About a century ago, a 17-year-old African American teenager named Eugene Williams drowned in Lake Michigan while swimming with friends.
A group of white young men stoned Williams for crossing an unofficial barrier between the “white” and “black” beaches. No arrest was made, though eyewitnesses identified a man responsible for starting the stoning.
This led to a weeklong riot between black and white Chicagoans that left 38 people dead, more than 500 people injured and 1,000 black families without shelter, their homes torched by rioters.
Lifelong Chicago native Claire Hartfield re-examined this event in her latest book, A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919. The book won her a 2019 Coretta Scott King author award.
Hartfield joins Morning Shift to discuss her award-winning book and the impact she hopes it will have on readers.
How Did You First Hear About The 1919 Chicago Race Riots?
Claire Hartfield: It was a story that was full of drama and stuck with me and tucked back in my subconscious for many years. And then fast forward to a few years ago, when there’s been so much turmoil in the streets and I was watching images of things going on — in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland — and it called up in my memory this story that my grandmother had told me. And I wanted to know, what was going on in 1919, and how it is the same or different from what we’re seeing today?
Writing For A Younger Audience
Hartfield: I work in schools a lot, so I have the privilege, actually, of talking with young people and they’re very aware of what’s going on in our society right now. But they see it through a very narrow lens of their own lives and they don’t have the structures and the experience and the breadth of history to place what’s going on into a context. … And so I thought, “Wow, what if they knew this history … and look through an arc from beginning to middle to end of an event and to see what went wrong, what was handled badly, how can we handle it better today and begin to put together ideas for how to do it better this time?”
Echoes of Chicago’s Past In Issues of Today
Hartfield: It is really eerie and somewhat sobering. The issues that we face today are so reminiscent of what was going on in 1919. And I was thinking the other day, that if you put news stories from back then against news stories that you’re reading now, it’s kind of like the Coke-Pepsi taste test — you might not get it right. It might have happened a hundred years ago and look like it happened today.
On Winning The Coretta Scott King Author Award
Hartfield: I am thrilled of course. It’s so exciting to be now among this pantheon of great writers. And I think, as I’ve been sort of sifting through my feelings and getting over the numbness, the thing that’s most important and most exciting to me is that by getting this award, it’s going to shine a spotlight on this history.
Jenn White: Why was it important for you to preserve this chapter of Chicago’s history, particularly for young people?
Hartfield: It’s at this point, when they’re young that they have the opportunity, before they built up the defenses, to really grapple with the issues. And so, I’m hopeful that young people, from across the spectrum of experience, will be able to look this history and think about how it relates not only to their own small world and their own small school and neighborhood, but how it relates to their community around them, so that as they they grow into being the ones who take charge of policy for the future, that they thought it through in this larger context and grappled with the very difficult issues.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.
GUEST: Claire Hartfield, a nationally recognized children’s book author from Chicago
LEARN MORE: 99 years and counting: A look at race in Chicago through the lens of the 1919 riot (Chicago Tribune 7/27/18)
A Few Red Drops Gets at the Roots of the 1919 Race Riot (South Side Weekly 4/11/18)
The Coretta Scott King Book Awards (American Library Association)