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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Migrations

African American men in front of Walgreen Drugs, 1919
The Chicago Riots
- Walter White, "N.A.A.C.P.—Chicago and Its Eight Reasons," The Crisis, October 1919
- Charles Johnson, Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago, 1922, excerpts

If, for African Americans, life in the urban North was better than it was in the rural South, it was still precarious. The welcoming prospect of the North masked social, political, and economic complexities unknown back home, complexities that could serve as tinder for racial conflagrations. In Chicago, on Sunday, July 27, 1919, white bathers attacked several black youths swimming near a white beach on Lake Michigan. The drowning of an African American boy ignited five days of racial violence that resulted in the deaths of twenty-three blacks and fifteen whites. Over 500 others were injured, and the homes of thousands of Chicagoans, black and white, burned. It is important to note that the Chicago riots were first in which blacks fought back. In "N.A.A.C.P.—Chicago and Its Eight Reasons," which appeared in the NAACP magazine The Crisis, Walter White (see "I Investigate Lynchings" in Theme I: SEGREGATION) goes beyond the immediate cause of the riot to analyze its deeper roots.

White's analysis appeared just two months after the riots. Three years later the Chicago Commission on Race Relations published a more penetrating report entitled The Negro in Chicago. Written by Charles Johnson, editor of the Urban League's magazine Opportunity, it takes a long view of the problems besetting black Chicagoans, noting the influence of slavery on contemporary conditions. The "Family Histories" offer insightful, brief, and at times poignant profiles of the social strata of black Chicago and provide a sense of how varied the lives of urban blacks were in the early twentieth century. The iron worker and his family think about returning to Georgia; the barber from Hattiesburg opens a shop that caters to migrants from that town; the stock yard laborer struggles to get along with his Irish and the Polish co-workers; and the physician and his wife belong to the Arts Institute. Rich in significant detail, the profiles illustrate the ways skills, attitudes, and expectations which migrants carried with them from the South shaped their encounter with urban life. (19 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Compare White's "Eight Reasons" with his "I Investigate Lynching." What accounts for the differences in style and tone?
  2. According to White, in what ways were the Chicago riots the result of the South coming north?
  3. How did the issues faced by African Americans in Chicago differ from those they faced in the South?
  4. According to White, what role did the press, black and white, play in the riots?
  5. Based on evidence from Charles Johnson's report, how would you describe the existing black community that the Southern migrants found when they arrived in Chicago?
  6. What, according to Johnson, is the basis of "anti-Negro" public opinion? In his view, what must black people do to change this opinion? What must white people do?
  7. How does Johnson's report illuminate tensions between longtime black residents of Chicago and newly arrived black migrants?
  8. According to the family profiles, what roles do churches and benevolent associations play in the lives of black Chicagoans?
  9. How do urban conditions shape the social and communal lives of black Chicagoans?
  10. How were class distinctions marked? How did class differences shape the urban experience for black Chicagoans?

Framing Questions
  •  What migrations did African Americans undertake in the twentieth century?
  •  What were the effects of these migrations?

White:  5
Johnson: 14
19 pages
Supplemental Sites
Chicago Race Riot of 1919, additional primary source excerpts in History Matters, from George Mason University and the City University of New York (CUNY)

  - Chicago Daily News reporting
  - Chicago Daily Tribune reporting
  - Chicago Defender reporting

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, overview and primary source links, in Jazz Age Chicago, by Scott A. Newman, Ph.D.

Photographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933, in American Memory, from the Library of Congress (Subject: Race riots-Illinois-Chicago-1900-1919)

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: African American men standing in front of Walgreen Drugs, 35th and State, Chicago, Illinois, 1919, July/August, during the 1919 race riot; photograph taken by a photographer for the Chicago Daily News which may have been published in the newspaper. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Chicago Daily News Negatives Collection (Chicago Historical Society).

1. Leaving, 1920   2. Writing for Help   3. The Chicago Riots   4. Promised Land?
  5. The Blues   6. Old Timers, Newcomers   7. Leaving But Staying
8. New Consciousness   9. New Art   10. Painting the Migration   11. Leaving, 1960

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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