I posted this summer about Lakeshore Drive’s commemoration of Chicago’s 1919 race riot. This fall, preparing to lecture about the events of the riot for one of my courses, I read a new book, Red Summer, about the several race riots in the United States in 1919 whose broader context inform the Chicago riot.
Following its detailed narrative account, I realized that I had made a mistaken assumption about the geography of the beach’s, as opposed to Chicago’s, segregation. Historically the city’s predominantly African American communities have developed south of its original urban and commercial center. The association is strong enough that the expression “South Side” is sometimes used synonymously with what University of Chicago sociologists called the “Black Belt.”
In imagining the events on the beach on July 27, 1919, I had always thought the line marking its segregation followed the same north-south distinction. Accounts I had read recounted a group of African American teenagers unwittingly crossing an extension of Chicago’s color line into Lake Michigan’s waters without specifying direction. Generalizing the city’s racial geography to the specific incident, I assumed they swam north from the south. Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer’s author, makes clear instead that they went south from the north.
My mistake, moreover, didn’t just involve direction, however. It also involved a mismeasure of segregation’s geographic extent. From 29th Street, where the events occurred in 1919 and where the Lakeshore Drive commemoration is now situated, the lake’s shore continues for miles before reaching the Indiana border. Only sections of it are beach today, but according to McWhirter, the long stretch south was beach that was reserved for whites. The beach reserved for African Americans in 1919 was north on 25th Street – where the McCormick Place Bird Sanctuary is today – and also bounded to its north.
In other words, segregation divided Chicago’s beaches in two ways. Figuratively and racially it distinguished between “coloreds” and whites. At the same time, effectively and geographically it restricted the one group to only a four-block zone while giving the other access to both the North Side shore and the remainder of the South Side. The difference demonstrated the deceptive and disingenuous character of segregation’s justifying premise, “separate but equal.”
[Note: Having spent the latter part of the summer relocating to Pennsylvania from Illinois and adjusting to my new location and job, I neglected to post entries I wrote during and since moving. I’m now posting them, but back dating them to reflect when they were actually written.]