As the first world war ended and American troops returned home, the African American
soldiers who had fought beside their white compatriots, having experienced nonracist treatment
as they fought abroad, returned home to an America that barely recognized their service.
Expectations were still that they would abide by the segregative laws that discriminated against
them which they were unwilling to do. That, coupled with tensions due to increased competition
for employment opportunities as more African Americans migrated north, and the inadequate
and dilapidated housing facilities and other amenities afforded to the African American
community that had been segregated to the south side of Chicago, had led to simmering racial
tensions (The Chicago Commission on Race Relations 112). These tensions were brought to the
fore on July 27th, 1919, by the drowning of an African American teenager Eugene Williams in
lake Michigan. Eugene Williams drowned after falling off his raft as he was being stoned by a
group of whites after his raft inadvertently strayed from the segregated black beach into the
white beach section. That refusal by the state police to bring charges against one of the people
who had been identified and was considered by the African American community as having
instigated Eugene William’s stoning led to the initial gathering of crowds at the beach with
sporadic fighting in different parts of the city being reported. With every incident of fighting,
The violent riots lasted 13 days despite the intervention by the state militia, resulting in
the death of 38 people, 15 whites and 28 blacks, and injuring hundreds more. The riots that have
come to be known as the red summer marked the exploding of the racial tensions that had been
simmering between the whites and blacks since the reinvigoration of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in
1918, and other racist outfits like the Hamburg Athletic Club. The reinvigoration of the KKK’s
racist agenda in 1918 led to many lynching of the blacks (Norvell and Tuttle Jr 209).
This happened as more African Americans moved out of the south to industrial cities in
the north searching for employment opportunities. This movement had two effects: The first, was
that the whites, some of whom had gone to take part in the war abroad came back to find their
jobs taken by the African Americans who offered cheaper labor at a time when the white labor
force had been trying to agitate for workers unions and negotiations for higher pays. This led to a
feeling of resentment towards the blacks from the whites for ostensibly taking their jobs. The
second was that the small rundown housing facilities that were offered to African Americans in
segregated parts of those cities quickly became filled up. With that, there came a need to seek
expansion into other areas of the cities. And that began the silent murmuring and push by the
African American soldiers returning from overseas plus some of the African American elites.
The drowning of Eugene Williams served to ignite these tensions, and the subsequent
riots necessitated relooking into race relations in Chicago and across the US. It became evident
that the African American recently back from war overseas was also equally heavily armed and
could defend themselves and attack just as well as the whites could. This forced the two to come
together to try and find a solution. In the subsequent debates about how to address and solve the
racially instigated problems, there were suggestions of implementing zoning laws to formalize
the segregation of housing as well as having laws to restrict African Americans from working in
the same yards and organizations as the whites, but both suggestions were rejected. The city
officials then put together a commission of 12 men to look at the main causes of the racial
tensions and how to solve them. The membership of the commission was shared equally between
blacks and whites and they addressed several key issues, including sharing of employment
opportunities, improving housing for the black communities, pervasive racism and the targeting
of African Americans by law enforcement (Bulmer 289).
The suggested changes were slow in coming over the subsequent years, but president
Woodrow Wilson having publicly blamed the whites for the riots encouraged African Americans
and a willingness to fight oppression and injustice in the years that followed. President Woodrow
Wilson also introduced national efforts to ensure racial harmony and diffuse racial tensions in
both Chicago and Washington DC where the riots had been particularly bloody. These efforts
included pushing for legislation that would check injustices on matters of race as well as
allowing black anti-racist voluntary organizations (Chicago Commission on Race Relations 112).
In the subsequent years, race relations in America have improved, though slowly. There
have been race-related riots across America, the most recent and notorious being the Rodney
King’s riots in the ’90s. However, progress towards racial equality that was initiated by these
riots though painstakingly slow in some instances, has been steady. There has been the passage
of the voting rights act in 1965 which has given and protected African American women’s voting
rights. There was also the overturning of the segregation laws at the supreme court under Chief
Justice Earl Warren in 1954, that brought an end to discrimination in schools and other public
places on the basis of skin color. Those segregation laws had formerly been upheld by the
supreme court in the case of Plessy V. Ferguson (1896) (Golub 564). Though slow, the strides
towards racial inclusion in America cannot be overstated. This can be clearly evidenced by the
assumption of office of the country's first black American president in 2008, Barrack Obama.
Bulmer, Martin. "Charles S. Johnson, Robert E. Park and the research methods of the Chicago
Commission on Race Relations, 1919–22: an early experiment in applied social
research." Ethnic and Racial Studies 4.3 (1981): 289-306.
Golub, Mark. "Plessy as “passing”: Judicial responses to ambiguously raced bodies in Plessy v.
Ferguson." Law & Society Review 39.3 (2005): 563-600.
Norvell, Stanley B., and William M. Tuttle Jr. "Views of a Negro During" The Red Summer" of
1919." The Journal of Negro History 51.3 (1966): 209-218.
The Chicago Commission on Race Relations. "The Negro in Chicago. A Study of Race Relations
and a Race Riot." The Journal of Negro History, vol. 8, no. 1, 1923, pp. 112-114.