Witness to History

2019-11-19T08:58:21+00:00November 8th, 2019|

Juanita Mitchell, now 107 years old, saw the 1919 Chicago Race Riots firsthand.

By Elise Schimke

Earlier this year, Juanita Mitchell invited me to take a road trip through history. Her daughter, Mary, joined us as driver. The last time Juanita drove was in 2008. She was ninety-six years old then; she’s 107 now.

Every day it becomes harder for Juanita to keep small things straight in her mind. The afternoon of our trip, she misplaced her caramel macchiato from “that lady” (the Starbucks logo). She was unable to recall it was Mary’s college roommate Bobbi on the other end of the phone moments prior. And she had forgotten that today, not tomorrow, was when she was set to return from Mary’s apartment outside Madison, Wisconsin to her home in the south Chicago suburb of Flossmoor.

One thing Juanita can still remember, though, is the horror that she witnessed soon after entering Chicago a hundred years ago, on July 27, 1919. This summer marked the centennial of the 1919 Race Riots in Chicago: a week of violence that shaped the city’s unequal social and political structure. Eight-years-old and new to the city, Mitchell witnessed the riots from her aunt and uncle’s Bronzeville home. Everyone who has known Juanita—or who has so much as been her cab driver—knows the story.

Mary’s neighbor, Diane Williams is no exception. In February, Black History Month, Mary received a forwarded email invitation from Diane. The Newberry Library had planned an ongoing collection of events called “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots,” a “series of public programs examining the legacy of the 1919 Chicago race riots.” The first event on the agenda was an afternoon of “breakout conversations” about various factors at play during the period at the DuSable Museum of African American History: included in the lineup were a journalist discussing media and race; a historian speaking to police violence; and an architectural critic covering segregated housing in Chicago.

Encouraged by Diane’s email, Mary drove her mother from Wisconsin to Washington Park for the Newberry event, so that Juanita could bring her rare perspective as a living eyewitness to the riots.  At the event, she recounted her experience for a video booth installation the DuSable had made available for event attendees to tell their families’ stories of migration to the Midwest.

Juanita dressed for the occasion: a textured black top with a gold paisley skirt and polished nails. In front of the video booth camera, she twiddled her thumbs as she talked. Her body remained motionless in her wheelchair, but her words rebuilt Bronzeville, and her aunt and uncle’s living room, near 35th Street and Giles, on July 27, 1919:

“You know that story you told when your Uncle Cecil saw the people coming down the street with the guns?” Mary asked on the drive.

“Oh, yeah,” Juanita responded. “He said, ‘Here they come.’”

“Yeah. But they did not shoot into your house; I don’t think I ever recall you telling me they shot into where you guys lived.”

“No–I saw my uncle say these words: ‘Here they come!’ And when he said that, it meant the white people were coming down 35th Street with loaded guns. And in the meantime, I saw my uncle take out one of the longest—to me—guns I had ever seen out of his pocket. And he’s standing in the window and saying, ‘Here they come down 35th Street’ and he’s prepared for all the white people that come down that street with those loaded guns. My mother is afraid to death, she’s crying. And my sister and I are hiding behind my aunt’s piano. Thank God she had a piano. And we hid behind the piano and cried. And my mother is crying in the house.

“That is really about all I can remember [of] Chicago. A lot of people, and my uncle was standing in the window. I stood up with him, looked out the window and I saw the people coming down the street, coming down 35th Street. And that is the beginning of the race riots. That is how I remember it. I remember how those people came down the street. I heard my uncle say, “Here they come, and I’m gonna get ‘em!’”

“So when people would ask you about coming to Chicago,” Mary interjected, “You would always tell them that, ‘Well, when I came it was in the middle of the Race Riots and then moved into the Depression.’”

“I have no good memories of Chicago that I know,” said Juanita.

“At that time,” Mary clarified.

 

Before this year, Chicago’s only memorial to the mass violence of 1919 was a single, funerary plaque set off of the 29th Street Beach where Eugene Williams, the first victim of the riots, was stoned to death while swimming in Lake Michigan. But in 2019, as cultural institutions around the city have held events exploring the history of the riots for the one hundred year anniversary, voices like Juanita’s have played an important role as connections between the past and present.

