Underlying Tensions: The Chicago Race Riots of 1919 and the Chicago Commission on Race Relations

Created by: Ellora Larsen
Time Period: 20th Century, Civil Rights Movement, Postwar, Progressive Era
Topic: Community and Reform, Crisis and Response, Immigration, Poverty, Race and Ethnicity, Remaking Urban Space

In 1922, the Chicago Commission on Race Relations published their findings on the cause of the Chicago race riots of 1919. In the book, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot, the commission published their findings of the causes of the riots and then how to prevent racial tensions like this from happening in the future.[1] The beginning of the report goes into detail on the events of the riot. The next part of the findings explores the black experience in Chicago before the riots occurred to estimate the causes of the riots which focused on the three issues: housing, labor conflict, and racial issues.

A black and white man confronting each other during the riots.

The chairman of the committee was Edgar A. Bancroft who was in charge of ten other members.[2] Bancroft was a lawyer in Chicago who also was the president of the Illinois State Bar Association.[3] Bancroft seemed to be very involved in different protests in Chicago’s history and focused on giving back to his community with other big cases he was involved with was the Chicago Strike of 1894.[4] Housing in Chicago played a big deal with the riots. Due to redlining in Chicago, most African Americans who were part of the Great Migration ended up settling down in the South Side which in 1919 was also called the “Black Belt.” Redlining was commonly used to isolate the African American community and other marginalized groups, The places where these black workers moved to would be marked in red or given a “D” for their grade on the Home Owners Loan Corporation appraisal maps of Detroit which would make it more difficult for these black families to get federal loans or subsidies when they already had to pay more for their housing.[5] Black workers were paid drastically less than white workers so it took longer for them to meet the high housing prices so it often took longer for them to become homeowners without the assistance of loans making these already established African American communities the only places that were open to them.

Chicago’s South Side in the 1920s.

One of the first possible solutions was to list 127 parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, and beaches to be under control of the Municipal Bureaus of Parks.[6] The reason that the riot broke out on July 27 when Eugene Williams, who was seventeen at the time, accidentally swam into the white only part of the beach and was stoned to death by white beachgoers.[7] Since William’s death occurred in an unmonitored beach, they believed that making sure these places had more supervision that possible events could be stopped before they are even started. The riots also understood that the riots were not the cause of African Americans having issues assimilating to the north. The Commission looked at studies in the field and found that there was no concrete evidence of how many of the cities crimes were committed by African Americans.[8]  This was important because there was already a preconceived notion at the time that whites were superior and the hypersexualization of black men and the belief that they were by nature more willing to commit crimes and the Commission basically concluded that this sentiment was a false one. While the Chicago Commission on Race findings of the race riots were very ahead of their time, none of their findings were taken seriously until the 1960s with riots due to the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

[1] Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago ; a Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot.

[2] Chicago Commission on Race Relations. 651.

[3] “Edgar A. Bancroft on the Need of Reform in Court Procedure.”

[4] Bancroft, The Chicago Strike of 1894.

[5] Sugrue, 37-38.

[6] Chicago Commission on Race Relations, 616.

[7] Sandburg, The Chicago Race Riots, July, 1919.

[8] Chicago Commission on Race Relations. 621.

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