The Newberry to Coordinate Community Conversations on the Legacy of the 1919 Chicago Race Riots

The Newberry has been awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Community Conversations Grant for its project "Chicago Reflects on the 1919 Race Riots."Developed in partnership with 10 other Chicago-based cultural organizations and designed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of a week-long period of racial violence in the city, the grant will support a broad range of city-wide programs—from film premieres and youth poetry slams to public conversations and bike tours—and engage audiences in an ongoing dialogue about the riots’ impact on Chicago’s past and present.

The programming is scheduled to begin in February of 2019.

"The raw events of 1919 provide powerful opportunities for placing a critical lens on the past through which we might reflect on the present,"explained Brad Hunt, one of the grant’s co-directors and the Vice President for Research and Academic Programs at the Newberry. "We believe the humanities—comprising various forms of analysis and expression—are a vital tool for exploring the hopes and frustrations of Americans experiencing the legacies of this history.”

The 1919 Race Riots began when Eugene Williams, a 17-year-old African American boy, drowned after being struck on the head with a rock thrown by a white assailant at a segregated beach. When police arrested an African American man instead of the actual perpetrator, conflict erupted, leading to a week of violence that claimed 38 lives and underscored the deep-seated racial divisions within Chicago.

Over the following decades, white Chicagoans cemented boundaries between black and white communities through racially restrictive real estate practices, segregated schools, and selective policing, while black Chicagoans carved out secure spaces, developed powerful political elites, and resisted racially biased policies.

"In this moment of divestment in public resources and education, programming such as this can be critical in helping us understand how we got here and where we can go from here,"said Nate Marshall, Director of National Programs at Young Chicago Authors, one of the organizations partnering with the Newberry on the NEH-funded project. "I believe this series will be pivotal in allowing for a deeper exploration of those histories for a general public—particularly young people.”

The NEH grant will provide the Newberry and its 10 partner organizations with $200,000 to support the development of several digital resources and 11 public conversations that will take place throughout 2019. The programming will kick off in February with a moderated public conversation hosted by the DuSable Museum of African American History and led by the Black Chicago History Forum.

Subsequent events will include a youth poetry slam organized by Young Chicago Authors at Harold Washington Library; a dialogue about reporting and race led by City Bureau at the Experimental Station in Woodlawn; a discussion of migration and housing led by local scholars in Homan Square; a conversation about Chicago’s black literary renaissance at the Newberry; and a community-based bike tour through the Bronzeville and Packingtown neighborhoods of Chicago.

"Chicago Reflects on the 1919 Race Riots"is unique in incorporating a broad array of formats and involving a wide range of partner organizations, from large cultural institutions to smaller community-based non-profits. These include:

  • Black Chicago History Forum
  • Black Metropolis Research Consortium
  • Chicago Collections Consortium
  • Chicago History Museum
  • City Bureau
  • DuSable Museum of African American History
  • Kartemquin Films
  • Middle-Passage Productions
  • Slow Roll Chicago
  • Young Chicago Authors

The National Endowment for the Humanities Community Conversations program supports long-term public humanities projects that involve at least six public events, engage diverse audiences, and utilize humanities resources like literary works, films, and historical artifacts. "Chicago Reflects on the 1919 Race Riots"is one of only two programs to be funded by a Community Conversations grant this year.

The project’s partners and other participants are just as excited to get started. According to Lisa Yun Lee, Executive Director of the National Public Housing Museum, "We hope this project will have far-reaching significance for contemporary issues that we need to be addressing as a city—including issues of violence, segregation, police brutality, school reform, and questions surrounding the social welfare of those most in need.”

The Newberry looks forward to joining its partner organizations in this large-scale, city-wide effort to learn about, wrestle with, and reflect on the ways in which the 1919 riots and Chicago’s segregated past continue to shape our city’s present divisions.