1919 Chicago race riots left 38 dead, 500+ injured

On a hot July day in 1919, a black 17-year-old swimming in Lake Michigan drifted in a dangerous direction — toward the white section of a Chicago beach.

White beachgoers, angry at Eugene Williams’ intrusion, hurled rocks at him. One struck him in the head, and he drowned. And so began a week of riots that would kill 38 people — 23 of them black, 15 of them white — and leave more than 500 people injured, according to the Chicago Historical Society.

It happened 100 years ago, in the “Red Summer” of race riots that spread across the United States. But the terror of those days still reverberates in a city that continues to grapple with segregation, housing discrimination, and deep tension between residents and police.

The nation’s third-largest city is still contending with the 2014 killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a white police officer, and with the protests that erupted a year later when officials released dashcam video of that shooting.

“There’s a clear trajectory for me in that Eugene Williams, in a way, is (1955 Mississippi lynching victim and Chicagoan) Emmett Till, who is, in a way, Laquan McDonald,” said Eve L. Ewing, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and author of a new collection of poems called “1919.”

After Williams’ body was pulled from the water on July 27, a group of black witnesses pointed to a white man they accused of throwing rocks, but police refused to arrest him. A crowd gathered and a black man was arrested instead. Fighting broke out along the beach and spread from there.

White mobs raided black neighborhoods on the South Side, burning homes and attacking people. Black residents, determined to hold their ground, fought back with guns and fists.