In the early 1900s blacks, fleeing the oppression they faced in the south, flooded predominantly white cities in the northern United States. This mass movement was known as the Great Migration. In many cities, whites and blacks found themselves, unhappily, competing for the same jobs. Racial tensions steadily escalated until, in the summer of 1919, race riots erupted in no less than twenty American cities. The largest and most violent of these riots occurred in Chicago.
The riot began on July 27, 1919 after an African-American youth named Eugene Williams, while swimming with friends in Lake Michigan accidentally drifted over to the “whites only” beach. Williams and his friends were swimming off the “black beach” at 27th street, as they were playing the boys drifted south until they reached the beach off of 29th street, which was for whites only. The boys tried to swim ashore, but a group of whites amassed on the beach and began throwing rocks at them. Williams was struck on the head and drowned. Upon seeing this, the blacks on 27th street rushed the white beach and the two groups began fighting and throwing rocks at each other. When the police finally arrived they refused to arrest the white man who had thrown the rock that killed Williams, and instead arrested several blacks.
Rumors began to run rampant through both communities. Blacks reported that a policeman had held a gun on a black crowd while whites threw stones; whites spread word that it was a white swimmer who had drowned after being hit by a rock thrown by a black. Five days of oppressive heat and bloody riots ensued. White gangs roamed the South Side. Blacks going home were dragged from streetcars and killed. Raiding parties drove into black areas and threw bombs into homes. The blacks responded by beating up white merchants and killing white deliverymen. In the end it took the Illinois National Guard and a driving rainstorm to bring peace. The riot left 15 whites and 23 blacks dead, and 178 whites and 342 blacks injured. One thousand homes were burned.
One of the major questions about the 1919 race riot is the possible involvement of future Chicago mayor Richard Joseph Daley. Daley grew up in the white enclave of Bridgeport, which was a major center for much of the violence. By one account 41 percent of all encounters occurred in and around Daley’s neighborhood. Much of the violence was started by what were known as “athletic clubs” that were merely fronts for white youth gangs. These groups were eagerly awaiting a race war and made every endeavor to start one. The Chicago Commission on Human Relations later concluded that without the gangs “it is unlikely that the riot would have spread beyond the first clash.” 17-year-old Daley was a member of what was known as the Hamburg Athletic Club, and was elected its president in 1924. By 1919 the “club” had already gained a reputation for street brawling and use of strong-arm tactics to get its members elected to city positions. Daley’s future political sponsor Joe McDonough was president of the Hamburgs during the riot and was known to have actively incited the white community. Throughout his life Daley refused to answer or acknowledge any question regarding his involvement in the riot.