Monday, October 5, 2020

A Ride of Racial Reckoning: The 1919 Chicago Race Riot Bicycle Route

This weekend I completed The 1919 Chicago Race Riot Route, a bicycle ride presented by People For Bikes, the Newberry Library, SRAM and ABUS to benefit Blackstone Bicycle Works, a bike shop serving underserved neighborhoods in Chicago.  Aside from raising money to support an important cause, the route is meant to educate about one of the most violent, tragic events in our city's history that remains unknown to many.  The ride took me from the place whether the rioting began along Chicago's lake front and into the nearby neighborhoods of Bronzeville and Bridgeport, home to friction points between white and Black residents.

My impression from the ride, which I did on a sunny, crisp and windy early October morning, was of harsh contrasts offered by what remains, and what does not, from that time long ago.  Many of the landmarks commemorating Black contributions in the area are small, new and/or nonexistent.  On the other hand, markers of white supremacy and out and out racism remain obvious.

The ride begins at the Eugene Williams Marker which notes the approximate location where a white beach goer killed a Black child who was deemed to have come too close to the white bathing area.  The marker, dedicated in 2009, consists of a rock adorned with a plaque.  I had probably passed it many times riding on the path without ever noticing it was there.  When I came to it during my ride this weekend two garbage cans sat next to it, partially shielding it from view.

The Eugene Williams Marker at the start of the route.
The Eugene Williams Marker at the start of the route.

After taking in this spot I continued to the pedestrian bridge at 35th street.  Once crossing the expressway I noticed the tomb of Stephen Douglas, a towering and ornate memorial to the white Illinois politician who famously debated Abraham Lincoln, arguing that the expansion of slavery should be left to the local populations of whites.  He was notorious for failing to find slavery morally repugnant.

From the Douglas tomb, the route directed me to an empty parking lot near 35th Street and Michigan Avenue.  The lot was the location of the Angelus Building, "where four Black men and one white man were killed during the riot."  Now the spot offers parking for the Chicago Police Department's customer service section.  There was nothing there commemorating the tragedy that had unfolded there 100 years prior.

The ride continues like this.  It took me to the office of the Chicago Defender, the Black owned and run newspaper that played a huge role in bringing Black folks to Chicago during the Great Migration, beginning during World War I.  The building now houses a medical supplies shop.  From there I rode to the location of the Hamburg Athletic Club at 3523 South Emerald Avenue in Bridgeport.  I learned that athletic clubs like this one served as sporting and community gathering places for working class whites in the area.  They were also bastions of overt racism where white men would gather and conspire to intimidate Blacks and to plan acts of violence.  I was surprised to see that this club remains in existence, in the same location.  Out front is a sign commemorating the September 11, 2001 attacks.  A house next door flew a "thin blue line" American flag, the presence of which felt a little too on-the-nose.  A search on Yelp after returning from my ride found a listing for the club that seemed to support my suspicions.  One review from 2013 notes that the club is a, "Clean place you must be a member or with a member to get in, keeps the dirtbags out."  Another review from 2016 notes, "The Hamburg Club is a racist Irish-American gang.  That being said, they do not allow non-Whites to enter.  They especially dislike Blacks.  Do not come here as a minority unless you would like to get assaulted..."

The notorious Hamburg Athletic Club at its original location and a house located next door flying a thin blue line flag that many today view as a racist.

On my way to the Hamburg building the route took me to Armour Square Park, a beautifully green spot surrounded by parking lots in the shadow of the home of the Chicago White Sox.  Upon arrival, the route booklet makes note that the rider had crossed Wentworth Avenue, a one-way, three lane street that was the very real dividing line between Black Bronzeville (formerly known simply as the "Black Belt") and white Bridgeport.  That dividing line seems to have only gotten more pronounced over the past 100 years.  Not only does the racial makeup of the area change obviously upon riding west, but the line of demarcation is even more boldly drawn today than it was at the time of the 1919 Riot.  What was once a border marked by Wentworth is now a massive physical divide created by the presence of the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Armour Square Park sits near the Black/white dividing line on the South Side in the shadow of the Guaranteed Rate Field.

The promise of dignified work at the Union Stock Yards drew many African Americans to Chicago from the South during the Great Migration.

I rode from there back east to see the spot where the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s began.  In 1955, a young boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, was savagely murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi after supposedly whistling at a white woman.  Upon his body's return to Chicago his mother made the difficult decision to have an open casket funeral for her son so that the whole world could see what racial hatred had done to her boy.  Jet Magazine published the photos which fueled the start of the push for civil rights which exploded during the 1960s and which led to passage of the Civil  Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in 1964.  The viewing of Emmett Till's body took place at the Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ at 4021 South State Street.  The building is still there.  Today the church not only looks run down, it is run down.  Designated a Chicago landmark in 2006, the building is in such bad shape that there are noted concerns about it's structural integrity.  I imagine that at least the outside of the church looks much like it did in 1955.

A plaque notes the importance of the church to the Civil Rights Movement.

Onward I rode to the next location, a marker commemorating the great journalist, Ida B. Wells.  There was a time when she was arguably the most famous Black woman in American.  She was one of the founders of the NAACP.  During her time in Chicago she helped expose the horrors of lynching in the South and school segregation in Chicago among many other important activities.  Surely, there would be a sizable memorial to her, a tribute that would rival the soaring tribute to Douglas Stephens I had seen earlier on my ride.  It was not to be, though.  The City of Chicago has seen fit to commemorate her incredible achievements and contributions with another rock with a plaque.  It is unimpressive to say the least, and it sits in the corner of a large empty lot that was the location of the notorious Ida B. Wells Homes, a rough and dangerous housing project that existed from 1941 to 2011.

The underwhelming tribute to Ida B. Wells at the corner of 37th and MLK in Chicago.

The final destination on the route lay ahead.  I rode several block north to the Victory Monument at 35th Street and Martin Luther King Drive.  This was perhaps the only physically impressive tribute to contributions made by Black people I saw on my ride.  Though placed in the middle of the road, the memorial is apparently the only one in the State of Illinois that commemorates Black service during World War I.  Every Memorial Day a ceremony is held at the monument.

The Victory Monument at 35th and King Drive.

I strongly recommend this ride to anyone interested in understanding the 1919 Riot and the contributions and travails of African Americans in Chicago.  It seems that not only must we learn about what happened 100+ years ago, but we must appreciate how much of that vile legacy continues to this day.  Those who would deny the continuing existence of systemic racism should perhaps consider why it is that the Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ sits in disrepair while the Hamburg Athletic Club remains intact, or why Douglas Stephens in honored with a soaring marble monument while Ida B. Wells is remembered with a plaque on a stone.  The route I rode does not contain answers but the questions posed by the sights, and lack thereof, along the way are numerous.

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