Sex, Swimming, and Chicago’s Racial Divide

"Chicago race riot - beginning of the riot; White and Negroes leaving Twenty-ninth Street beach after the drowning of Eugene Williams." 1922. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

By Betsy Schlabach | Black Perspectives

Sunday, July 27, 1919, was a hot, sweltering, sunny day at Chicago’s Twenty-Ninth Street Beach. When fourteen-year-old Eugene Williams, who was swimming there that day, drifted across an invisible barrier dividing the black section of the beach from the white, he was stoned by angry whites. His eventual drowning sparked one of the bloodiest race riots of the postwar period.

But unknown to most is a detail that John Harris, who was swimming with Williams, told William Tuttle in an interview fifty years later. Harris revealed that the boys were not headed for the lakefront, but instead, they were eager to reach a place they claimed as their own swimming spot—what they called the “hot and cold.” Located behind the Keeley Brewery and Consumers Ice building, Tuttle informs readers in his book, Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919, that the hot and cold got its name “from the effluence discharged by these companies. The waters of Lake Michigan could be as cold as the melting ice from Consumers, yet the run-off from the vats at the brewery was not only hot but also chemically potent. It could even temporarily turn a black person white.” “It was hot,” Harris recalled, “and Jesus, I would be as white as a white man when I got done—so actually no women or nothing ever come through, so we often didn’t even wear a suit, just take our clothes off and go down to the bank….”

Four days after the attack on Eugene Williams, thirty-eight people were dead (twenty-three African Americans and fifteen whites), 537 were injured, and many others were left homeless. Both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a group of prominent white Chicago citizens appealed to Illinois Governor Frank Lowden demanding that he appoint a committee to study the “psychological, social and economic causes resulting in the riot and make…recommendations to prevent…recurrence.”

Three years later the resulting Commission delivered a 651-page report titled The Negro in Chicago. The Commission organized its study into six areas—racial clashes, housing, industry, crime, public opinion, and racial contacts. The Commission contrasted racial mingling “with the best of feeling” among younger white and black children with “voluntary racial grouping” by older children and adults, which led to “racial disorder” and “serious clashes” (297). It concluded that black transgression and white violence sparked the “race riot,” resulting in open warfare, in some senses, between white and Black people in Chicago. At the source of these tensions were stereotypes about southern African American migrants infected with communicable diseases. Fears of miscegenation also stoked white protectionism and were firmly affixed to boys like Eugene Williams. The Commission’s final recommendations did little to address these fears.

"Negroes being escorted to safety zones." 1922. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Young boys like Eugene Williams and Langston Hughes, who first visited Chicago in 1918, were victims of racial violence that stemmed from the overpopulation and rigid segregation plaguing Chicago and many northern cities at the beginning of the twentieth century. These realities had deadly consequences for Black youth. Northerners generally viewed southern migrants as dirty, crude, and likely to harbor communicable diseases. Because both whites and established Black Chicagoans feared contact would expose them to such communicable diseases and to contamination by southern Blacks’ supposed dirtiness, no urban space was left untouched by segregation. The irony, however, is that these racist undercurrents surfaced precisely at the moment when Blacks were asserting their claims to public spaces of all kinds—especially spaces of play and leisure like the beaches that quickly, as the riot illustrates, became hotly contested sites. Thus hygiene was one element in a broader network of social control meant to keep the races separate.

The beach riot, however, highlights an increasing sensitivity to miscegenation and panic among northern whites, as attested in the Commission’s use of the phrases “sex problems” and “voluntary segregation,” a reference to white people disallowing contact with African Americans. A representative of the South Park Commission bluntly said that in his district the parents were opposed to race contacts in swimming and wading pools. “Not 10% of the families will allow contact with Negroes in the pools,” he claimed. Other theories on the lack of integration at recreational sites were not nearly as cut and dry. Several directors made a distinction between formal and informal activities at recreation centers, stating, “Negroes and whites mingled successfully in informal activities, but not in formal ones.” The Commission interpreted this as meaning “the real distinction in most cases is probably not between formal and informal use but between use by children and by adults.” The problem was the presence of Black males—boys, adolescents, and men—but the Commission refused to acknowledge this distinction and instead relied on the age of patrons as the factor driving “voluntary segregation” while dismissing “sex problems.”

"Armed crowds searching for a negro." 1922. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

When John Harris described his day swimming at the hot and cold before the riot, as cited above, he recalled that “no women or nothing ever come through, so we often didn’t even wear a suit, just take our clothes off and go down to the bank….” Fearing punishment by his mother for swimming on a Sunday, Harris never told the police what he saw that day. In fact, the only person he told was Eugene Williams’s mother, at the funeral. That latter detail—that “no women or nothing ever come through”—shows that Harris believed the absence of women, black or white, gave the boys license to swim, and in the nude. As Black boys, they knew the codes of northern segregation and were well aware of the fears stirred by their adolescent male presence. The tragedy is that at such a young age the ways of northern racism had schooled their sense of social relations; the resultant whiteness of the chemical waters of their coveted swimming hole even shocked them. But the momentary relief in the stark contrasting waters of hot and cold wasn’t enough to protect them; even as children, they were not safe.

When Governor Lowden received the committee’s progress report in early 1921, he read the Commission’s fifty-nine recommendations encompassing the last eleven pages of the 651-page report. The Commission blamed white hoodlums for the lack of beach patronage. Remedies they suggested pertinent to recreation included “additional facilities in Negro areas, particularly recreation which can be used by adults 2) an awakened public opinion that will refuse to tolerate the hoodlum and will insist that the officers properly punish” (640). The Commission recommended keeping the races segregated while asking for understanding and education about the problems that that very segregation created. Unwilling to touch the reasons why such violence erupted when emerging African American men broke the bathing color line, the Commission on Race Relations was not willing to wade into the waters of real change.

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