Dispatches: The Chicago Race Riots, 1919

Jul 27, 2019 | Bubbler, FSR

As seen in The Geography of Home by Matthew Graham

For Marcus Wicker

New things is comin’
Altogether diverse
From what they has been.

–Reverend W.C. Thompson of the Pentecostal Church,
34th and South State Street, Chicago, Illinois

I. The Facts

The Red Summer began on Sunday, July 27,
Off the 25th Street beach when a colored child
Swam across an imaginary segregation line.
White boys threw rocks,
Knocked him off his raft
And he drowned.
The white police did nothing.
The toll by August 3 was twenty-three Negroes dead,
Fifteen whites and scores of houses burned,
Six thousand colored union men
Walked off the yards, and the packing plants
Dropped to 60% capacity,
Lowering production and lessening
The amount of commodities for the market.
Swift and Armour went to the Stock Yards Labor Council
And the union said their men, white and colored,
Would stand together equal and organized and opposed
To violence. Production stabilized
Based on a poisonous lie.

II. The Truth

The black belt of southern Negro migration,
People just looking for a chance among the bleached angels of
the north,
Grew too tight around the Irish south side,
Bridgeport, Behind the Yards,
And caused an explosion poising one poor population
Against another, ignited by Irish gangs,
Thugs from Irish Hamburg Athletic Club
Always looking for trouble with “semi-white” immigrants:
Jews, Chinese, Poles, Greeks, Italians, Mexicans,
But especially the blacks.

…the people hold to the humdrum of work and food
While reaching out…
This reaching is alive.

And so the bodegas, chop suey joints, poker and crap parlors
— “try yr wrist”–
Barbeque stands, luncheonettes of Italian beef and fried
Taverns of sawdust and spit,
Cowboy bars with their steel string sounds
Of Abilene and Tucumcari, blues bars as dark as the delta,
And the jazz clubs whose horns percolate
Up from Basin Street to East St. Louis to this long stretch
Of South State Street, all lean together in an uneasy alliance
Never far from the great lowing of the Union Stock Yard
And Transit Company, from the bubbling stench
Of the south fork of the Chicago River.

The load of shorthorns splintering the boards,
Oh Lord, the shorthorns.

The Illinois Central and the Michigan Central
Roll in the steers and sheep and hogs of Montana,
Nebraska and Iowa all day and night
While the Canadian Grand Trunk Railroad
Moves 450,000 tons of ice a week.
The Wheel of Death takes thirty-five minutes
To kill and dress a steer.
An assembly line of death where black men, only black men,
Known as Beef Luggers, stagger through blood and time
And barely a living wage, carrying on their shoulders
Whole quarters of slaughtered beef.

Of the twenty looking on
Ten murmur, “Oh, it’s a hell of a job,”
Ten others, “Jesus, I wish I had the job.”

Nothing is lost. At the end of the line
The Hair Factory at 44th and Ashland Avenue churns out
Soap, glue, ivory, shoe polish, buttons, perfume,
Combs and violin strings:
The endless disassembly line of after death
That nothing can stop.

The unions say the riots were not about race
But about equal pay, housing and education
Issues they can fix but they can’t
Because the riots were about race.

What do you do when every time you build a sandcastle
Someone kicks it down?
You built it over a cinder block.

The boy who drowned off 25th Street beach?
His name was Eugene Williams.
He was thirteen years old.

In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for
keeps, the people march.

–Carl Sandburg, The Chicago Daily News,
November, 1919

Matthew Graham is the author of the previous books of poetry, New World Architecture (Galileo Press, 1985), 1946 (Galileo Press, 1991), and A World Without End (River City Publishing, 2006), and The Geography of Home (Galileo Press, 2019). He is the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, Pushcart, the Indiana Arts Commission and the Vermont Studio Center. Graham is a Professor of English at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Indiana, and is married to the painter Katie Waters.