12 days of disaster that changed Chicago forever
Author Gary Krist looks back at 1919 and the blimp crash, murder, and race riot that made the Chicago the metropolis we know today.
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Q: Amid all this chaos, was there anyone on the side of the angels?Skip to next paragraph
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A: There were a few unambiguous angels. One is Ida Wells-Barnett. [The African-American heroine was a journalist, activist, suffragist and more.]
The day before the riots, she had an article published in one of the papers saying that we're on the brink of disaster, Chicago has to wake up.
She knew there would be an extensive investigation afterwards. So she would have victims over to her house and take testimony throughout the entire riot. And she was going into neighborhoods where people were killing each other to take their testimony.
She is an unambiguous white knight.
[Author and poet] Carl Sandburg was doing some good reporting in the black belt shortly before the riot. I wouldn't necessarily vouch for his personal beliefs on race, but the stuff he was writing was good for the black population of Chicago, and certainly his outrage at the riots was something we can identify with today.
Q: What did the events of 1919 mean for Chicago as it faced the next few years?
A: A lot of black leaders at the time thought there was a silver lining to it, that the riots galvanized African Americans to fight back against discrimination, especially given the stellar performance of black soldiers during World War I. It raised awareness that there were injustices stewing under the surface.
The summer had a mixed legacy for Chicago at large because the resolution of both the transit strike and race riot were really mismanaged by the governor and the state's attorney. They performed horribly in the wake of the disaster.
But Mayor Thompson was able to come back stronger than ever by 1920 and attain a level of power that was unprecedented in Illinois politics. It assured that Thompson would dominate politics for much of the 1920s.
I do think he has some legitimacy as a builder. Many of the things that make Chicago an architectural wonder are a legacy of Thompson.
But he was also very accommodating to people like Al Capone. You had the cliché Chicago of the 1920s, which was all jazz, guns, and bootleg liquor.
Q: What about the long-term legacy of those days in 1919?
A: It changed race relations in the city for many years to come. There was understandably a lot of bitterness afterward, and it really hardened the color line in Chicago for decades.
The legacy is with us today in Chicago, which is still one of the most segregated cities in the country.
For more about Chicago in the 1920s, check my 2010 interview with Douglas Perry, author of "The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired 'Chicago." Another book, 2008's "For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago," by Simon Baatz, provides a fine look at crime and punishment in the Second City.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.