Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Eugene Williams and the Chicago Race Riot of 1919

"On July 27th, when I was a seventeen-year-old Negro boy, I drowned at the 29th Street Beach in Chicago. I had accidentally floated across the unmarked barrier that separated the sectors of the beach and had been stoned by angry whites.

"It was four o'clock Sunday afternoon, July 27th, when I was a seventeen-years-old Negro boy. I was swimming offshore at the foot of Twenty-ninth Street. This beach was not one of the publicly maintained and supervised for bathing, but it was used. Although it flanks an area thickly inhabited by Negroes, it was used by both races, access being had by crossing the railway tracks which skirt the lake shore. The part near Twenty-seventh Street had by tacit understanding come to be considered as reserved for Negroes, while the whites used the part near Twenty-ninth Street. Walking is not easy along the shore, and each one had kept pretty much to its own part, observing, moreover, an imaginary boundary extending into the water.

"I had entered the water at the part used by Negroes, swam and drifted into the part used by whites.Immediately before I appeared there, white men, women and children had been bathing in the vicinity and were on the beach in considerable numbers. Four Negroes walked through the group into the water. White men summarily ordered them off. The Negroes left, and the white people resumed their sport. But not long before the Negroes were back, coming from the north with others of my race. Then began a series of attacks and retreats, counter attacks and stone-throwing. Women and children who could not escape hid behind debris and rocks. The stone-throwing continued. First, one side gaining the advantage, then the other.

"I had remained in the water during the fracas; found a railroad tie and clung to it, stones meanwhile frequently striking the water near me. A white boy of about the same age swam towards me. as the white boy neared, I let go of the tie, took a few strokes and went down. The coroner's jury rendered a verdict that I had drowned because of fear of stone-throwing kept me from shore. My body showed no stone bruises but rumor had it that I had actually been hit by one of the stones and drowned as a result.

"The rioting broke out on Sunday July 27th, when I swam across an invisible line which whites had "drawn" in Lake Michigan to separate the swimming areas. A white youngster stoned me. I drowned.

"The Chicago Riot began on a hot July day in 1919 as the result of an altercation at a bathing beach. I swam across the imaginary line which was supposed to separate Negroes from whites at the Twenty-ninth Street Beach. I was stoned by a group of white boys. During the ensuing argument between groups of Negro and white bathers I was drowned.

"But on July 27, the South Side erupted after a stone-throwing incident on a beach led to my drowning. The next five days were the worst the city had known since the Great Fire."

— Anonymous

Before it ended August 3, The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 resulted in the deaths of 15 whites and 23 blacks. More than 500 people were injured and 1,000 black families had lost their homes after being set afire by white rioters.

This fictionalized first person account of the death of Eugene Williams was distributed at a poetry event in Chicago in 2012. Unattributed. 

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