A Teen's Drowning Caused An Entire City To Riot

Chicago race riot of 1919
Leslie Taylor-Grover
June 4, 2021

Eugene Williams was only trying to cool off from the oppressive July heat. It was 1919 and the Chicago summer was no joke. Though the waters of Lake Michigan were segregated, it was still peaceful. But the tranquility was short-lived.

Williams accidentally drifted toward the white side of the lake. An enraged white swimmer stoned him, causing him to fall off his raft and drown! Black witnesses called the police, but the white officers who showed up refused to arrest the white attacker! Already dealing with overcrowding, work shortages, and the general indignity of segregation, Black people in the city protested. This was too much!

Many Black people had left their Southern towns and moved to Chicago – but William’s death highlighted the city’s hypocrisy. Yes, the city was in the North, and diverse, but that didn’t mean Black people could expect justice. Whites decided to fight Black protestors – and the city exploded.

Riots in the city lasted over a week. White police officers openly protected white attackers and fought alongside them to hurt Black protesters. What does that mean for us today?

William’s case showed over a century ago that police cannot be trusted to serve and protect, and that white supremacy would rather uphold segregation than save a teenager’s life from drowning. This is the truth of what we are up against.

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