Remembering Chicago’s 1919 Race Riots With Public Art
Brass plaques with the names of Holocaust victims line the sidewalks throughout Germany. It was these Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” that were the inspiration for a Chicago project that aims to commemorate the 1919 race riots that left 38 people dead.
Members of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19) say there’s little recognition of those who died during that weeklong violent outburst 100 years ago. The group wants to change that.
“Young people — whether they’re from downstate, suburbs or the city of Chicago — are unaware of this history,” said CRR19 founding director Peter Cole. “And that’s because no one in Illinois actually thinks about or remembers the Chicago race riot of 1919, let alone its legacy.”
Currently, the only memorial is a single historical marker near 29th Street along the lakefront where the first victim, a black teenager named Eugene Williams, was killed when a white man hit him on the head with a rock. The plaque was paid for by students at York High School in suburban Elmhurst in 2009.
The project’s goal is to install public works of art throughout the city where each of the 38 victims were killed. The project is in the beginning stages of researching and creating a plan, but there is no timeline yet for when the work can be completed.
Cole, a longtime professor at Western Illinois University, said his 19-year experience teaching history brought to light the area’s lack of awareness that race riots ever occurred in Chicago.
Cole got the idea for a public art memorial during recent trips to Germany. There, he said he was blown away by the many ways the country visibly recognized the Holocaust, and he wanted to apply the Stolpersteine concept to commemorate racial violence in Chicago.
“Literally, for 100 years, the city of Chicago has done nothing — and when I say nothing, I mean nothing — to commemorate these events, let alone try to sort of grapple with how it has impacted the city of Chicago to this very day,” Cole said.
Saturday will mark 100 years after Williams’ death and the start of the riots. Local organizations will work in tandem to educate the public about the riots with a daylong series of events. CRR19 is part of that effort and will officially launch with a program at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Bronzeville, preceded by a bike tour of relevant sites.
“I think a lot of people just aren’t aware that we did have this bloody summer of race riots in 1919,” said Alicia Bunton, director of community affairs at IIT. “Typically, when you speak of [race] riots, people think of Detroit, Mich., or places down south. They don’t necessarily think right here in the city of Chicago.”
Franklin Cosey-Gay, executive director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, said Chicago should commemorate these events how other U.S. cities have. In Tulsa, Okla., he noted, the city has memorialized the victims of its 1921 race riots in multiple ways, including the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, which is owned by the city and managed by a nonprofit.
He said the city’s involvement is key to understanding Chicago today and moving forward.
“We can’t build trust until we reconcile and we talk about incidents that have happened,” Cosey-Gay said. “The Chicago race riots is a very important frame for why Chicago looks the way it does 100 years later.”
And even before the campaign fundraising and execution of the public art project, Cosey-Gay said the city should create a resolution to officially acknowledge that the riots happened.
“It begins with just honesty about what happened,” he said. “And an apology.”
Arionne Nettles is a digital producer at WBEZ covering arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @arionnenettles.