100 years later, shadow of Red Summer of 1919 race riots still hangs over Chicago

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Saturday, July 27, 2019
100 years later, shadow of Red Summer race riots still hangs over Chicago
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Some say the race riots of the Red Summer of 1919 set the city on a course of racial segregation that remains to this day.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Many don't know about one of the darkest chapters of Chicago's history, and many of those who do wish to forget. Some say the race riots of the Red Summer of 1919 set the city on a course of racial segregation that remains to this day.

The riots a century ago were among Chicago's most violent racial conflicts.

In 1919, the 31st Street Beach was segregated. The violence began after a 17-year-old black teenager named Eugene Williams floated beyond an imaginary boundary in the water. He drowned after white beachgoers threw rocks at him.

What followed on July 27, 1919, was one of the darkest moments in city history. During the riots white mobs traveled through Chicago's South Side, beating blacks and burning their homes. Thirty-eight people were killed; 23 black, 15 white. Hundreds more were injured or left homeless.

WATCH: 107-year-old Red Summer survivor recalls terrifying race riots

Juanita Mitchell is now 107 years old, but she has no trouble remembering how the city erupted into violence.

"We were really afraid," she said. "We hid behind the piano at my aunt's house."

Mitchell was just 7 years old during the Red Summer. She had just moved to Chicago with her mother and sister, and was staying on the South Side with her Uncle Cecil when the unrest began.

"I can hear my uncle saying, 'Here they come.' And when he said here they come, he meant the white folks coming down the street. And it was something," she recalled.

"Events of 1919 help set in motion the segregated boundaries and divides that we still see today in Chicago," said Brand Hunt, Newberry Library Vice President for Research.

The Newberry Library and several other organizations are sponsoring a year-long series of programs meant to educate.

Franklin Cosey-Gay, executive director of the University of Chicago's Center for Youth Violence Prevention, said many of the attacks happened in what he called the "vortex of violence" near 35th and Wabash.

"You had a working, close tension that was boiling up," he said. "You had tension of not recognizing the humanity and hard work that blacks provided in the community."

The riots came as blacks flocked to the North for better opportunities and to escape Jim Crow laws in the South. Historial Timuel Black said the unrest helped to establish the Black Belt - the neighborhood we now call Bronzeville - where African American culture thrived.

"The riot was a stimulation as well as an example," he said.

Despite that, Chicago remains a very segregated city. Student Sydney Lawrence is one of dozens of teens participating in activities commemorating the Red Summer who helps help change the segregation by encouraging conversations about race.

"I just want to help others learn our history because if you don't learn about the history, you will repeat it," she said.

Chicago wasn't the only city where riots broke out, and there are several events commemorating the anniversary.