A hundred years ago, on a hot summer day on a segregated beach in Chicago, a 17-year-old boy named Eugene Williams drifted into what was then known as the white side of the beach. Eugene was black.
White men on shore began throwing rocks at Williams, and he eventually drowned. Police on the scene refused to make an arrest and it ignited the already longstanding tensions between white and black Chicagoans.
The city erupted into five days of racial violence, leaving 38 people dead — 23 of whom were black and 15 white. More than 500 Chicagoans were injured, two-thirds of them black.
Now, a century later, Chicago author and sociologist Eve Ewing revisits the events of that summer and explores the black experience in Chicago in the 100 years since.
Morning Shift talks to Ewing about her new collection of poetry, 1919.
What inspired you to write this new collection of poems?
Eve Ewing: When I was writing Ghosts in the School Yard, which was about the 2013 CPS (Chicago Public School) school closures, I realized that in order to talk about segregation in Chicago and the structural racism that I saw as being intimately related to those school closures, that I actually had to begin the story almost a century earlier. And I started thinking a lot about the beginning of the trajectory of black people in Chicago — the Great Migration.
I came across a document called The Negro in Chicago, which was a report published in 1922 and it was useful to me in writing that book because it was about the conditions of what it was like to be black in Chicago a century ago. But the actual purpose of the document was to report on the causes of the 1919 race riot that had happened during the Red Summer, when similar violence erupted in cities all across the country. I found it to be such a fascinating document, and I wanted to know more about it.
And the next thing I knew, I was writing a book.
Jenn White: As you read the report, were there things that surprised you? Things you didn’t know before?
Ewing: I think the biggest surprise for me … in reading this report, which is talking about Chicagoans’ lives a hundred years ago, almost everything in the report that I read is either completely different or exactly the same.
And the second thing was just realizing, with some humility, how little I really knew about this time period. I think it’s a period of time that folks often skip over in their reckoning of American history, certainly of African American history.
On revisiting the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 through poetry
Ewing: I’m always writing in different genres … but I think that poems really have a lot of potential to evoke the kind of visceral empathy that I was looking to motivate in a reader for this book. Because I wanted folks to see this not as a remote historical event that happened in some faraway place. But I wanted people to see that these are literally the streets that we walk on every day in Chicago and that these people are people very much like us.
The other reason I wanted to do a book of poetry is because I’m also an educator and I’m also thinking about these books as pedagogical tools. Seeing that most people don’t really know a lot about this period of history … what I wanted to do is to invite people to say, “This is an entrance to something and you can go on from here. But you’re welcome to start.”
On exploring the black experience before, during and after the race riot
Ewing: So many of our grandparents and parents … they packed up everything they own and left the only place they had ever known, everyone they knew and loved, their very fabric of reality, to go to a place they had never been based on the promise that something better was possible.
There’s something so special and also so deeply discouraging about that because the history that people face when they get to Chicago and when they get to Detroit is the history that we know so much better, that we talk about all the time: the history of segregation; the history of housing inequity, of prejudice, of discrimination; the history of police violence and of being pushed to the social margins in this new home.
But what’s often missed in that story is the dream that preceded it … people came to cities like Chicago seeking a dream. And it makes it to me all the more heartbreaking to think about everything that has come after in the century since. But it also motivates me to think, “What does it mean for us to try to fulfill the promise of those dreams?”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity by Stephanie Kim. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.
GUEST: Eve Ewing, Chicago-based author and sociologist
LEARN MORE: Eve L. Ewing on ‘1919,’ her new poetry collection about Chicago’s little-known race riot (Chicago Tribune 7/17/19)