Much of the media coverage in the wake of President Obama’s reelection on Tuesday has focused on the United States’ changing racial demographics, their impact on the election, and their implications for the future. These results, however, shouldn’t surprise people who have been observing and writing about these demographic shifts for years.
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.
[singlepic id=40 w=240 float=right]For several summers while taking bike rides along the Chicago lakeshore, I regularly passed a construction zone just south of McCormick Center. Once a few summers ago, stopping near the zone, I noticed a rock along the path with what appeared to be a plaque on it. Taking a closer look, I saw that the plaque was the product of a 2009 high school project marking the spot where the 1919 Chicago race riot, one of the bloodiest and largest race riots in American history, had begun. The rock and plaque, while nice, didn’t seem to do justice to the significance of the event and left me reflecting on how we commemorate sites of historical violence.
Geoffrey Brooks was one of my two favorite teachers growing up. My sixth-grade teacher, he was young and hip, and he first introduced me to the idea of computers and computing. He was also a Black man, which I noticed at the time but didn’t particularly think about—I was, after all, a sixth-grader. As I look back now, I realize his influence on me not only for the many things he taught me in the classroom but for who and what he was, particularly in the United States in the 1970s. I appreciate him all the more now understanding that historical social context.