Was labor unrest at the stockyards to blame for the violence that erupted into the 1919 race riots? | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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Was labor unrest at the stockyards to blame for the violence that erupted into the 1919 race riots?

Plus a preview of this weekend’s Newberry Library Book Fair and Bughouse Square Debates.

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You may have heard about the instigating event of the 1919 Chicago race riot. On Sunday, July 27, Eugene Williams, a Black teenager, inadvertently floated across an invisible line into the "white section" of the water at the 29th Street Beach, where he was stoned by a white man and drowned. A week of rioting followed, ending with 38 more people dead and more than 500 wounded.

What's not as well known is the convoluted history of Chicago labor tension that led up to the riot, says Concordia University professor David Bates, who's documented that history in a new book, The Ordeal of the Jungle (a title he took from a collection of Carl Sandburg's reporting from the Daily News). The 1919 riot will be the subject of a Newberry Library presentation at this weekend's Bughouse Square, the legendary soapbox orator showcase held annually in conjunction with the huge Newberry Book Fair, a benefit sale of donations collected by the library throughout the year. Since the demise of the even larger (though less esoteric) Brandeis Book Sale in 2006, it's the prime event for book lovers in the Chicago area and beyond.

In the run-up to that—and in conjunction with "Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots," a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored, multiorganization project marking this grim anniversary—Bates came to the Newberry last week to talk about his research.

In 1919, he said, when Chicago was, in Sandburg's phrase, "hog butcher to the world," the meatpacking industry was the city's largest employer, with 40,000 workers at its sprawling 400-acre south-side stockyards. But the packing companies were ruthless employers who'd "deskilled" what had started as a skilled-labor job by breaking the butchering process down into a series of repetitive, single steps in factory-style production. Bates says management also had a history of fomenting racial tension among employees as a way to keep the workforce divided and, therefore, weak. He cites their cynical use of Black workers as strikebreakers during a bitter standoff in 1904, when the regular workforce was almost exclusively white, as an example.

During the second decade of the 20th century, with the advent of World War I and the Great Migration, Chicago's Black population grew significantly. There were just 67 Blacks among stockyards employees in 1910, Bates says; by 1919, they numbered 12,000. Their union was part of the Chicago Federation of Labor, which stood for equal pay and nondiscriminatory labor practices, and was led by men who believed (simplistically) that racial problems would disappear if they had a unified labor force. But, Bates says, the CFL's professed ideals were undercut in part by the policies of its parent union, the American Federation of Labor, which was not particularly interested in organizing unskilled workers and didn't want to include them in trade-specific skilled labor unions. To get around this, the CFL organized union workers in the stockyards into units based on their residential neighborhoods. In rigidly segregated Chicago that meant that Black and white workers wound up in separate locals. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of Blacks among stockyards union members in 1919 was not robust, and the union wound up exacerbating—rather than eliminating—racial tensions. Forty-one percent of the injuries in the riot happened in the stockyards district. Segregation enforced by murder at the beach was the match that ignited the riot, but Bates argues that years of built-up and festering labor-related racial suspicions, resentments, injustices, and animosities was the fuel that made it burn.

WBEZ's Natalie Y. Moore and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism dean Charles Whitaker will lead a public discussion of the 1919 race riot at Bughouse Square, which begins at noon on Saturday in the Newberry's "front yard," Washington Square Park, across the street from the library's main entrance.

The book fair runs Thursday through Sunday, and is bigger than ever this year, with 160,000 books and other items—LPs, board games, the odd art object—up for grabs at prices typically around $3 (half-price on Sunday). Book fair manager Dan Crawford, who's been there since the fair began in 1985 (and is the author of a wry, year-round book fair blog), says the inventory this year, spread through five rooms on the library's main floor and including a new LGBTQ+ category, includes 16 boxes of UFO books mysteriously collected by a Newberry volunteer; 35 boxes of old science fiction paperbacks from an anonymous donor; and 85 boxes of books from the estate of former television and Sun-Times restaurant critic James Ward that contain a sizable collection of cowboy art but no cookbooks. Hankering for a first-edition Death of a Salesman signed by the author? It's there, at the collectibles table, for $2,500. Upton Sinclair will no doubt be around as well.

The checkout line, which can get lengthy, will queue up in a new exhibition area this year, where shoppers can peruse items from the library's collection—such as a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence printed days after it was approved by Congress but with the wrong date—while they wait to pay for their loot. This captive-audience viewing experience, says Crawford, is "our version of exit through the gift shop."   v

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