Research not Stereotypes

Gangs and the 1919 Chicago Race Riot.

Gangs have played an infamous role in supporting segregation by racist violence. The story of Chicago's white gangs is seldom told. The seminal event in the early industrial era was the 1919 race riot. The history of this riot, and the crucial role of white gangs, is told in the 1922 report of The Chicago Commission on Race Relations. One of the principle findings of the Commission was:

"6. Gangs, particularly among the young whites, formed definite nucelei for crowd and mob leadership. "Athletic clubs" supplied the leaders of many gangs." (49). What follows is an expanded summary of the report's description of the role of white gangs.

From July 27 to August 2, 1919, a race riot broke out in Chicago. When it was over thirty-eight people were dead, 537 injured and about 1000 rendered homeless. The incident which sparked the riot was the drowning of a black youth after he drifted onto a white area of a beach, on a hot, 96 degree day. The reasons for the riot, however, lie with segregation, vicious racism, and the organized activities of white gangs, many of which were sponsored by Chicago's political machine. Most of the rioting, murder, and arson were concentrated in the Black Belt.

On the first three pages, the report points out the role of gangs:

"The rioting was characterized by much activity on the part of gangs of hoodlums, and the clashes developed from sudden and spontaneous assaults into organized raids against life and property." (1)

"As part of the background of the Chicago riot, the activities of gangs of hoodlums should be cited. There had been friction for years, especially along the western boundary of the area in which the Negroes mainly live, and in the spring just preceding the riot. They reached a climax on the night of June 21, 1919, five weeks before the riot, when two Negroes were murdered. Each was alone at the time and was the victim of unprovoked and particularly brutal attack. Molestation of Negroes by hoodlums had been prevalent in the vicitiy of parks and playgrounds and at bathing-beaches." (3)

As the riot began, clashes between whites and blacks stepped up. The report continues;

"Further to the west, as darkness came on, white gangsters became active. Negores in whtie districts suffered severely at their hands. From 9:00pm until 3:00am twenty-seven Negores were beaten, seven were stabbed, and four were shot." (5) The picture below shows a white gang hunting for Negroes.

Black and white people went to work the next day without incident, but a street strike forced workers to walk, creating opportunities for mayhem. "But as the afternoon wore on, white men and boys living between the Stock Yarks and the "Black Belt" sought malicious amusement in directing mob violence against Negro workers returning home." (5-6)

Black mobs retaliated against the white violence, led by Black soldiers recently returned from WWI. As the violence increased, police fired into a crowd of black demonstrators, killing four. Whites became emboldened "Gangs in white districts grew bolder, finally taking the offensive in raids through territory "invaded" by Negro home seekers. Boys between sixteen and twenty-two banded together to enjoy the excitement of the chase….(60

White gangs even invented a new form, the drive-by shooting:

"Automobile raids were added to the rioting on Monday night. Cars from which rifle and revolver shots were fired were driven at great spead through sections inhabited by Negroes." (6) No white raiders were arrested and Blacks began "sniping" in retaliation. Chicago's Police Chief admitted to the Commission: "There is no doubt that a great many police officers were grossly unfair in making arrests. They shut their eyes to offenses committed by white men while they were veryvigorous in gettijng all the colored men they could get." (34). Twice as many blacks were arrested than whites.

The next day gang violence grew worse:

"A white gang of soldiers and sailors in uniform, augmented by civilians, raide the "Loop" or downtown section of Chicago, early Tuesday, killing two Negroes and beating and robbing several others…..Gangs sprang up as far south as Sixty-third Street in Englewood and in the section west of Wentworth Avenue near Forty-seventh Street. Premeditated depredations were the order of the night. Many Negro homes in mixed districts were attacked, and several of them were burned." Lasalle Street railroad station was invaded twice, with white gangs hunting for Black workers or riders (20).

Rain seemed to calm the riot for a few days and fires in the Stock Yards left 948 people, mainly Lithuanians, homeless. While Blacks were blamed for the fires, the Grand Jury suspected they were started by back of the Yards white gangs "for the purpose of inciting race feeling by blaming same on the blacks." (16). But by then, the riot had run its course.

The report emphasized the decisive nature of organized white gangs in the riot, and their hostility to blacks.

"Gangs and their activities were an important factor throughout the riot. But for them it is doubtful if the riot would have gone beyond the first clash. Both organized gangs and those which sprang into existence because of the opportunity afforded seized upon the excuse of the first conflict to engage in lawless acts.

It was no new thing for youthful white and Negro groups to come to violence. For years, as the sections of this report dealing with antecedent clashes and with recreation show, there had been clashes over baseball grounds, swimming-pools in the parks, the right to walk on certain streets, etc.

Gangs whose activities figured so prominently in the riot were all white gangs, or "athletic clubs." Negroes hoodlums do not appear to form organized gangs so readily. Judges of the municipal court said that there are no gang organization among Negroes to compare with those found among young whites." (11-12)

Many of the white gangs came from the Stock Yards, and even the police said they could get little information from residents about the activities of their gangs. The report singles out the "Canaryville bunch" and "Hamburgs" as particularly tough and involved in the riot. Richard J. Daley, later mayor of Chicago was a member of the club at the time and was its president in 1924. The Hamburgs were sponsored by Bridgeport Alderman Josepth McDonough who incited whites with incendiary statements of "bombs exploding" and warnings that Blacks were "armed" and invading (28). Daley always refused to comment on whether he was involved in the rioting.

The worst of the white gangs were "Ragen's Colts," a gang whose turf extended from Cottage Grove to Ashland and from Forty-third to Sixty-third Street. The gang was sponsored by Cook County Commissioner Frank Ragen. Gang members boasted that they were "protected" and "tipped off" by police. The Colts even broke into a police station at 47th and Halstead and stole evidence, including firearms.

James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan gives a graphic fictional dipiction of Irish racism at the time and the terrorism and bombings of Irish gangs. Many other Black poets and writers, representing the "new Negro," more militant and race conscious than his parents, expressed pent up frustration.

Ragen's Colts and other "athletic clubs" were targeted by the Grand Jury, whose report said:

"The authorities employed to enforce the law should thoroughly investigate clubs and other organizations posing as athletic and social clubs which really are organizations of hoodlums and criminals formed for the purpose of furthering the interest of local politics…These gangs have apparently taken an active part in the race riots, and no arrests of their members have been made as far as this jury is aware." (16)

Miss Mary McDowell, head resident of the University of Chicago Settlement, testified that Ragen's Colts ran amuck during the riots and the police did nothing to stop them. Jane Addams of Hull-House, concurred with Miss McDowell's statement (55).

Other Gangs

The Commission found that the gangs were mainly made up of boys 17-22 year old, and that many murders were committed by white boys as young as 14. (13) Members of The Lorraine Club also terrorized black residents and drove them out of areas around Wentworth and 47th. Our Flags Club, a white gang located on 47th near Union participated in the riot, as did the Sparklers, were responsible for a fire on 5919 Wentworth which burned down a Negro house (15). The Aylward Club also beat Negroes coming to work in the Stockyards. Other white gangs who participated in the riot included "the Pine Club, Hamburgers, the Emeralds, the White Club, Favis Greys', and the Mayflower." (15)