Race tensions at the turn of the century
Though life was slowly improving for millions in Illinois as the 20th century opened, many still struggled for fairness, including women, the poor and minorities. In several instances, racial tensions exploded into some of the landmark moments in American social history.
After the Civil War, some blacks began to migrate north, looking for better job opportunities and living conditions. But despite the gains of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, many blacks in the North had no money, few possessions and limited skills and education. As a result, they competed for lower-end jobs with immigrant labor and lower-to-middle class whites.
Still, blacks kept coming northward. In 1900 there were only 84,000 blacks in Illinois. However, the start of the so-called “great migration” of blacks from the South during the era saw minority populations jump in industrial cities like Chicago, Peoria and Springfield. In 1919, Chicago’s black population was 100,000, double that of the previous decade.
Racial and economic fears were prevalent, and often resulted in violence. Grisly lynchings of blacks were reported statewide in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including notable incidents in Decatur, Belleville, Danville and Cairo. Few, though, had the impact of the 1908 race riot in the capital of Springfield. On Aug. 13 of that year, Mabel Hallam, a young white married woman, claimed that she had been raped by a black intruder in her bedroom.
A fiery rampage ensued throughout the night of Aug. 14 and much of the next day, as large mobs burned and looted businesses and black homes. Two blacks, including an 80-year-old man married to a white woman, were murdered in gruesome fashion, and more than 100 people were wounded. Some 107 indictments were returned, with only one conviction. On Sept. 1, Hallam admitted that she had lied.
Journalist William English Walling penned a scathing account of the Springfield riot that stoked the passions of New York activists, who met to discuss American race relations. The discussion resulted in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on Feb. 12, 1909 – the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
Other riots were even more deadly. In East St. Louis in 1916 and 1917, labor shortages induced business owners to hire Southern blacks, resulting in an influx of some 10,000 to 12,000 black laborers, creating simmering unrest and periodic violence.
The National Guard spent several weeks in the city before withdrawing in mid-June. On July 1, a rumor circulated that a white man had been murdered by a black man.
Large armed confrontations over the next two days claimed the lives of nine whites. Estimates of black deaths range into the hundreds. Some 250 buildings and 40 railroad cars were burned in what one source calls “the worst of many incidents of racial antagonism in the United States during World War I.”
On July 27, 1919, in Chicago, a 17-year-old black youth was swimming in Lake Michigan when he drifted across an unofficial line between the city’s black and white beaches. Whites on land threw stones at the boy, who was hit in the head and drowned.
That sparked a week of violence that left 38 people dead and at least 537 injured. Some 1,000 black families were burned out of their homes. The summer of 1919 has been dubbed the “red summer” for the number of race riots across the nation.
Some progress was made during the era, including the formation of a race relations commission in Chicago after the 1919 riot that identified 59 needs for improvement. Ida B. Wells founded the first African-American women’s club in Chicago, which became headquarters for the Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.