By Elaine Lewinnek
On 27 July 1919, a black boy swam across an invisible line in the water. “By common consent and custom,” an imaginary line extending out across Lake Michigan from Chicago’s 29th Street separated the area where blacks were permitted to swim from where whites swam. Seventeen-year-old Eugene Williams crossed that line. He may have strayed across it by accident or may have challenged it on purpose. We do not know his motives because the whites on the beach reacted by throwing stones and Eugene Williams drowned. Police at the beach arrested black bystanders, infuriating other blacks so much that one black man shot at the police, who returned fire, shooting into the crowd of blacks. The violence spread from there. Over the next week, in the middle of that hot summer of 1919, 38 people died, 537 were hospitalized, and approximately 1,000 were left homeless. White and black Chicagoans fought over access to beaches, parks, streetcars, and especially residential space. The burning of houses, during this riot, inflamed passions almost as much as the killing of people. It took a rainstorm and the state militia to end the violence in July 1919, which nevertheless simmered just below the surface, erupting in smaller clashes between blacks and whites throughout the next four decades, especially every May, during Chicago’s traditional moving season.
The 1910s were the first decade of the Great Migration, a decade when 70,000 blacks had moved to Chicago, more than doubling the existing black population. This was also a decade when the lines of Chicago’s residential apartheid were hardening. Historically, Chicago’s blacks found homes in industrial suburbs such as Maywood and Chicago Heights, domestic service hubs such as Evanston and Glencoe, rustic owner-built suburbs such as Robbins and Dixmoor, and some recently-annexed suburban space such as Morgan Park and Lilydale. Increasingly, though, blacks were confined to a narrow four-block strip around State Street on Chicago’s South Side known as the Black Belt. Half of Chicago’s blacks lived there in 1900, while 90% of Chicago’s blacks lived there by 1930.
The Black Belt was a crowded space where two or three families often squeezed into one-room apartments, landlords neglected to repair rotting floors or hinge-less doors, schools eventually ran on shifts so that each child was educated for only half a day, and the police tolerated gamblers and brothels. It was so unhealthy that Richard Wright called it “our death sentence without a trial.” Blacks who tried to move beyond the Black Belt were met with vandalism, arson, and bomb-throwers, including 24 bombs thrown in the first half of 1919 alone.
Earlier, some Chicago neighborhoods had welcomed black homeowners, but after the First World War there was an increasingly widespread belief that blacks hurt property values. Chicago realtor L. M. Smith and his Kenwood and Hyde Park Property Owners Association spread the notion that any black moving into a neighborhood was akin to a thief, robbing that street of its property values. By the 1920s, Chicago Realtors prohibited members from introducing any new racial group into a neighborhood and encouraged the spread of restrictive covenants, legally barring blacks while also consolidating ideas of whiteness. As late as 1945, two Chicago sociologists reported that, while “English, German, Scotch, Irish, and Scandinavian have little adverse effect on property values[,] Northern Italians are considered less desirable, followed by Bohemians and Czechs, Poles, Lithuanians, Greeks, and Russian Jews of the Lower class. Southern Italians, along with Negroes and Mexicans, are at the bottom of the scale.” As historians of race recognize, many European immigrants were considered not quite white before 1950. Those immigrants eventually joined the alliance of groups considered white partly because realtors, mortgage lenders, and housing economists established a bright line between the property values of “whites” and those of blacks.
The lines established in 1919 have lingered. As late as 1990, among Chicago’s suburban blacks, almost half of them lived in the same fourteen suburbs that blacks had lived in before 1920: they had not gained access to newer spaces. It was black neighborhoods that suffered disproportionately from urban renewal and the construction of tall-tower public housing in the twentieth century, further reinforcing the overlaps between race and space in Chicago. Many whites inherit property whose value has increased because of the racist real-estate policies founded after the violence of 1919. Recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates has recently used the history of Chicago’s property market to publicize “The Case for Reparations,” after generations of denying blacks access to homeowner equity.
It is worth remembering the events of 95 years ago, when Eugene Williams and 37 other people died, as Chicagoans clashed in the streets over emerging ideas of racialized property values.
Elaine Lewinnek is a professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton and the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl.