July 27th, 1919

Death of African American Teenager Sparks Chicago Race Riot

On July 27, 1919, an African American teenager named Eugene Williams was swimming in Lake Michiagn with four friends when they drifted toward the unofficial “whites-only” section of Lake Michigan Beach in Chicago, Illinois. Enraged at the encroachment, a white man on the shore threw stones at the black teenagers and struck Eugene in the head. He lost consciousness and drowned. When police responded, Eugene’s friends identified the assailant but a white police officer refused to arrest him.

News of the racially-charged incident spread quickly. White crowds were misinformed that a black teenager had thrown a rock and caused a white man to drown, while black crowds were misinformed that the police had prevented swimmers from rescuing Eugene before he drowned. Both groups erupted in violence that left an African American man and a police officer shot and many more injured.

Racial tension spilled over onto the streets of the Black Belt, a predominantly African American neighborhood in Chicago, in one of the worst riots in American history. Five days of violence left 28 dead, 500 injured, and 1000 African American homes burned to the ground. The rioting finally ended after Governor Frank Lowden ordered 6000 militia troops to counteract the racism and police brutality exerted by local law enforcement. The Chicago riot was one of several racially-motivated fights, massacres, and lynchings that raged throughout the nation during the "Red Summer" of 1919.