Written in Blood

On a punishing day in late July, 40 years before the advent of air conditioning, four black teens plunged into Lake Michigan some insufficient distance north of 29th Street. At some point, the boys drifting carefree on a makeshift raft strayed passed an invisible border into a customarily whites-only beach and were greeted by a hail of rocks. One of these stones struck home, smashing one adolescent’s skull. It was  hours before Eugene Williams’s lifeless body was fished out of the lake. He was not the summer’s first casualty–far from it–but his end began the longest and bloodiest race riot in Chicago’s history. A riot that before it was over would paralyze the city, damage two thousand homes, overwhelm the police, bring in the National Guard, and cause a machine gun to stare down Cottage Grove.

To say that 1919 was a bad year would be to undersell it. Having lost 150,000 men in the killing fields of Europe, Americans started the interwar years with a slumping economy overseen by a sickly president. African-American soldiers returned to a nation that expected them to sit down now that they had successfully saved democracy for France. That year’s World Series proved that the American Pastime could be rigged. It was also, incidentally, the year when drinking your troubles away became a crime.

Reading through “Red Summer” by Cameron McWhirter is to watch the worst of America on a parade that pitilessly refuses to end. Dispensing taut, no-nonsense prose, the veteran Wall Street Journal reporter marches us through the most public racial atrocities to occur that year across the country. McWhirter’s narrative begins–as stories of this vile American vintage inevitably must–in the Jim Crow South, but unlike other accounts it does not remain confined there. It is a catalogue of savagery that takes care to include the whole Union, from our nation’s capital to flat, pacific Nebraska. Out of the ten locales, Chicago gets the most ink. Of all the violence that that sanguinary summer brought–the hangings, stonings, burnings, shootings, often in combination–the conflagration that broke out on the South Side was to become the symbol of the rotten state of race relations in America at large.

So why, as the Chicago Defender presciently put it the preceding spring, was “The Land of Lincoln and Grant stepping into the same column with Georgia and Mississippi?” McWhirter traces the origins of the smoldering tension to sudden changes in the city’s population. In the late 19th century, a flood of European immigration divided Chicago into a series of cantonized neighborhoods, separated by culture and ethnicity. By 1890, 40 percent of the city was foreign-born. The majority of this new wave of immigrants worked in factories and slaughterhouses that, with the dawning of the progressive era, were increasingly unionized. After a certain Archduke caught a bullet in Sarejevo, war ended the European influx. The needs of burgeoning industry were not sated, so factories began to look to black Southerners.  With the promise of employment, the Great Migration picked up speed. African-Americans, fleeing the legal inequality and impromptu pogroms of the Deep South, put up with wages and conditions that would have set Europeans striking.

As a result, industries used them to undermine unions, which usually excluded black workers. This tactic gave ordinarily fractious ethnic groups a common scapegoat for their woes. Gangs quickly formed.

The city’s black population was forced to inhabit derelict, overpriced housing, where landowners were able to exploit their obvious lack of options.  Desperation to quit these depressed areas led African-Americans south and fed white paranoia about the coming black “invasion.” McWhirter offers us glimpses into the racist Hyde Park-Kenwood Association, which winked at the fire bombing of black homes, browbeat realtors, and held posh meetings where leaders would spout vainglorious slogans like “They Shall Not Pass.” At the time, the phrase was meant to evoke the noble act of holding the line against the Huns at Verdun. It now reads like it’s been cribbed from some crackpot, sinister Gandalf.

After Eugene Williams’s body was recovered from the lake, witnesses identified the man who had thrown the rock and a crowd arrived to demand his arrest. When white police officers refused, a riot broke out. A number of whites were beaten, and not long after, rumor spread that there had been black-on-white drownings. The reprisals would rock the city, white gangs of up to a thousand men would walk into black neighborhoods and mercilessly attack everything they came across.

McWhirter’s chronicle of the known atrocities is appropriately exhaustive, the staggering number of incidents he manages to unearth from the historical record about Chicago alone is beyond dispiriting. A few low-lights include: 40 white youths sacking a South Side grocer and then gathering round to drown an aging black man in a sink, a black teen hauled off his bicycle and shot 14 times in retaliation for a baseless rumor, 200 men descending on a single black man to stab him to death, and a series of attacks on hospitals to ambush recovering victims. Then there was the wanton property destruction. Mobs gathered to stone and then loot black houses and a systemic arson campaign incinerated whole streets.

It was only at this point, this Nero-like nadir, with much of the South Side actually in flames, that Mayor Thompson decided that the situation was out of his control and called for 6,000 state troops to restore the peace. These disciplined young men are among the few Caucasians in the entire book that don’t come across as utterly contemptible. They brought order with an iron fist, but unlike this book’s invariably venal policemen they also raise their bayonets to protect black women and stop mobs from stringing men up from telephone poles. Throughout the Red Summer, President Wilson was too busy saving Europe to so much as comment on the carnage in his own country.

Few history books can make it into print (assuming they bother) these days without the obligatory cache of photos nestled inside. Accompanying Red Summer are stills from Chicago showing demolished South Side houses, a frenetic white mob storming a home, and rioters bludgeoning a man to death with bricks.  But it’s the photo of the lynching of Willie Brown that finally haunts you. A group of 40 normal-looking Nebraskan males are huddled close together, grinning broadly, as a human body burns in the foreground.

McWhirter tries valiantly to keep this book from being the most singularly depressing text you’ve ever set eyes on. In between the numerous lynchings he asks the reader to imagine, he discusses the rise of the NAACP and how the Red Summer fueled the tireless advocacy of leaders like Ida B. Wells and W.E. B. Dubois. In a coda, McWhirter serendipitously finds in rural Georgia a descendant of a man whose gruesome lynching he has described. McWhirter then reflects on the immense progress implied by the fact this man could reach the highest levels in the state that butchered his family. These silver linings, needless to say, feel more than a little bit forced. The anti-lynching legislation, for all the advocacy and evidence, had to wait another 40 years. The fact that 80 years later his grandson could live with basic dignity does not feel like a genuine coup for human decency.

It’s particularly jarring to be trudging this through this historical horror show, while in the background on CNN politicians are traipsing through cornfields waxing less-than-poetic about American exceptionalism. The statement that the United States is this orb’s greatest democracy with its most humane, compassionate people should be treated like the dangerous proposition that it is. On one of the most crucial tests of the 20th century we failed or, in the more alarming leap, were average. The point of contemplating an unpardonable past is to ensure no part of its legacy touches. The fact that, as of last year, Chicago remains the nation’s third-most segregated city means Cameron McWhirter’s book should be considered required reading. The dividing lines were drawn in red.