Processes, events, and decisions add up to significant consequences from Chicago’s 1919 riots

With the 100 year anniversary of the 1919 violence and riots in Chicago approaching, the Chicago Tribune considers some of the long-lasting consequences of a violence-filled summer:

The riots ended after seven days, brought about by the intervention of the Illinois militia — which critics said came too late. The riots changed Chicago in ways it continues to grapple with. Days after the riot, the City Council, for example, proposed formalized segregation on the South Side that remains in place informally today…

Consequently, the trauma of the white assault on the black community left another lasting legacy: the black street gang. “To be sure, the 1919 riot contributed directly to Black gang formation in Chicago as Black males united to confront hostile White gangs who were terrorizing the Black community,” author James C. Howell wrote in his book “The History of Street Gangs in the United States: Their Origins and Transformations.”…

The end of the riots brought swift condemnation, expert groups to examine the cause and criminal charges — though primarily against alleged black rioters — but no real consensus on what to do. On the latter point, in the days after the riot, Cook County State’s Attorney Maclay Hoyne initially charged only black citizens with rioting, leading to a walkout by members of the grand jury hearing the cases…

“In the aftermath, you call it an interracial consensus that the best way to prevent something like this from happening again was to keep the races separate. That was the lesson that was mislearned from the riot,” he said.

This is a reminder that a long legacy of residential segregation, inequality, and racism in the city of Chicago does not just happen: it is the result of specific social processes (some under the control of Chicago leaders and residents and others not), particular events, and reactions to those processes and events. Similarly, it is not easy to simply “turn the page” from past events or reverse the consequences; the same processes, events, and decisions have to be countered with different options.

And if this latter statement is true, Chicago and many other American places have a long way to go regarding countering these legacies. Remembering the past processes, events, and decisions is very important. As the Tribune article notes, how many Chicagoans think the 1919 riots are an important part of the city’s legacy? But, then more work needs to be done. And at this point, it is hard to say that Chicago has done much to reverse these patterns started in the early 1900s.

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