By Pat Nabong
On July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams went swimming in the blue waters of Lake Michigan, off the coast of Chicago’s 29th Street Beach. That summer, tensions between Black and white people in the city were rising. There was competition for jobs and housing, as African Americans migrated up from the South. White immigrants, who wanted to maintain segregation, were not happy about the influx of African Americans into their communities. Williams, who was seventeen years old at that time, accidentally drifted across the imaginary line that separated the portion of the water for blacks and the area that was reserved for whites. White kids threw rocks at Williams until he drowned.
His death set off a week of riots; white mobs incited violence, and the police failed to hold people accountable. During what would come to be known as the Red Summer of 1919, thirty-eight people were killed, five hundred were injured, and the homes of a thousand Black families were destroyed.
This story was recounted by Peter Cole, a historian at Western Illinois University and the co-director of Chicago Race Riots Commemoration Project, a new initiative to acknowledge a history that he says seems to have been erased from Chicago’s collective memory. Through this project, Cole hopes that people will remember. “Forgetting the past has not resulted in racial justice and racial equality and racial harmony,” he said.
And the past is tethered to the present, added Franklin Cosey-Gay, the co-director of Chicago Race Riots Commemoration Project. “The 1919 Chicago Race Riots is the origin story to help us understand the structural constraints that exist at the housing, education, economic, justice and health systems in Chicago,” he said.
On July 27, 2019, one hundred people floated in the water off the 29th Street Beach as part of a public art performance by Jefferson Pinder, which aimed to reclaim a site of violence and create a living memorial for Williams. On the same day, to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of Williams’s death and the 1919 Race Riots that ensued, Cole and Cosey-Gay led a bike tour of some of the locations that were significant to the Red Summer. This photo essay documents Pinder’s public art project and the sites that were included in the tour.