3 CHICAGO RACE RIOT 1919
The year 1919 is remembered by American historians for what was called the Red Summer. Race Riots broke out in Chicago and 27 other cities. The first of the riots occurred in Washington. The American press and media claimed that the riots were a result of socialist and Russian communist propaganda. No evidence has ever emerged to support that claim. In 1919 the gangster Al Capone was twenty-years-old but already married and a father to a son born the previous December. Capone was also known to the police. Writers may differ over specific dates but they all place the arrival of Capone in Chicago somewhere between 1918 and 1921. Capone was arrested by New York Police for disorderly conduct in 1919, and that might have precipitated his move to Chicago. And then it might not. But it is unlikely he arrived in Chicago in 1918. Capone arriving in 1919, though, is possible. Whether 1919 or 1920, a mere five or six years later the 26-years-old Capone was running an organisation that was earning millions of dollars a year and in various ways created work for about 7,000 people. Because of the rapid rise of Capone in Chicago, we should be suspicious of having 1921 as the year of his arrival.
Three elements contributed to the 28 race riots that happened in the USA in 1919 and probably all those that have followed since then. These are the impact of mass migration to the north, local grievances, and specific incidents that spark protests. Between 1910 and 1920 one million African Americans migrated from the south to the cities of the North. The African American population of Chicago increased by 148%. Returning soldiers often discovered that their jobs had either disappeared or had been given to someone else, often immigrants to the city. Having fought in the first world war, both white and African Americans resented losing jobs they had expected to be available on their return. Around 380,000 African Americans were soldiers in the first world war. The war would have also left many ex-soldiers ill-prepared for civilian life. The classic Hemingway short story Soldier’s Home describes the alienation of a white soldier returning to his family and the mundane routine of civilian life. Alienated and restless African Americans not only had to deal with an existence that lacked the drama and consequence of war. They also endured segregation and discrimination. Rather than be recognised as heroes they were dismissed as second class citizens. Many white Chicagoans felt that returning white ex-soldiers should be found jobs before African American ex-soldiers. Restrictive covenants from Chicago real estate agents that prevented white homeowners selling their houses to African Americans were in place and were still being used after the second world war. The Chicago race riot of 1919 may have inspired a multi-racial commemorative bike ride through the city a century later but Chicago remains unequal and divided.
In 1919 the beaches of Chicago were segregated, African Americans on one section of the beach and white Americans on the other. In July that year, Eugene Williams and friends were on a raft in the sea. The lines on the beaches extended into the sea. The raft inadvertently drifted across the invisible line that separated the whites and African Americans. Eugene Williams was seventeen-years-old. Offended by what he regarded as a transgression, George Stauber threw stones at the boys on the raft. Either one or more of the stones dislodged Williams from the raft. Williams drowned, and the police arrived. The incident was more than an unsavoury accident. Stauber continued to throw stones at Williams as he tried to swim to the safety of the beach. Policeman Daniel Callahan refused to arrest Stauber, and a large crowd assembled on the beach to demand that action be taken. A man was arrested by the police but it was an African American and not Stauber. The debates and arguments continued away from the beach and became violent.
The riots lasted for eight days, and the sustained fighting between white and African Americans only ended when the Illinois national guard arrived. Members of Irish athletic clubs, presumably boxers and muscle men, led the attacks on African American neighbourhoods. Unlike the massacre of African Americans by whites in Tulsa in 1921 there were pitched battles in Chicago. The African Americans, some of whom were battle hardened by their experiences in the war, offered resistance to their attackers. 38 people were killed, and 23 of these were African Americans. 500 people, the majority African American, suffered severe injuries. 1000 homes that belonged to African Americans were destroyed. No women were killed in the rioting and this has been quoted as evidence of how the riots became battling confrontations.
Long standing local grievances, though, had contributed to the hostility between African Americans and white Americans. The Ku Klux Klan, which was also anti-Catholic, had re-formed in 1915 and had a substantial presence in the Chicago region. 58 African American homes in Chicago had been burnt and destroyed by white supremacists in the years between 1917 and 1919. Rather than a consequence of simple vindictiveness these arson attacks were designed to ensure African Americans were confined to specific southside neighbourhoods in Chicago.
The Union Stockyard occupied 400 acres and in 1921 provided employment for 40,000 people. In 1904 the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen Union took industrial action. The union represented skilled labour but the strike was pledged to win higher wages for all workers in the Union Stockyard. 18,000 workers went on strike. The company owners employed strikebreakers. 25% of the strikebreakers were African Americans. Many of the African Americans were recruited from the south and took stockyard employment without realising they were strikebreakers. The meat company owners would pretend they were offering jobs in a furniture factory. Arriving in Chicago and without funds, the out of town strikebreakers would be obliged to take the jobs. But, although it meant hardship, some did join the strike. After the dispute was over the white strikebreakers were retained by the meat packing companies. The African Amercans were dismissed. Within the union officials and strike participants there was a belief that the African Americans lacked class solidarity. Similar feelings would have existed towards whites that crossed picket lines but those strikebreakers were able to find homes in white communities and integrate. Hostility between unionised workers and strikebreakers lingered but it was tempered by coexistence in white communities. African Americans lived in separate communities, and the accusations of a lack of class loyalty from white unionised workers were intensified by racial antagonism.
In 1915 the union leaders John Fitzpatrick and William Z Foster established what they called progressive unionism. This resulted in one large union for all workers – skilled and unskilled, white and African Americans. In 1916 the Stockyard Labour Council secured not just pay rises but agreements that outlawed discrimination against African American employees. Only 50% of African Americans working in the stockyards, though, were union members. The majority of employees in the Union Stockyard were white Americans, and within the white workforce there was hostility to African Americans. The union leaders were also white Americans. Because of the size of the union and rules contained in its charter, the union organisation had to be divided into units. This was done on the basis of residential neighbourhoods. The problem, though, was that the neighbourhoods of Chicago were segregated. African Americans in the Stockyard Labour Council resented what they regarded as further discrimination and an attempt within the union to keep them distant from the leadership and decision making. Rather than sympathise with a workforce that had harsh memories of union activity in the south the union leaders in Chicago resented being criticised for what they regarded as honourable and progressive intentions. The Chicago Federation of Labour responded to the riots by opening soup kitchens for both white and African Americans. White union members from the Union Stockyard were not key participants in the riots. The Chicago Federation of Labour has been credited with being successful in restraining the behaviour of its members. Animosity, though, remained, and during the riot 41% of injuries of both white and African Americans were sustained in the vicinity of the stockyards.
The Union Stockyard was closed during the riot but reopened on August 7th 1919. The employers proposed installing in the stockyard a militia that would protect the company employees from intimidation and violence. Militias had previously been used to break strikes, and the union objected. Union officials argued that they could maintain order. African Americans were concerned about their safety at work, and many supported the proposal of the company for a militia to be installed in the stockyard. 15,000 mainly white workers walked out of the stockyard and withdrew their labour. The strike lasted for four days but without the company reversing its action.
In 1921, the same year in which the financial prospects for Al Capone and his family were improving, a divided stockyard workforce went on strike but failed to negotiate a pay rise. The workforce remained divided. The stockyards went into decline in 1931 because both American roads and vehicles improved. Reduced interstate shipping speeds enabled breeders to not only move animals by road to more convenient venues. In many instances the meat products could be created in the regions where the animals were bred. The stockyards closed at midnight on the 30th of July 1971. What Al Capone and other gangsters thought of either the race riot of 1919 or life and conditions in the Union Stockyard is not known. Capone had other ways of making money, dealing with threats from competitors and maintaining loyalty in his own workforce.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Long After This is now available here.