, the Encyclopedia Britannica considers the 1919 riot to be the worst of the approximately twenty-five race riots that took place in urban centers during that year’s “Red Summer.” In detailing the broader socioeconomic pressures that informed the riot, Hartfield traces many of these back to 1910 and the start of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to Northern cities such as Chicago. Chicago, in particular, attracted a large number of African-Americans after the U.S. cut off immigration from Europe in the wake of World War I. This opened up a huge number of working-class jobs in stockyards and meatpacking plants. Moreover, Chicago had a good reputation, at least compared to many other cities, when it came to treating African Americans with respect. Still, the explosion of urban populations in general, combined with a sense of territorialism and, at times, outright racism from Irish and other European immigrants who had been in the city since the previous century, created an enormous amount of tension, particularly in the South Side neighborhood.

These tensions were further exacerbated along race lines by a virtually all-white police department that had little interest in investigating crimes perpetrated against African Americans. Another factor was the local newspapers—also virtually all white—which published sensational accounts of supposed African American crime waves that were heavily biased and frequently dishonest. Also, according to later inquests, returning white veterans from World War I were dismayed to find the racial fabric of their neighborhoods changed. Moreover, some of them had trouble returning to their jobs or homes.

On July 27, 1919, amid these long-simmering racial tensions, a white man began to throw rocks at a group of black youths swimming on a segregated beach. One of the youths, Eugene Williams, died as a result of being hit with one of those rocks. While this event was the catalyst for the riots, the tensions only really erupted after a white police officer refused to arrest the man responsible, instead, arresting a black man who was clearly innocent. Black protestors assembled, and a white mob reacted to their assemblage by attacked them physically. The altercations only intensified from there. One white mob even threatened to storm Provident Hospital, a medical center that primarily served African American patients.

The Irish gangs were particularly enthusiastic about exploiting the chaos to incite further violence against African Americans. For instance, the Lithuanian and Polish communities of Chicago didn’t have much of a history of clashing with African Americans, and so they largely stayed out of the ensuing scrum, at first. However, in an attempt to encourage them to attack African Americans, an Irish gang known as the Ragen’s Colts dressed up in blackface and set fire to the homes of Lithuanians and Poles.

According to contemporary reports from journalists at the time, the majority of the arson and murder was perpetrated by white ethnic mobs against African American properties in a neighborhood of the South Side known to residents as “The Black Belt.” According to a New York Times report from 1919, more than thirty fires were started in the Black Belt by white mobs on July 31 alone. After lighting the fires, white ethnic mobs were seen to lay down cables across the streets to prevent fire trucks from entering the neighborhood and extinguishing the fires. Rumors of a plan to completely eradicate the homes in the Black Belt through arson reached the Mayor’s Office at one point.

Finally, 6,000 members of the Illinois National Guard were deployed and the rioting subsided. The final death count included twenty-three African Americans and fifteen whites, totaling thirty-eight people. Meanwhile, of the 537 injured, around two-thirds were African American. Moreover, 1,000 African Americans reportedly lost their homes as a result of arson attacks.

A Few Red Drops is an infuriating look at how angry whites instigated racial tensions in the early twentieth century in Chicago.