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A tale of two soldiers

Letters home from two WWI soldiers, one white, one Black, explain the 1919 Chicago race riot as well as any history book.

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Recipients of the Croix de Guerre from the 370th Infantry, 1919 - NATIONAL ARCHIVES-COLLEGE PARK
  • National Archives-College Park
  • Recipients of the Croix de Guerre from the 370th Infantry, 1919

If you want to understand race in Chicago in the months after the end of the First World War, the letters written by two soldiers from the south side are illuminative. Throughout the war, Lieutenant Charles L. Samson wrote his wife, Loula, at 6730 S. Perry multiple times a week. A mechanical engineer, he'd had a close scrape with death after a German submarine sunk his troop ship off the Scottish coast. In France, he was posted far from the front lines, much to his disappointment.

Six days after Germany signed the armistice effectively ending the war, Samson challenged his wife's proposed move to a new place, as he would be forced to ride streetcars "jammed with n——s" to get to work. "If I were still at the Amalgamated plant I would have to ride State & 35th lines. Both are n—— lines."

On January 14, 1919, he wrote he was "working one n—— outfit here. It will surprise you when I tell you that they are as good a lot of worker as I ever encountered." He believed their efficiency could be credited to fellow white officers who "do not fraternize with the men and hence have no compunction about pushing them."

From the time he was a teenager, Stanley B. Norvell had grown up at 614 W. 61st Place, just down the street from the home of Charles Deneen, the governor of Illinois between 1905 and 1913. In May 1915, the 26-year-old joined the Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, whose officers and enlisted men were all African American. The letters that Corporal Norvell wrote to the Chicago Defender from training camps in Texas in the summer and fall 1916 are, for the most part, lighthearted and reassuring.

Writing from the front lines in the fall of 1918, Lieutenant Norvell wrote to the Defender that he could not go into great detail about his experiences due to the military censorship, but that he had "found France, notwithstanding its war-ridden condition, an infinitely more agreeable place for me to live in than my own country." Norvell subsequently won the Croix de Guerre for commanding a machine-gun company through a ten-day action after all its officers were killed or wounded. When Norvell and his comrades returned to Chicago on February 19, 1919, they were greeted by a thunderous welcome in a massive parade in the South Loop.

There is no record of what Charles L. Samson or Stanley B. Norvell did during the Chicago race riots. Given the raw ugliness of Samson's letters, it is easy to imagine the lieutenant being one of the hundreds of armed whites taking to the streets or, perhaps, being like the Beverly garage owner who, miles away from the riot zone, told a light-skinned black lawyer that the unrest would be over "only when the whites kill off two or three hundred of the n——s." We can't say where he was, but his worldview was shared by the rioters: the end result of the war could not be one in which Black men and women could imagine the same rank in society as whites.

Likewise, it is tempting to think that Norvell's experience was similar to that of the artist Archibald Motley, who also lived in an all-white neighborhood in Englewood. Menaced by angry mobs, the Motleys were helped by friendly white neighbors. Archibald guarded the house with a shotgun. However, we can gather Norvell had been changed, not only by the experience of fighting on the western front, but also through the direct or indirect experience of combat in Chicago. "Try to imagine the smoldering hatred within the breast of an overseas veteran who is set upon and mercilessly beaten by a gang of young hoodlums simply because he is colored," he wrote to Victor Lawson, the publisher of the Chicago Daily News and member of a newly formed commission to study the causes of the riot.

Norvell had returned to a city populated by whites who were still unwilling to understand Blacks beyond superficial impressions. "They cannot tell whether I am well off or hard up; whether I am educated or illiterate; whether I am a northerner or a southerner; whether I am a native-born Negro or a foreigner; whether I live among beautiful surroundings or in the squalor of the 'black belt.'"

Once whites were "willing to take off the goggles of race prejudice and to study the Negro with the naked eye of fairness, and to treat him with justice and equity," Norvell contended, "he will come to the conclusion that the Negro has 'arrived' and then voila, you have the solution to the problem." The Black man, Norvell argued, "had become tired of equal rights. He wants the same rights. He is tired of equal accommodations. He wants [the] same accommodations. He is tired of equal opportunity. He wants the same opportunity."

By November 1919, Norvell had partially retreated in his rhetoric. "We need a leader who will teach us that there is opportunity in every atom of atmosphere, in every grain of dust, in every blade of grass," he wrote Sears, Roebuck & Co. president Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist who had given millions to Black educational institutions. "We need a leader who will teach us how to make money out of the things that our more fortunate neighbors overlook and discard." Norvell admitted that when he was almost ready to surrender, his thoughts turned to "the many times when on hard toilsome 'hikes' in France when I was weak with hunger and suffering with cold a dogged spirit of stick-to-it sustained me then and that same spirit is sustaining me now."

Norvell admitted that he had found it hard to return to the life he had left behind in Chicago. "Blackening boots, running elevators, waiting table, chauffeuring and the like seemed rather incongruous to me, and I found the readjustment very difficult indeed," he wrote Rosenwald. Stanley B. Norvell subsequently married and moved from Englewood to Bronzeville. He remained at the post office, where he had worked before he went to war. In 1936, he helped cofound a post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Its first commander, Michael Browning, had survived being shot during the race riots. Norvell passed away in April 1966, four months after Martin Luther King arrived in Chicago to support the Chicago Freedom Movement.  v

The Charles L. Samson Papers can be found at the Chicago History Museum. Stanley B. Norvell's letters can be found in the Julius Rosenwald Papers at the University of Chicago, Special Collections Research Center.

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