On Sunday, July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams, 17, drowned in Lake Michigan after a white mob hurled stones at the black teenager, because he was swimming on the “white side” of a segregated beach near 29th Street on Chicago’s South Side. 

Williams’ death touched off a week-long riot that resulted in 38 fatalities — 23 blacks and 15 whites — and more than 500 people injured. But the riot was only the symptom of much deeper racial strife in a city characterized by extreme residential segregation and prejudice. 

During a press conference held at Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory High School 100 years to the day of the historic riot, a multiracial group of clergy and community leaders pointed out that the conditions that created the context for the 1919 riot still exist on the West and South sides today.

Rev. C.J. Hawking, a pastor at Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church in Oak Park and executive director of Arise Chicago, an organization that fights against workplace injustices, blasted what she called Chicago’s “apartheid system” of racial segregation. 

“Before there are more Mr. Williamses and Laquan McDonalds and Emmet Tills and Bettie Joneses, we must end this system that strips communities of their resources and privileges other communities,” Hawking said. “We must stop privileging a few and keeping others in airtight cages of poverty.” 

“African-American communities are still marginalized, segregated from opportunity and disinvested,” said Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Garfield Park and co-chair of the Leaders Network. “We say today, 100 years later: Now is the time to end the tale of two cities and invest on the South and the West sides just the way we invest on the North Side.” 

“We believe all God’s children have the right to dignity and the right to equal protection of the law,” said Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin and co-chair of the Leaders Network. “We renew our commitment to fight for parity and equitable schools, so that the ones on the West and South sides have the same amenities as the schools on the North Side and Downtown.” 

In the decade between 1910 and 1920, “Chicago’s Black population grew from about 44,000 to nearly 110,000 — still just 4 percent of the city’s 2.7 million residents — as Southern Blacks moved north to flee Jim Crow laws,” according to a recent Chicago Magazine article marking the 100th anniversary of the riot. 

As Blacks flowed into the city, however, they were confined to an area “from 22nd Street (now Cermak Road) south to 39th Street (now Pershing Road) and from Wentworth Avenue east to State Street” — the so-called Black Belt. 

By 1920, according to historian Arnold Hirsch — the late author of the seminal 1983 book Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago: 1940-1960 — “the Black Belt extended roughly to 55th Street, between Wentworth and Cottage Grove avenues. Approximately 85% of the city’s nearly 110,000 Blacks lived in this area. A second colony existed on the West Side between Austin, Washington Boulevard, California Avenue, and Morgan Street.” 

As the boundaries of this racially manufactured area frayed and Blacks started moving beyond the ghetto created for them, the white-on-Black violence increased. 

“In the two years leading up to the riot, bombs were thrown at two dozen homes of Black Chicagoans,” according to Chicago Magazine. “The police solved none of these crimes. A 6-year-old girl named Garnetta Ellis died in one explosion. And early in the summer of 1919, several attacks on Blacks by white mobs were reported on the South Side.” 

After World War II, according to Hirsch, a “second ghetto” — one much larger than the Black Belt — was created “with government sanction and support.” 

David Cherry, a program director with the All Stars Project of Chicago — an organization that provides resources to young people in low-income areas of Chicago — said during Saturday’s press conference that the city’s segregated past was prologue to its present. He was nonetheless optimistic about the city’s future. 

“What happened in 1919 set the tone of the next 100 years of racism, segregation, isolation, poverty and disinvestment,” said Cherry, who is also a member of the Leaders Network. “The next 100 years is going to be different — starting today.” 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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