Sample History Paper on The Chicago Race Riots of 1919

As the first world war ended and American troops returned home, the African American soldiers who had fought beside their white compatriots, having experienced nonracist treatment as they fought abroad, returned home to an America that barely recognized their service. Expectations were still that they would abide by the segregative laws that discriminated against them which they were unwilling to do. That, coupled with tensions due to increased competition for employment opportunities as more African Americans migrated north, and the inadequate and dilapidated housing facilities and other amenities afforded to the African American community that had been segregated to the south side of Chicago, had led to simmering racial tensions (The Chicago Commission on Race Relations 112). These tensions were brought to the fore on July 27th, 1919, by the drowning of an African American teenager Eugene Williams in lake Michigan. Eugene Williams drowned after falling off his raft as he was being stoned by a group of whites after his raft inadvertently strayed from the segregated black beach into the white beach section. That refusal by the state police to bring charges against one of the people who had been identified and was considered by the African American community as having instigated Eugene William’s stoning led to the initial gathering of crowds at the beach with sporadic fighting in different parts of the city being reported. With every incident of fighting, violence escalated.


The violent riots lasted 13 days despite the intervention by the state militia, resulting in the death of 38 people, 15 whites and 28 blacks, and injuring hundreds more. The riots that have come to be known as the red summer marked the exploding of the racial tensions that had been simmering between the whites and blacks since the reinvigoration of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in 1918, and other racist outfits like the Hamburg Athletic Club. The reinvigoration of the KKK’s racist agenda in 1918 led to many lynching of the blacks (Norvell and Tuttle Jr 209).

This happened as more African Americans moved out of the south to industrial cities in the north searching for employment opportunities. This movement had two effects: The first, was that the whites, some of whom had gone to take part in the war abroad came back to find their jobs taken by the African Americans who offered cheaper labor at a time when the white labor force had been trying to agitate for workers unions and negotiations for higher pays. This led to a feeling of resentment towards the blacks from the whites for ostensibly taking their jobs. The second was that the small rundown housing facilities that were offered to African Americans in segregated parts of those cities quickly became filled up. With that, there came a need to seek expansion into other areas of the cities. And that began the silent murmuring and push by the African American soldiers returning from overseas plus some of the African American elites.

The drowning of Eugene Williams served to ignite these tensions, and the subsequent riots necessitated relooking into race relations in Chicago and across the US. It became evident that the African American recently back from war overseas was also equally heavily armed and could defend themselves and attack just as well as the whites could. This forced the two to come together to try and find a solution. In the subsequent debates about how to address and solve the racially instigated problems, there were suggestions of implementing zoning laws to formalize the segregation of housing as well as having laws to restrict African Americans from working in the same yards and organizations as the whites, but both suggestions were rejected. The city officials then put together a commission of 12 men to look at the main causes of the racial tensions and how to solve them. The membership of the commission was shared equally between blacks and whites and they addressed several key issues, including sharing of employment opportunities, improving housing for the black communities, pervasive racism and the targeting of African Americans by law enforcement (Bulmer 289).

The suggested changes were slow in coming over the subsequent years, but president Woodrow Wilson having publicly blamed the whites for the riots encouraged African Americans and a willingness to fight oppression and injustice in the years that followed. President Woodrow Wilson also introduced national efforts to ensure racial harmony and diffuse racial tensions in both Chicago and Washington DC where the riots had been particularly bloody. These efforts included pushing for legislation that would check injustices on matters of race as well as allowing black anti-racist voluntary organizations (Chicago Commission on Race Relations 112).

In the subsequent years, race relations in America have improved, though slowly. There have been race-related riots across America, the most recent and notorious being the Rodney King’s riots in the ’90s.  However, progress towards racial equality that was initiated by these riots though painstakingly slow in some instances, has been steady. There has been the passage of the voting rights act in 1965 which has given and protected African American women’s voting rights. There was also the overturning of the segregation laws at the supreme court under Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1954, that brought an end to discrimination in schools and other public places on the basis of skin color. Those segregation laws had formerly been upheld by the supreme court in the case of Plessy V. Ferguson (1896) (Golub 564). Though slow, the strides towards racial inclusion in America cannot be overstated. This can be clearly evidenced by the assumption of office of the country’s first black American president in 2008, Barrack Obama.


Works Cited

Bulmer, Martin. “Charles S. Johnson, Robert E. Park and the research methods of the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, 1919–22: an early experiment in applied social research.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 4.3 (1981): 289-306.

Golub, Mark. “Plessy as “passing”: Judicial responses to ambiguously raced bodies in Plessy v. Ferguson.” Law & Society Review 39.3 (2005): 563-600.

Norvell, Stanley B., and William M. Tuttle Jr. “Views of a Negro During” The Red Summer” of 1919.” The Journal of Negro History 51.3 (1966): 209-218.

The Chicago Commission on Race Relations. “The Negro in Chicago. A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 8, no. 1, 1923, pp. 112-114