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Chicago Race Riots and DKDK

Categories: Blog

by Eileen Hogan Heineman, Manager, Equity Institute Community Outreach

Through my equity work with SEED (Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity) groups, I’ve learned to take into account all the things that can be categorized DKDK – Don’t Know what I Don’t Know.  These are different from the things that, as a white person, I know I don’t know: how it feels to be followed around a store by security people, or assumed to be less capable or qualified for a position because of my skin color.

But the DKDK things can be much more harmful, because they often indicate that, somewhere along the way, there was an intentional mistreatment of some segment(s) of the population, without most of the dominant culture knowing anything about it. A perfect example is how few white people learned that after WWII, the GI Bill and VA loan programs weren’t fully available to black and brown veterans.  When we don’t know how a system has favored us, it’s hard for some to think we’re privileged.

I am embarrassed to say that, although I was born, raised and educated in the city of Chicago, I was an adult before learning of the Chicago Race Riots of 1919. 100 years ago, Chicago was in the midst of 8 days of rioting, which started because a black swimmer in Lake Michigan drifted into the area that was for whites only and was attacked and killed. In the ensuing days, 38 people were killed, hundreds injured and more than 1500 homes were destroyed by fire. The majority of the death, injury and destruction was in the black community.

We NEED to know the history of white supremacy in our cities, and need to know how often black residents were NOT served and protected by law enforcement.  We NEED to know about the 1908 Springfield IL Race Riot which led, in part, to the formation of the NAACP.

This year, while looking up information to share for the 100th anniversary of Chicago’s 1919 riot, I was overwhelmed by the gap in my education. I read about the race riots all across the country in the early 1900’s and wondered, “If these stories had been told in our U.S. History books, would race relations in this country have been different?”  In case this part of history was skipped over in your education, here are links to get information about a few of the many race riots that took place, often  caused by a lie told about something a black man had done, inciting the white residents to violence.

1903 – Evansville, IN: Race Riot of 1903

1906 –Atlanta, GA: Atlanta Race Riot of 1906

1907 – Bellingham, WA: The 1907 Bellingham Riots in Historical Context

1908 – Springfield, IL: Springfield Race Riot

1909 – Omaha, NE: Daily News Recounts the South Omaha Greek Town Riots of 1909

1917 – East St. Louis, IL: The East St. Louis Race Riot Left Dozens Dead, Devastating a Community on the Rise

1919 – Washington DC: One Hundred Years Ago, a Four-Day Race Riot Engulfed Washington D.C.

1919 – Chicago, IL: ‘Ready to explode’: How a black teen’s drifting raft triggered a deadly week of riots 100 years ago in Chicago

It’s important to know what we don’t know.  And once we learn it, we can never NOT know it again.

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