Eugene Williams: How a Black Teen’s Death in a White Only Beach Triggered the Chicago Race Riot of 1919

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 was a violent racial conflict that started on July 27 after 17-year-old Eugene Williams was stoned and drowned in Lake Michigan for unintentionally swimming in an area reserved for only white people.

Chicago Race Riot of 1919

On Sunday, July 27, 1919, seventeen-year-old Eugene Williams and four of his friends took a homemade wooden raft they had constructed themselves out into Lake Michigan on the South Side. They pushed off from 26th Street beach, the only beach in the city reserved for Blacks. While in the water, the boys unknowingly floated across an unmarked and unofficial ‘color line’ between the white and black sections of the beach.

This infuriated a white beachgoer, and he began hurling rocks at the young men, one of which struck williams in the forehead, dropping him into the water, he drowned.

The black beach-goers reported what happened to a nearby policeman and also identified the white man responsible for the death of the black teen, but the police refused to make any arrest, tensions further escalated when a white police officer prevented a black police officer from arresting the white man responsible for Williams’ death, but arrested a black man instead. Objections by black observers were met with swift violence by whites. In no time sporadic fighting broke out between gangs and mobs of both races and for 13 days Chicago was without law and order.

Eugene Williams: How a Black Boy's Death in a White Only Beach Triggered the Chicago Race Riot of 1919

Violence expanded from the beach into black neighborhoods as white mobs attacked any African American they saw.

Black neighbors near white areas were also attacked, white gangs went into black neighborhoods, and black workers seeking to get to and from work were attacked. Meanwhile, some black civilians organized to resist attacks and protect each other.

During and after the riots, the police went around arresting only African-American rioters, while refusing to arrest white rioters. This infuriated a judge who lectured the police saying: “I want to explain to you officers that these colored people could not have been rioting among themselves. Bring me some white prisoners.”

Chicago Race Riot of 1919

Newspaper accounts noted numerous attempts at arson; for instance, on July 31, more than 30 fires were started in a predominantly black neighborhood called Black Belt before noon and all were believed to be arson. Rioters also stretched cables across the streets to prevent fire trucks from entering the area.

The Chicago riot lasted a week, ending only after the Government of Illinois deployed nearly 6,000 Illinois Army National Guard troops.

Chicago Race Riot of 1919

By the end of the riot, 1,000 residents, mostly African Americans, were left homeless because of the fires, 38 people died (23 black and 15 white), and 537 were injured. Most of the casualties and property damage were suffered by black Chicagoans and yet African Americans made up a vast majority of the 138 persons indicted for riot-related crimes by the State’s Attorney’s office. Ultimately, the Chicago Police Department and the State’s Attorney’s office overwhelmingly blamed Black resistance for the violence and largely ignored or defended white perpetrators.

In 2021, a grave marker was erected in Lincoln Cemetery at the previously unmarked grave of teenager Eugene Williams, the first victim at 29th street beach, whose death ignited the rioting.


Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora

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