On July 27, 1919, a 17-year-old black teenager, Eugene Williams, and his friends accidentally crossed into the waters of the “whites only” side of what’s now the Margaret T. Burroughs Beach in Chicago. Williams’s homemade raft was pelted with stones thrown by a white beachgoer until the teen fell into Lake Michigan and, ultimately, drowned. Other scuffles between white and black beachgoers were inflamed when the first member of the Chicago Police Department to arrive at the scene refused to take the white culprit into custody and instead arrested a black man. This blatant failure to uphold justice kicked off a weeklong race riot that left 38 dead and over 520 injured, the majority of whom were black. The Chicago Race Riot terrorized the city’s black community, rendered about a thousand people homeless, and left deep racial rifts that persevere to this day.
“It’s the worst incident of racial violence in the city’s entire history,” says Peter Cole, a professor of history at Western Illinois University, “and no one knows about it.”
Collective amnesia has long been the United States’ default approach to its history of racial violence, but as questions of race continue to be at the forefront of national politics, more and more projects are emerging to properly memorialize that bloody past.
Recent years have witnessed the unveiling of public works large and small that put front and center the history of racial violence in the United States. In 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative opened its National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The six-acre site hosts 800 six-foot steel columns, one for every US county where a lynching took place, making it the first memorial in the nation to lynching. And just last month, visual artist Kehinde Wiley’s sculpture Rumors of War was unveiled in New York’s Times Square. Created in reference to a Confederate monument in Richmond, Virginia, Wiley’s 30-foot-tall bronze of a modern black man on horseback draws stark attention to the tendency of memorializing the perpetrators—rather than the victims—of racial violence in this country.
The latest effort to properly memorialize the victims of racial violence in the United States is the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19). Led by Cole and Franklin Cosey-Gay, executive director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, CRR19 aims to install markers in the 38 locations across the city where people were killed during the wave of violence a hundred years ago. The project is modeled on Stolpersteine (German for “stumbling stones”), an ongoing art project begun in 1992 by Gunter Demnig that commemorates the victims of the Holocaust by placing a marker with their name and dates of birth, deportation, and death outside the buildings where they lived or worked. Cole believes that such decentralized memorials can in some ways make our history of racial violence more tangible than dedicated sites, like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
“Part of the genius of a dispersed memorial is that people ‘find’ these markers in the course of their everyday lives,” he explains. “Thus, ordinary folks who were not looking to learn about the history of racial violence will ‘find’ the Chicago Race Riot.”
There are an estimated 75,000 Stolpersteine across more than 20 countries in Europe. At the moment, there exists only one public testament to the Chicago Race Riot: a small plaque near the beach where Williams died.
Despite its lack of widespread recognition, the effects of the Chicago Race Riot continue to be felt. The week of violence was only belatedly quelled by the National Guard, and state authorities at first indicted only African Americans. Rather than risk another uncontrollable upheaval, local politicians and law enforcement sought to further segregate Chicago’s working class, pushing the city’s black population into the South Side, where they still largely reside today.
“The residential segregation that persists in Chicago to this very day—as every Chicagoan deeply knows—must be understood as an outcome of this race riot,” argues Cole. He sees the City’s failure to properly mark the Chicago Race Riot as an illustration in miniature of the United States’ failure to reckon with the violence of its past and, thus, untangle the predicaments of its present.
“We simply have failed, as a nation, to come to grips with centuries of bloody racism,” he says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, CRR19 faces its own challenges to fruition. Through individual donors, the project has been able to raise a quarter of its projected $30,000 budget to design, produce, and install the 38 markers. Cole criticizes the ability of Chicago politicians to find billions in tax subsidies for real estate developers, while leaving relatively inexpensive projects like CRR19 hustling for donations and grants, but he insists that the work will continue. Because the United States’ past is as bloody as it long, he hopes that all of the markers will be installed in time for another grisly centennial: the Tulsa massacre, in which up to 300 black residents were murdered by rioting whites in Oklahoma during the summer of 1921.
Like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and “Rumors of War,” CRR19’s goal is to make visible a history that’s long been implicitly acknowledged, if only to be repressed in the US psyche. But necessity appears to be piercing through the century of amnesia.
“We must remember Chicago 1919 because willfully forgetting our history has not resulted in racial harmony and justice,” says Cole. “If it had, well, maybe collective amnesia is a wise strategy. But since we know that’s not the case, then after 100 years of denial, we should try something else. The only way to achieve racial equality is to ‘own’ America’s long history of racial injustice.”