Bike Tour Brings Riders Up Close To Chicago’s Race Riot History

Bike Tour
University of Chicago historian Franklin Cosey-Gay speaks to bike tour participants at Armour Square Park in Bridgeport, Saturday, June 29. Mariah Woelfel / WBEZ
Bike Tour
University of Chicago historian Franklin Cosey-Gay speaks to bike tour participants at Armour Square Park in Bridgeport, Saturday, June 29. Mariah Woelfel / WBEZ

Bike Tour Brings Riders Up Close To Chicago’s Race Riot History

Nearly 150 people took a bike tour through the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood Saturday for a firsthand look at an important part of Chicago history.

One hundred years ago this summer, the stoning and drowning death of an African American teenager off a South Side beach ignited the 1919 race riots. What followed were days of violent clashes between whites and blacks — 38 people died and hundreds more were injured.

The riots came out of a time of brewing racism in Chicago, as more African Americans made the city their home during the Great Migration.

WBEZ rode along on the tour to bring you a bit of history from each stop.

Stop 1: 500 yards north of the 31st Street Beach House

The tour started at what’s believed to be the only marked site that commemorates the 1919 race riots in the city of Chicago. It’s a plaque near where black teenager Eugene Williams was left to drown after being hit with a rock for swimming on the wrong side of a segregated beach.

Chicago police officer Daniel Callahan refused to arrest a man whom eyewitnesses pointed out as causing the drowning. White bathers came to the man’s aid. Williams’ death was the tipping point, but according to historians, there was racial tension and violence before, and after, Williams’ death.

Stop 2: Olivet Baptist Church: 31st and King Drive

Olivet Baptist Church is the oldest, largest and most significant African American church in Chicago, according to the Newberry Library. Formed in 1850, Olivet was a gathering place for migrants during the Great Migration. With 10,000 members, it was often hard to get a seat, historians said Saturday. During the riots, Olivet “worked to maintain peace.”

The pastor of Olivet in 1919 was Lucy Kirk Williams, one of six African Americans on a 12-person race riot commission that later produced a landmark report documenting and analyzing the riot.

Stop 3: Ida B. Wells House: 3624 S. Martin Luther King Drive

Journalist and activist Ida B. Wells was an outspoken speaker and writer about racism, lynching, suffrage, education and labor issues. She contributed pivotal work on another conflict, the East St. Louis, Illinois race riots of 1917. During Chicago’s 1919 riots, Wells was more militant than pastors and the NAACP, both of which urged caution, according to the Newberry.

Wells lived at 3234 S. Rhodes Ave. at the time of the riots. She moved into this house just after the riots in 1919.

Bikers pass by the 8th Regiment Armory, built in 1914 as the first armory for African American troops of WWI. Veterans of this unit were among those who fought back against attacks by white gangs during the race riots.

Stop 4: Bombing at 3365 S. Indiana Ave.

Bombings meant to intimidate black residents started a couple of years before the riots, accelerating in 1919 and continued beyond the riots. This house, at 3365 S. Indiana Ave. was bombed, as was the one next to it. A six-year-old died as a result.

The bombings were not stopped until after 1921. After World War II, as a second great migration came to Chicago, a new wave of bombings was inflicted, as whites again tried to intimidate blacks into leaving, according to the Newberry Library.

Stop 5: Police Station and site of Angelus Building Riot: Northeast corner of 35th and State

This is one of the most contentious locations of the 1919 race riots. The area around the seven-story Angelus Building and the still-standing 35th Street police station was described as an “active” site of violence for seven days. On July 28, rumors spread that white mobs were massing west of Wentworth Avenue to “clean out” the Black Belt. Another rumor was that a shot had been fired from a window of the Angelus Building and had wounded a boy. Historians say roughly one hundred policemen and more than a thousand African Americans surrounded the Angelus Building. Police fired into the crowd and killed four people.

We pass Wentworth Avenue to get to the next stop. In 1919, Wentworth was the “Dead Line” — meaning African Americans risked their lives crossing it.

Stop 6: Armour Square Park: 33rd and Shields Ave.

The Bridgeport park was a gathering place for Irish American “Athletic Clubs,” which actively participated in the riots and are likened to modern day gangs by some historians. “Ragen’s Colts” was a white gang active to the south. Its affiliate, the Hamburg Club, operated in Armour Square Park. Future Mayor Richard J. Daley, who had just graduated from De La Salle High School, was a member.

Many of the police in the area were either members or former members of the Ragen’s Colts. When the National Guard was called in to Chicago, many Athletic Clubs were treated as “neutral,” despite their participation in and perpetuation of violence. The Hamburg Club still has a small clubhouse two blocks away.

Stop 7: Union Stockyards Gate, South Union Ave.

Labor issues were a crucial piece of the 1919 race riots, according to Concordia University historian David Bates.

At the time of the riots, the Union Stockyards was the largest employer of African Americans, and labor unions helped organize black workers. Getting to work was dangerous during the riots — and some black workers were attacked on trolley lines as they traveled to and from the Stockyards. There were five deaths within three blocks of the gate.

Stop 8: The Forum, 43rd St. and Calumet Ave.

The Forum is one of the oldest remaining social gathering spots in the Bronzeville community. In the first half of the 20th century it was the site of entertainment, but also activism around labor organizing and civil rights. The 1919 riots left a lasting mark on The Forum and its members, highlighting the need for spaces to organize in the black community.

Stop 9: Wendell Phillips High School, 244 E Pershing Rd.

Wendell Phillips High School was the heart of opportunity in Bronzeville during the first half of the 20th century. Jun Fujita, the photographer who captured violent images of the riot, was a student here, class of 1906.