On July 27, 1919, an African-American teenager drowned in Lake Michigan after violating the unofficial segregation of Chicago’s beaches and being stoned by a group of white youths. His death, and the police’s refusal to arrest the white man whom eyewitnesses identified as causing it, sparked a week of rioting between gangs of black and white Chicagoans, concentrated on the South Side neighborhood surrounding the stockyards. When the riots ended on August 3, 15 whites and 23 blacks had been killed and more than 500 people injured; an additional 1,000 black families had lost their homes when they were torched by rioters.
The “Red Summer” of 1919 marked the culmination of steadily growing tensions surrounding the great migration of African Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North that took place during World War I. Chicago’s African-American population had increased from 44,000 in 1909 to more than 100,000 as of 1919. Competition for jobs in the city’s stockyards was particularly intense, pitting African Americans against whites (both native-born and immigrants). Tensions ran highest on the city’s South Side, where the great majority of black residents lived, many of them in old, dilapidated housing and without adequate services.
On July 27, 1919, a 17-year-old African-American boy named Eugene Williams was swimming with friends in Lake Michigan when he crossed the unofficial barrier (located at 29th Street) between the city’s “white” and “black” beaches. A group of white men threw stones at Williams, hitting him, and he drowned. When police officers arrived on the scene, they refused to arrest the white man whom black eyewitnesses pointed to as the responsible party. Angry crowds began to gather on the beach, and reports of the incident–many distorted or exaggerated–spread quickly.
Violence soon broke out between gangs and mobs of black and white, concentrated in the South Side neighborhood surrounding the stockyards. After police were unable to quell the riots, the state militia was called in on the fourth day, but the fighting continued until August 3. Shootings, beatings and arson attacks eventually left 15 whites and 23 blacks dead, and more than 500 more people (around 60 percent black) injured. An additional 1,000 black families were left homeless after rioters torched their residences.