The Chicago race riot of 1919 was a major racial conflict that began in Chicago, Illinois, on July 27, 1919, and ended on August 3. During the riot, thirty-eight people died (23 black and 15 white) and over five hundred were injured. It is considered the worst of the approximately 25 riots during the Red Summer, so named because of the violence and fatalities across the nation. The combination of prolonged arson, looting, and murder made it the worst race riot in the history of Illinois.
The sociopolitical atmosphere of Chicago was one of ethnic tension caused by competition among many new groups. With the Great Migration, thousands of African Americans from the South had settled next to neighborhoods of European immigrants on Chicago’s South Side, near jobs in the stockyards and meatpacking plants. The Irish had been established first, and fiercely defended their territory and political power against all newcomers. Post World War I tensions caused frictions between the races, especially in the competitive labor and housing markets. Overcrowding and increased African American militancy by veterans contributed to the visible racial frictions. Also, a combination of ethnic gangs and police neglect strained the racial relationships. According to official reports, the turmoil came to a boil after the death of an African American youth who had accidentally drifted into a swimming area at an informally segregated beach. Tensions between groups arose in a melee that blew up into days of unrest.
William Hale Thompson was the Mayor of Chicago during the riot and a game of brinksmanship with Illinois Governor Frank Lowden may have exacerbated the riot since Thompson refused to ask Lowden to send in the National Guard for four days, despite Lowden ensuring that the guardsmen were in Chicago and ready to intervene. Although future mayor Richard J. Daley never officially acknowledged being part of the violence, at age 17 he was an active member of the Irish Hamburg Athletic Club, which a post-riot investigation named as instigators in attacks on black Americans. In the following decades, Daley continued to rise in politics to become the city’s mayor for twenty-one years.
United States President Woodrow Wilson and the United States Congress attempted to promote legislation and organizations to decrease racial discord in America. Illinois Governor Frank Lowden took several actions at Thompson’s request to quell the riot and promote greater harmony in its aftermath. Sections of the Chicago economy were shut down for several days during and after the riots, since plants were closed to avoid interaction among bickering groups. Mayor Thompson drew on his association with this riot to influence later political elections.