Hartfield’s new book, "A Few Red Drops: The
Chicago Race Riot of 1919" (Clarion Books) begins
with a line from the Carl Sandburg poem "I Am the
People, the Mob": "Sometimes I growl, shake
myself and spatter a few red drops for history to
remember. Then — I forget."
an education consultant, attorney and Hyde Park native,
doesn’t want the world to forget the story her
grandmother told her as a child, so she wrote a book —
aimed at seventh graders and up — on the conflict for
race riot stemmed from a July 27, 1919, incident between
26th Street and 29th Street beaches on the South Side.
According to the book, a game of dodge played with rocks
turned deadly when a white man on the shore struck a
black teen, who was swimming with friends, in the head.
Eugene Williams drowned that day, but when his friends
brought the matter to authorities and identified the
person who threw the rock, George Stauber, white
officers made no arrest.
there, the conflagration that became the riot, grew from
tinder that was born on the streets of the city’s
Black Belt area and white immigrant communities like
Packingtown (full of Irish, German, Polish and
Lithuanians). Issues that fueled tensions entailed
unions, employment and what neighborhoods the distinct
populations could reside in.
wrote: "Blacks tried to make a go of it within the
boundaries laid out for them. But as the days turned
into weeks, into months, into years, the day-in, day-out
smells, sights, and sounds that accompany extreme
congestion crowded the minds of people, leaving room for
little else. And a few fed-up souls began to push back
against efforts of whites in nearby neighborhoods to
lock them out."
and tension led to seven days of rage and rioting that
left 38 dead and 537 injured in Chicago, according to
Hartfield’s research. But the city wasn’t alone in
its racial issues — 25 riots across the country in
towns big and small led to the moniker "Red
Summer" that year.
problems had been under the city’s nose all along, if
only it had chosen to address them. But before the
riots, Chicago and cities across the country were
focused on their successes — the money to be made, the
technological innovations, the larger-than-life men and
women, such as the Swifts (Gustavus Franklin Swift of
Swift & Company who set up shop at the Union Stock
Yard in 1875), who stood tall as models of economic
progress," Hartfield wrote. "Problems of the
immigrant and black communities were swept under the
dazzling carpet of success, where they grew until they
forced their way into the open."
spoke to Hartfield about her book and how "America’s
present is echoing its past."
disparity between rich and poor is as wide as the divide
between Swift and his laborers 100 years ago. Nearly
one-quarter of American city dwellers live in poverty.
One percent of all Americans take home nearly 20 percent
of all earnings. Black America is the bleakest of
all," she said.
conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Why dive into the Race Riot of 1919 now?
A few years ago when I was watching the news, there was
all this turbulence in the streets and it was flashing
across our TV screens and it called up this memory of my
grandmother’s story and I wanted to find out: Why had
that happened, and how was it the same or different from
what we’re experiencing today — so that was the
Is Chicago better or worse than in 1919?
I do think that it’s better, partly because of
technology frankly. I think that the public is more
aware of particular incidents with the body cams that
police wear, with people using their cellphones to
record events … there was no parallel to that back in
1919. My sense of it is that more people are aware
because they’ve been confronted with visual images of
what’s going on. It varies from person to person, but
I do think that it has an impact.
What feedback have you received about the book?
People are very interested in learning about this part
of history that isn’t very well covered. A lot of
people are not aware that this riot took place. The most
exciting thing about history is what it means in terms
of our present and how we might use it to create a
better future. I’m hopeful that parents and
grandparents will talk with their young adults and
teenagers about it across generations. One of the things
about the time we’re going through right now is that
we are so much in our own particular bubble a lot of the
time. It’s just wonderful to see people talking
outside of their bubbles — across generations, across
racial divides, across every group imaginable — about
this history and how it relates to their own experience.
Have you received feedback about the immigrant aspect of
Yes, I have. Some people whose histories are ones of
immigration instead of migration particularly have been
very interested. When I started researching this, one of
the things that struck me about the way that we went in
the wrong direction back then — and that we have an
opportunity to a better job this time — is there were
so many similarities between the situations of the
immigrants coming from Europe and the migrants coming up
from the South. Instead of coalescing and collaborating
across those communities and looking at those
commonalities and building upon them, the city as a
whole (and there were different parts to it) really
implemented systems that drove people apart, and that is
reflected in what’s happening today. It’s true that
immigrants, the white working class and the black
working class that’s already here, have a lot in
common. We are not focusing on our commonalities right
now. We’re focusing on our divisions and that’s the
kind of thing that causes such unrest to develop. I’m
hopeful that people can take a look at that, and take a
look in the mirror and say: How do we get past this? How
do we take the focus away from our divisions and move
our focus toward our commonalities?
Is this book a warning — a wake-up call that history
could repeat itself?
Yes. I was struck by the parallels of what was going on
today. One of the great things about knowing our history
is that it instructs us on things that were done the
wrong way, so we don’t repeat them in ignorance. You
can see from the incident that sparked the riot — it
was relatively small, but there were all these tensions
that were simmering for so long that were just waiting
for that match to hit. So it is something that we need
to be very much aware of now — really take a look at
why did it happen and how is it the same and different
from what is going on today, and then take action. I’m
hopeful the book will also inspire young people and
older people to take action to prevent this kind of
thing from happening again.