On the afternoon of July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams drifted across an imaginary color line in the water at 29th Street Beach. Soon, white residents began throwing stones, preventing the black teenager from coming ashore. His drowning sparked the largest race riots Chicago has ever seen—a week that saw 38 deaths and hundreds of injuries.
A century later, a University of Chicago scholar and a team of students have helped shed light on that painful but oft-overlooked part of history—one that continues to resonate through the city and its enduring patterns of segregation. Earlier this year, the researchers built an interactive map that allows users to see where deaths and injuries occurred—marked by red and blue dots and Xs—and view original newspaper articles and photos from the riots.
“If you can see the riots on a map and visualize them, you’re put into that time and place,” said Maggie Lu, a rising second-year student who worked as one of the project’s research assistants.
Navigating the map gives users a glimpse of the lives lost. Click the red dot on the shore of Lake Michigan, and details about Williams pop up: a grocery porter, born in Georgia, living at 3921 Prairie Ave. A white man named George Stauber was eventually charged with manslaughter after an officer declined to arrest him at the scene. He was not convicted.
Williams’ death set off a wave of violence—much of which erupted along Wentworth Avenue, the western boundary of Chicago’s “Black Belt.” Although scholars attribute segregation in the city to a variety of political and social factors, the 1919 riots could help explain why those boundaries have remained intransigent for decades.
To see a larger version of the map, visit “Mapping the 1919 Chicago Riot.”
“Looking at segregation in Chicago, you see particular streets that have become persistent color lines,” said John Clegg, a UChicago historical sociologist who oversaw the mapping project. “When we ask why—well, one reason may be that there was a moment of violence at its origin.”
Led by Clegg, Lu and fellow undergraduates Bokyoung Kim and Kian Yoo-Sharifi spent months combing through archival records, finding data points that place the injuries, deaths and arsons from the riots onto a modern-day map of Chicago.
Roughly a mile west of where Williams drowned, a red dot marks the death of Samuel Banks, a black teenager who was shot in the abdomen. A couple of blocks south, a dot for black police officer John Simpson, also shot and killed. Three miles north, another fatal shooting: Paul Hardwick, a black, 51-year-old waiter who had been attacked while eating breakfast. Of the 38 people who died, 23 were black.
Clegg and the students had originally hoped to rely on coroner’s reports, but the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office lacked a comprehensive list of those killed during the riots.
“The idea that there’s almost no history of these people having existed—that was devastating to think about,” said Kim, a rising second-year student.