I don’t believe there was anyone alive in late July of 1919 who did not know what was coming. It was a different world than the one we live in today. That summer World War I had just ended and the nation was just embarking on prohibition. A million Southern rural blacks had moved to the Northern urban centers for war work and they were now, for the first time, in direct competition for unskilled jobs with Chicago's second generation German and Irish. The great depression was a decade away. The "Roaring Twenties" had not yet begun. And the idea that a black man could ever stand for President of the United States would have seemed impossible.
On June 21st of that summer, in separate incidents, two black males had been murdered by members of white “athletic clubs”, which was then a Chicago euphemism for a street gang. When a white saloon-keeper died of a heart attack on July 3rd, rumor had him murdered by blacks. That night the Irish Hamburg Athletic Club used the rumor as an excuse for a drive-by shooting in a black neighborhood at 53rd. and Federal streets. No one was injured but a few days later signs appeared on lampposts promising to “…get all the niggers on the South Side.” And on the sweltering Sunday of July 27th it all flashed into a wildfire.
His name was Eugene Williams, and it didn’t matter if he was trying to sneak around the Irish gangs and claim a moral victory, or had simply floated across an invisible line he dare not cross. A white man named Stauber was seen standing on the seawall throwing rocks at the boy, who was holding onto a railroad tie to stay afloat. A stone hit him in the head, he let go of the tie and disappeared beneath the water. Stauber ran off toward 29th street. Meanwhile both white and black men dove into the water, trying to save the young man. They were unsuccessful. Witnesses identified Stauber but the cop on the beat refused to arrest him. And by that time, it was probably far too late to prevent what was coming. Two hours later James Crawford, a black man, fired into a group of police officers. The cops were uninjured, but a black cop shot and killed Mr. Crawford. The riot now spread out across the city.
According to the 1922 report of the riot, between 9:00 P.M. and 3:00 A.M. that night 27 blacks were beaten, 7 stabbed and four shot. Still, Monday morning was quiet. But on Monday afternoon some 30 blacks returning from work were pulled off streetcars and beaten, and four were killed; nine whites were also beaten, six stabbed, five shot and four killed. Street car service was stopped, in an effort to quell the violence. But that just forced whites and blacks to cross enemy territories on foot. People were being killed and injured. The violence was spasmodic, intermittent and unpredictable, and the police often found themselves chasing false rumors and false alarms.
What stands out as emblematic of the entire five days of rioting occurred Tuesday night when a crowd of about 150 whites began milling around in front of 1021 South State Street. At least four white men began throwing stones. Shots rang out and the police moved in. The Chicago Daily News reported the next day (July 29), “Harry Signadell, 35, white, died… after his bullet ridden body had been picked up in front of 1021 South State Street, where a colored woman and 20 other negroes had barricaded themselves and were shooting at all whites who passed…Two revolvers, two rifles, and ax, several knives, and several hundred rounds of ammunition…were discovered piled up near the window… Patrolman John Hays…saw the spurts of fire from their rifles and revolvers whenever whites ventured to pass the place.”
Except for Harold Brignadello’s death (the newspaper didn’t even get his name right!) that story was a fabrication piled on a rumor built on fear. The coroner’s jury that convened days later reported that Mr. Brignadello had died “…from shock and hemorrhage due to a (single) bullet wound in the chest cavity…while standing at the southwest corner of State and Taylor…by a bullet fired from a revolver held in the hand of one Emma Jackson…Just prior to the shooting, said premises had been stoned by a mob if white men.” In fact the jury found that the house was occupied by two women and just three men (not one woman and twenty men) and contained just one revolver, not an “arsenal”. All the occupants were tried for murder and all were found not guilty. None of the whites who precipitated the confrontation was arrested. Rains finally came on Wednesday night and all day Thursday, and that, and the present of state troops, broke everybody’s temperature.
The closer you get to the truth of the Chicago riots of 1919 (and the closer you get to the Zoot Suit Riot in Los Angeles two decades later) the less black and white the situation becomes. And in Chicago the more significant becomes the role played by the athletic clubs; the Hamburgs, “Ragen’s Colts, “the Alywards” and “Our Flag”. As the 1922 report found, “…they had been anticipating, even eagerly awaiting, a race riot. On several occasions they themselves had endeavored to precipitate one…” These clubs were each sponsored by local politicians, who used them to foster and enforce loyalty. Cook County commissioner Frank Ragan paid the rent on his “Colts’” clubhouse, and supported their motto, “Hit me and you hit two thousand”.
Alderman Joseph McDonough fanned the mob mentality with a lurid headline grabbing statement, “They (blacks) are armed and the white people are not. We must defend ourselves if the city won’t protect us…I saw white men and women running through the streets draggin’ children by the hands and carrying babies in their arms. Frightened white men told me the police captain had just rushed through the district crying, ‘For God’s sake, arm. They are coming, we cannot hold them.” No such thing happened, and the Alderman’s story about being shot at was a compete fabrication. But it made him a hero to his constituents.
The price for such a political system in 1919 was 38 dead (15 white, 23 black), for which just 3 blacks and two whites were convicted of murder, 537 were injured and $250,000 ($3.4 million in 2007) in property damage. The man who had started it all by hitting Eugene Williams in the head with a rock was tried and acquitted. But the riot made a lot of reputations in Bridgeport and Douglas, including that of Richard J. Daley, who was a 17 year old member of the Hamburger club in 1919 (the same age as Eugene Williams) and in 1924 was elected president of the club. Eventually Daley’s connections made him Mayor of Chicago from 1955 till his death in 1975. Politics in his Chicago was racist and parochial and best described by the quote from another long time president of the Hamburg club: “Tis a man’s game, an’ women, childrer, cripples an’ prohibitionists’d do well to keep out if it.” - 30 -