On Saturday, February 23, the Newberry and its 13 project partners inaugurated a year-long series of public programs reckoning with the legacy of the 1919 Chicago race riots and their impact on the city’s social, political, and cultural landscape.
The opening event, held at the DuSable Museum of African American History, set the template for subsequent programs in the series, engaging 240 attendees in thoughtful conversation about how racial inequity has been created, reinforced, and resisted over the past 100 years.
Funded by a “Community Conversations” grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots seeks to heighten the 1919 Chicago race riots in our collective memory through interactive contemplation of the past.
The sources of racial tension that led to the riots (housing, migration, policing, labor) have continued to exacerbate the city’s divisions ever since. At the DuSable Museum on February 23, conversation facilitators used the race riots as a lens for examining various dimensions of institutionalized racism. Breakout sessions covered housing and color lines; policing and violence; and media and race. In other sessions, historian Christopher Reed discussed how Chicago’s black soldiers, returning from World War I determined to fight for their rights at home, defended their communities during the 1919 race riots; and author Claire Hartfield led a young adult reading group in reflections on the most violent week in Chicago history.
Book-ending the breakout sessions were a dramatic monologue by Jabari Chiphe in the role of Eugene Williams (the 17-year-old whose murder sparked the race riots) and a poetry reading by Eve L. Ewing, whose forthcoming book of poems uses the riots as the basis for a larger meditation on race in Chicago.
“We talk so much about our history…When are we going to do something about it?” asked an audience member during the final Q&A session, moderated by Robin Robinson.
“There are a lot of things we’re talking about now that we didn’t used to talk about as a city,” Robinson replied.
Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor. The project is also supported by a gift from Edith Rasmussen Ahern and Patrick Ahern. The Allstate Insurance Company is the Youth Engagement Sponsor of Chicago 1919.