Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Centennial of ‘Red Summer’ will pass with few noting moment’s significance

Come Saturday, a raft will float out in Lake Michigan and will cross over the invisible dividing line between 29th and 26th streets – a boundary that back a century ago was the cause of bloodshed and the race riots of 1919 that have come to be known as “Red Summer.”
National Guard tries to restore order to South Side
That is, for those of us who have any historic recollection at all. Many more will likely let the moment pass by without any note of what happened some 100 years ago that day.

FOR THOSE WHO need to be reminded, it was in the afternoon of July 27 that a young black man named Eugene Williams went swimming in the lake off of 29th street – the portion of the beach where black people were permitted to be.

But while swimming, he drifted north. When he tried to come ashore near 26th Street, he had ventured into the portion of the beach that locals intended to be for white people.

White people, who’d probably have thought of themselves as proud Sout’ Siders, reacted poorly. They began flinging rocks, boulders and anything else they could grab ahold of at Williams – driving him back into the water.

Where he eventually drowned.
Amongst the more honest accounts of what happened a century ago
BLACK BEACH-GOERS AT 29th Street saw what happened, and reacted violently too. Pretty soon, it was an all-out race riot on the beach with Chicago police making arrests amongst the black people. That eventually spread to various parts of Chicago. With the Bridgeport neighborhood becoming the center of some of the most violent activity against black people.

It wasn’t just in Chicago. The years after the First World War saw many movements of hostility against black people, with many whites seemingly eager to let blacks know they “didn’t belong.”
A Tribune accounting of how large an area the riot covered
The death tally in Chicago alone reached the hundreds, with the National Guard eventually having to be sent in to restore order. In fact, those troops wound up using Comiskey Park as their home base – primarily because the White Sox’ ballpark was in the middle of the area where the most intense violence occurred.

In his Mayor Daley biography “Boss,” writer Mike Royko got deep into these happenings, trying to put together an argument that the future mayor must have been aware of what was going on in his neighborhood, if not directly involved – even though Richard J. himself always claimed to have no personal memories of that summer.

WHICH IS TYPICAL of how Chicago came to forget about the deaths. It was a thing of the past; something ugly and not worth remembering any longer.

And anybody who’s bothering to recall what happened? They’re probably trouble-makers themselves!
Bodies were found in all kinds of places in Chicago
So I’m kind of glad to learn the Chicago History Museum is sponsoring a program for Saturday meant to remind people of just what happened on the beach that summer a century ago.

They’re even planning to have people on a raft float across the invisible barrier. Only this time, no people on shore waiting to throw stones.

THERE IS ONE aspect of all this I find amusing – the fact that the entirety of the beach in that portion of the Lake Michigan shoreline is now named for Margaret T. Burroughs.
BURROUGHS: Beach now in her honor

The same Margaret Burroughs who was the artist and poet and who later went on to found the DuSable Museum of African-American History. I knew her late in life when she served on the Chicago Park District board and was devoted to preserving the memories of black culture in Chicago.

I’m sure that all the individuals who threw rocks a century ago would be appalled at the notion of “their” beach being “taken over” in such a manner.

Just as I’m sure the descendants of those individuals are now appalled at anyone trying to remind us now how bad the behavior was back then. For it seems that the old cliché, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” think the answers to our modern-day problems lie in their ignorance.


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