100 Years Ago: Chicago's Deadly Race Riots

Steve Miller
July 23, 2019 - 3:23 pm

July 1919: National Guardsmen are called out to quell race riots in Chicago. (Photo by Jun Fujita/Getty Images)

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CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- The race riots in Chicago 100 years ago this week began with the drowning of a 17-year-old boy just north of 31st Street.

"The first thing to remember is, it was very hot,” says Julius Jones, assistant curator at the Chicago History Museum.

In the summer of 1919, thousands would be at the beach to cool off.

There was an imaginary line: the 29th Street beach was white. The 26th Street beach was for blacks.

A black teenager, Eugene Williams, was with his friends on a raft in the lake.

"Eugene and his friends inadvertently floated south across that invisible line and they started throwing rocks at them. One of those rocks hit Eugene, causing him to drown and die."

Jones says many whites took the opportunity to "blow off some racial steam."

"What they saw as racialized competition for jobs and for housing and for opportunity, more broadly."

After a week of rioting, 38 people were dead: 23 blacks and 15 whites.