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A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919

A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919

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A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919

4.5/5 (3 évaluations)
237 pages
2 heures
Jan 2, 2018


On a hot day in July 1919, five black youths went swimming in Lake Michigan, unintentionally floating close to the "white" beach. An angry white man began throwing stones at the boys, striking and killing one. Racial conflict on the beach erupted into days of urban violence that shook the city of Chicago to its foundations. This mesmerizing narrative draws on contemporary accounts as it traces the roots of the explosion that had been building for decades in race relations, politics, business, and clashes of culture. Archival photos and prints, source notes, bibliography, index.
Jan 2, 2018

À propos de l'auteur

Claire Hartfield received her B.A from Yale University and her law degree from the University of Chicago. As a lawyer, she has specialized in school desegregation litigation. She heard stories of the 1919 race riot from her grandmother, who lived in the Black Belt in Chicago at the time, and was moved to share this history with younger generations. Ms. Hartfield lives in Chicago. ClaireHartfield.com, Twitter: @clairehartfield

Aperçu du livre

A Few Red Drops - Claire Hartfield


Title Page





Chicago Neighborhoods ca. 1919



The Beach

A Time to Reap


Freedom Fight


White Negroes

Waste Matters

Parallel Universes

A Stone’s Throw


A Higher Call

The Northern Fever

A Real Place for Negroes

A Job, Any Job

Full to Bursting

Respectability and Respect


Tensions Rising

Last Straws

Race Riot

Ratcheting Up


Moment of Truth




Picture Credits



About the Author

Connect with HMH on Social Media

Title page: Chicago Skyline, night view, ca. 1920s.

Clarion Books

3 Park Avenue

New York, New York 10016

Copyright © 2018 by Claire Hartfield

All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to trade.permissions@hmhco.com or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.

Clarion Books is an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Cover photograph: Chicago Skyline, by Kaufmann & Fabry Co., retrieved from the Library of Congress

Cover design by Lisa Vega


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

ISBN 978-0-544-78513-7

eISBN 978-1-328-69904-6


To Emily, Caroline, Corinne—and the generations of young people who will shape the future.

Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then—I forget.

—Carl Sandburg

I Am the People, the Mob


ON A LAZY SUMMER SUNDAY in 1919, fourteen-year-old John Harris and his friends set out for a fun-filled, beat-the-heat afternoon at the beach. On that fateful July day, the boys’ water play went dreadfully wrong, sparking a blood-soaked race riot that would shake the city of Chicago and send shock waves across the nation.

The rage didn’t appear out of nowhere that day on the beach. It had been a long time coming, born in the city’s beginnings, written in the countless daily interactions of ordinary citizens and city leaders. Black migrants up from the South clashed with white immigrants from Europe; laborers and union leaders struggled to hold their own against mighty industrialists; police officers and gang members strove to control the streets; Democratic aldermen and a Republican mayor faced off over patronage and power. This is the story of their conflicting interests built over time, layer upon layer, ultimately exploding in bloodshed on the city’s streets. It is also America’s story.



Aerial view of a Chicago beach.

And so I say

On a summer’s day,

What’s so fine as being a boy? Ha, Ha!

—Paul Laurence Dunbar,

A Boy’s Summer Song


The Beach

THE DATE WAS JULY 27, 1919, a day that would forever change the life of John Turner Harris and cause the whole city of Chicago to rethink where it had been and where it was headed.

As is often the case just before catastrophe strikes, that Chicago summer Sunday morning was like any other, carrying no hint of the trouble ahead. Except that it was hot, the unbearable humid kind of hot that sits heavy on the chest and covers the skin with a glistening film of sweat before the day has a chance to get started. The air in fourteen-year-old John’s bedroom in his family’s home in the city’s Black Belt was thick with the smell of animal blood that drifted east from the city’s stockyards a few miles away. By the height of the day, temperatures would soar to ninety-six degrees—fourteen degrees above normal. And this heat had been building for days.

Those Chicagoans lucky enough to be able to afford the latest technology had electric fans to keep them cool. Those who could not afford such fancy appliances threw windows open to catch the breeze. And still, on this Sunday, the heat turned apartments and houses throughout the city into gigantic ovens. The only escape was to go outside.

There were eighty-two playgrounds and a handful of large leafy parks sprinkled through the neighborhoods, rich and poor: good spots for a picnic in the shade or a game of baseball exciting enough to make people forget the weather entirely. Better yet, folks could spend an afternoon dodging and diving in the icy waters of Lake Michigan, at one of the eight beaches that lined the city’s eastern shore. Chicago’s daily Tribune sported two full pages of beach bathers with wide smiles and dripping swimsuits, proclaiming, KEEP COOL! There’s room for 250,000 like these at Chicago’s Beaches Today.

Around two o’clock in the afternoon, John met up with his friends, the four Williams boys: Charles and Lawrence were brothers; Paul and Eugene just happened to have the same last name. The beach was some four miles away from John’s home. The boys set out on foot and took the first opportunity to hop on a produce truck headed north, hopping off again when the truck reached Twenty-Sixth Street, then turning east toward the beach and continuing on foot. They made a beeline for the lake—through the streets, across the railroad tracks, not walking but running, trying to avoid any trouble along the way. There had already been bad blood between blacks and whites that summer, the boys knew firsthand. Not long before, a gang of immigrant toughs had rained rocks down on them as they crossed this very area. So now they hurried along, watchful but also giddy and playful, Lake Michigan in front of them, beckoning them to its bright blue waters that extended out like an ocean, so far that they couldn’t see the other side.