“The history that we get in textbooks doesn’t provide the emotional sense that you can get from an actual human depiction of the story,” said JT Ruffin, a twenty-two-year-old recent graduate from Hampton University and Mary and Juanita’s neighbor in Wisconsin.

“Ms. Juanita was able to provide a sense of urgency. But, when you look at the [high school] history books, it’s a run-of-the-mill story about how we came from slavery and then we just fought our way through, and we had Rosa Parks who sat on the bus because she was tired, and we had Martin Luther King that was just walking down the streets. Those were real life situations that, you know, if you had to classify a kind of from a movie perspective, it’d definitely be rated ‘R,’ and the school itself, they try to make it a very ‘G’ version.”

Not everyone will have the opportunity to have a conversation with Juanita. However, local historians, artists, and activists have spent Red Summer’s centennial exploring ways to keep the past alive in ways besides the pages of a textbook.

This summer, artist Jefferson Pinder set out on a “Red Summer Road Trip”: a series of performance art pieces designed to reignite conversations about racial injustices that continue to shape our society by reactivating the spaces they occurred in a century ago. “The whole idea is to deal with all of this intense history, and try to make it accessible, and try to find a way to interact with history,” said Pinder.

The last stop on Pinder’s tour was Chicago, on July 27, where he created a “living monument” to Eugene Williams in FLOAT: a piece that included dozens of Chicagoans floating in simple inner tubes on Lake Michigan against a soundscape with audio ranging from a crew team rowing to Juanita telling her story.  “It blows your mind, the way that Chicago history is intertwined with this, but somehow no one really knows about it,” said Pinder. “I think it’s really a symbol of what people want to talk about, what they want to share, and the inner power of these stories.”

And those stories have not stopped after July: in addition to events like the DuSable’s and performances like Pinder’s, Dr. Peter Cole and the Chicago Race Riot Commemoration Project are working to create memorial markers to people killed in the riots that will extend throughout the city of Chicago, similar to the stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” that commemorate Holocaust victims across Europe.“If we want to live up to our professed ideals, we need to confront the past in order to make a better future,” said Cole.

 

At the time of our drive, Juanita had been living in Mary’s apartment outside of Madison, Wisconsin—after she broke her pelvis in a fall two months previous, moving any distance greater than that from the borrowed hospital bed in the living room to a wheelchair pulled inches alongside had been difficult. But, after considerable deliberation with her mother’s doctors, Mary had decided that it’s time to return Juanita to a more comfortable recovery spot.

After an hour on the highway (Mary driving, Juanita propped up by pillows in the passenger seat), a jazzy ringtone came over the car stereo. It was Diane, calling to check in because she hasn’t seen Mary and Juanita in a while. Mary put the call on speaker. “The reason we got to DuSable is because you had emailed me a couple of times and said ‘Your mother—they need to interview your mother!’” she said.

“That’s exactly right, that’s exactly right,” Diane agreed. “I remember her describing that day to me and it was like she was walking through the day right then. She could see all the detail. It was just amazing to have her tell that story to me. I wanted her to share that with other people, too.”

Diane couldn’t remember when, exactly, she first heard Juanita tell the story, but she recalled that it happened while she was sitting in Mary’s kitchen. Juanita whispered from the passenger seat: “I remembered it well then.”

Mary amplified the message for her mother: “Diane, she said, she remembered it well then.” The car lapsed into laughter. “You know, yourself Mary, that when your mother tells a story, she doesn’t just sort of brush over it or give you the highlights,” Diane said. “She gives you the details.”

The closer the car got to Flossmoor, the more Mary thought about the list of phone calls she needed to make: the man from the Chicago Tribune to schedule a sit-down interview, the documentarian who needs samples of family photos, and the Bells of Ballantrae to coordinate an upcoming social. They were all interested in hearing Juanita’s story.

At the last turn into their subdivision, Juanita, sleeping until now in the passenger seat, roused and turned to her daughter. “How are you Juanita?”

Mary laughed and smiled at her mother. She’d never be able to replicate the 107-year-old’s stories, but she will ensure that they do not fade. “I’m not Juanita—you’re Juanita,” Mary said. “But I’m alright.” ■

 

 

Elise Schimke is a Chicago-based writer and photographer covering history, art and culture. Elise received her Master of Journalism from Medill School of Journalism. She can be found on Instagram at @e_leased.

Cover image from The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (1922). Image via Wikimedia.

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