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99 years and counting
August 11, 2018
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Claire Hartfield’s new book, “A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919” (Clarion Books) begins with a line from the Carl Sandburg poem “I Am the People, the Mob”: “Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then — I forget.”

Hartfield, an education consultant, attorney and Hyde Park native, doesn’t want the world to forget the story her grandmother told her as a child, so she wrote a book — aimed at seventh graders and up – on the conflict for future generations.

The race riot stemmed from a July 27, 1919, incident between 26th Street and 29th Street beaches on the South Side. According to the book, a game of dodge played with rocks turned deadly when a white man on the shore struck a black teen, who was swimming with friends, in the head. Eugene Williams drowned that day, but when his friends brought the matter to authorities and identified the person who threw the rock, George Stauber, white officers made no arrest.

From there, the conflagration that became the riot, grew from tinder that was born on the streets of the city’s Black Belt area and white immigrant communities like Packingtown (full of Irish, German, Polish and Lithuanians). Issues that fuelled tensions entailed unions, employment and what neighbourhoods the distinct populations could reside in.

Hartfield wrote: “Blacks tried to make a go of it within the boundaries laid out for them. But as the days turned into weeks, into months, into years, the day-in, day-out smells, sights, and sounds that accompany extreme congestion crowded the minds of people, leaving room for little else. And a few fed-up souls began to push back against efforts of whites in nearby neighborhoods to lock them out.”

Frustration and tension led to seven days of rage and rioting that left 38 dead and 537 injured in Chicago, according to Hartfield’s research. But the city wasn’t alone in its racial issues — 25 riots across the country in towns big and small led to the moniker “Red Summer” that year.

“The problems had been under the city’s nose all along, if only it had chosen to address them. But before the riots, Chicago and cities across the country were focused on their successes — the money to be made, the technological innovations, the larger-than-life men and women, such as the Swifts (Gustavus Franklin Swift of Swift & Company who set up shop at the Union Stock Yard in 1875), who stood tall as models of economic progress,” Hartfield wrote. “Problems of the immigrant and black communities were swept under the dazzling carpet of success, where they grew until they forced their way into the open.”

We spoke to Hartfield about her book and how “America’s present is echoing its past.”

“Today’s disparity between rich and poor is as wide as the divide between Swift and his laborers 100 years ago. Nearly one-quarter of American city dwellers live in poverty. One per cent of all Americans take home nearly 20 percent of all earnings. Black America is the bleakest of all,” she said.

Excerpts:

Why dive into the Race Riot of 1919 now?
A few years ago when I was watching the news, there was all this turbulence in the streets and it was flashing across our TV screens and it called up this memory of my grandmother’s story and I wanted to find out: Why had that happened, and how was it the same or different from what we’re experiencing today — so that was the catalyst.

Is Chicago better or worse than in 1919?
I do think that it’s better, partly because of technology frankly. I think that the public is more aware of particular incidents with the body cams that police wear, with people using their cellphones to record events ... there was no parallel to that back in 1919. My sense of it is that more people are aware because they’ve been confronted with visual images of what’s going on. It varies from person to person, but I do think that it has an impact.

What feedback have you received about the book?
People are very interested in learning about this part of history that isn’t very well covered. A lot of people are not aware that this riot took place. The most exciting thing about history is what it means in terms of our present and how we might use it to create a better future. I’m hopeful that parents and grandparents will talk with their young adults and teenagers about it across generations. One of the things about the time we’re going through right now is that we are so much in our own particular bubble a lot of the time. It’s just wonderful to see people talking outside of their bubbles – across generations, across racial divides, across every group imaginable – about this history and how it relates to their own experience.

Have you received feedback about the immigrant aspect of the book?
Yes, I have. Some people whose histories are ones of immigration instead of migration particularly have been very interested. When I started researching this, one of the things that struck me about the way that we went in the wrong direction back then – and that we have an opportunity to a better job this time – is there were so many similarities between the situations of the immigrants coming from Europe and the migrants coming up from the South. Instead of coalescing and collaborating across those communities and looking at those commonalities and building upon them, the city as a whole (and there were different parts to it) really implemented systems that drove people apart, and that is reflected in what’s happening today. It’s true that immigrants, the white working class and the black working class that’s already here, have a lot in common. We are not focusing on our commonalities right now. We’re focusing on our divisions and that’s the kind of thing that causes such unrest to develop. I’m hopeful that people can take a look at that, and take a look in the mirror and say: How do we get past this? How do we take the focus away from our divisions and move our focus toward our commonalities?

Is this book a warning – a wake-up call that history could repeat itself?
Yes. I was struck by the parallels of what was going on today. One of the great things about knowing our history is that it instructs us on things that were done the wrong way, so we don’t repeat them in ignorance. You can see from the incident that sparked the riot – it was relatively small, but there were all these tensions that were simmering for so long that were just waiting for that match to hit. So it is something that we need to be very much aware of now – really take a look at why did it happen and how is it the same and different from what is going on today, and then take action. I’m hopeful the book will also inspire young people and older people to take action to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.

Tribune News Service

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