There was a space of beach about a half mile in length between Twenty-Sixth Street and Twenty-Ninth Street that was a favorite for people who lived on Chicago’s South Side. There was no law about who could go to these beaches, not like in Alabama, Mississippi, and other places in the South where public bathrooms, water fountains, and beaches posted big signs spelling out For Whites Only or Colored. In Chicago, under the law, most places were open to both blacks and whites: children attended school together, and adults rode streetcars together. Under the law, blacks and whites could choose to eat in the same restaurants and get tickets to shows in the same theaters. Even so, many places were segregated, with the races separated by an invisible line. The beaches were like that. The boys knew, everybody knew: blacks frequented the beach at Twenty-Sixth Street; whites swam at the beach on Twenty-Ninth Street. The Twenty-Sixth Street beach was fully equipped with suits, towels, and lockers available at no charge; the beach manager proudly stated that he was looking to make it the bathing point of the south side.

There were also some gray areas, spaces where the rules were not so clear. John and the Williams boys had found one of these and appropriated it for themselves, a sort of clubhouse that was all their own. It was a little island tucked between the two beaches, behind the Keeley beer brewery that gave off hot waste and the Consumers Ice Company that gave off cold waste, and they called it the hot and cold. The boys had built a wooden raft they kept tied up there, fourteen feet long, nine feet wide, big and solid enough to carry them out into the lake.

The game for the day was to sail the raft out to a marker nailed several hundred yards from shore, somewhere between the two beaches. The boys could not swim well, but they pushed off into the refreshing water, holding on to the sides of the raft, kicking their legs to move them forward. Many years later, John recalled feeling, As long as the raft was there, we were safe. They took turns diving under the cool water, popping back up every few seconds, grabbing on to the raft again, whooping it up as they bobbed along. Immersed in the delight of the game, they drifted closer and closer to the Twenty-Ninth Street beach.

During the heat wave, Chicagoans were advised to cool off at the beach.

On the shore at Twenty-Ninth Street, tensions were rising. White families had gathered as usual, looking forward to a lazy Sunday away from work and household chores, a chance to relax, children entertaining themselves with sand castles and water play. Some whites had been upset earlier when four blacks ignored the invisible line, plopping themselves down on the sand as though it was nothing out of the ordinary. White observers noted that things like this were happening more and more often. It seemed that something had come over black people after fighting the Great War in Europe during the previous few years; when the war was over, they seemed to think they could go anywhere, do anything, same as whites. And now here they were on the beach. They needed to be shown their place.

A few men chased the black bathers away, some throwing rocks. The blacks retreated briefly but were not intimidated. They returned with a larger group and retaliated with rock-throwing of their own. Women scooped up their children and took cover.

A crowded beach frequented by whites, a few miles south of the Twenty-Ninth Street beach.

A little north of the rock fight, John and the Williams boys, oblivious of the fray, continued their game of diving and floating. Plunk. Out of nowhere, a rock touched down in the water close to the raft, startling the boys. A young white man stood on the beach about seventy-five feet away, gathering rocks, heaving them into the water in their direction. The boys looked at one another; maybe the man was trying to play a game of dodge. They were up for it, watching the rocks streak toward them, then diving underwater. John recalled, One fellow would say, ‘Look out, here comes one,’ and we would duck. It was good fun. Until a rock arced down just as Eugene came up from a dive, stone meeting forehead, and Eugene slid back into the water.

John dove below the surface, trying to find Eugene. He could see blood in the water; then he felt himself being pulled down. Eugene had got hold of his ankle. John struggled to pull them both back up to safety, but Eugene was strong in his panic, keeping them both below the surface. John recalled, I shook away from him to come back up, and you could see the blood coming up. He was aware of the other boys shouting and swimming toward the shore as best they could. He could hear the young white man groan a few words—it sounded like Oh, my God. He saw the white man turn and run back toward the Twenty-Ninth Street beach.

Hitting land, the boys raced back to the Twenty-Sixth Street beach, grabbed the black lifeguard, and told him what had happened. The lifeguard immediately launched a boat to search for Eugene. Spotting a black policeman, the boys pulled him down to Twenty-Ninth Street and told their story in front of everyone, including the white cop working the Twenty-Ninth Street beach, Officer Daniel Callahan. John pointed at the young man who had thrown the rock at Eugene, then waited for the police to arrest him. But Officer Callahan refused to do anything and restrained the black cop from making a move. While the two policemen argued, a group sprang to action, blacks and whites together, diving into the water to find Eugene.

Within the hour, Eugene’s body was found, lifeless, and pulled to shore.


A Time to Reap

JOHN AND HIS FRIENDS DASHED back to the Twenty-Sixth Street beach and poured out their anger to the black bathers there. Around fifty men sprinted down to Twenty-Ninth Street to see for themselves what was going on.

Watching the bathers storm down the beach, John began to think about himself and the trouble he might be in. His mother would be furious if she found out he had been swimming on a Sunday. John later remembered how upset he was:

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3 évaluations / 3 Avis
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Avis des lecteurs

  • (4/5)
    The story takes place in 1919. Several African-Americans go floating the river and end up in the "white part". This lays the foundation for race relations.
  • (4/5)
    An informative and timely look at the 1919 Chicago race riot as well as the cities history. A Few Red Drops reads like a textbook however I believe young readers would find it engaging. It grabbed my attention early and kept me reading.
  • (5/5)
    Account of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. Claire Hartfield does a fantastic job of giving reasons and events that led to the riot. She also discusses in detail the participants in the riot and the effect the riot had on Chicago and America. If you like non-fiction accounts of historical events this is an excellent read. Includes many pictures of the neighborhoods and participants.