It can be hard for American communities to acknowledge bad moments in their past. Numerous museums in Chicago are planning to help the city and region think about the 1919 race riots one hundred years later:
One hundred years ago this summer, a black teen on a raft crossed an imaginary line into a “white” section of a Lake Michigan beach, was stoned by white bathers and drowned. The interracial battle on city streets that followed caused 38 deaths and set the stage for decades of segregation, discrimination and civic dysfunction.
Yet if you search the city for a commemoration of the Chicago Race Riots, as the events of July 1919 are known, you’ll find just one small marker, according to organizers of an upcoming series of events. Along the lakefront near 29th Street, affixed to a boulder there is a plaque — funded by suburban high school students — that says, “Dedicated to All the Victims of the Race Riot That Began Near This Place.”
The city’s collective neglect of this dark and seminal moment in its history is a topic that the Newberry Library and 13 other Chicago institutions hope to address with the yearlong project “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots,” an initiative that the partners in the project will announce formally next week.
The goal is to use seminars, film, spoken word performance and even a bicycle tour to help “understand a history that frankly has been forgotten, has purposely not been remembered and certainly has not been commemorated,” said Liesl Olson, director of Chicago studies at the independent research library. “Most historians are kind of appalled by how little is discussed about this moment. There’s a lot of shame in it, really.”
My own research in suburban communities suggests this neglect of certain past events is often deliberate misremembering, particularly when these events involve race. Typically, a community’s history is presented as a collection of high points: the area was settled, the community was founded, good things happened here, here, and here, and all this helped make the great community we have today. Yet, communities are often shaped by negative events, moments involving conflict, disagreement, and even violence. Chicago’s engagement with race involves many of these moments and these exhibits have the ability to suggest much of that later activity – think bombings when blacks moved into white neighborhoods, riots in poor neighborhoods in the 1960s, virulent reactions to MLK marching in Chicago in 1966 – has its roots in the 1919 riots. The true measure of a year of exhibits may be how much the future retellings of Chicago’s history includes the 1919 riots as an important moment.
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