Was labor unrest at the stockyards to blame for the violence that erupted into the 1919 race riots?
You may have heard about the instigating event of the 1919 Chicago race riot. On Sunday, July 27, Eugene Williams, a Black teenager, inadvertently floated across an invisible line into the "white section" of the water at the 29th Street Beach, where he was stoned by a white man and drowned. A week of rioting followed, ending with 38 more people dead and more than 500 wounded.
What's not as well known is the convoluted history of Chicago labor tension that led up to the riot, says Concordia University professor David Bates, who's documented that history in a new book, The Ordeal of the Jungle (a title he took from a collection of Carl Sandburg's reporting from the Daily News). The 1919 riot will be the subject of a Newberry Library presentation at this weekend's Bughouse Square, the legendary soapbox orator showcase held annually in conjunction with the huge Newberry Book Fair, a benefit sale of donations collected by the library throughout the year. Since the demise of the even larger (though less esoteric) Brandeis Book Sale in 2006, it's the prime event for book lovers in the Chicago area and beyond.
In the run-up to that—and in conjunction with "Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots," a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored, multiorganization project marking this grim anniversary—Bates came to the Newberry last week to talk about his research.