Chicago’s 1919 race riots barely register in the city’s current consciousness, yet they were a significant turning point in shaping the racial divides seen today. The Newberry Library and 13 other Chicago institutions have organized Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots, a year-long initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, engaging in public conversations about the legacy of the most violent week in Chicago history.
The race riots began when Eugene Williams, an African American teenager, drowned after being struck on the head with a rock thrown by a white assailant at a segregated beach. When police arrested an African American man instead of the perpetrator, conflict erupted, leading to a week of violence that claimed 38 lives and underscored the deep-seated racial divisions within Chicago.
After five days of riots, the 38 people dead included 23 Blacks, and 15 whites. About 520 Chicagoans were injured and two-thirds of them were Black.