Searching for Answers
From chapter Three of Harry Haywood's Autobiography Black Bolshevik
Back home in Chicago, I was soon working again as a waiter on the Michigan Central Railroad. As I have already mentioned, the first day of the bloody Chicago race riot (July 28, 1919) came while I was working on the Wolverine run up through Michigan. When I arrived home from work that afternoon, the whole family greeted me emotionally. We were all there except for Otto. The disagreements I had had with my Father in the past were forgotten. Both my Mother and sister were weeping. Everyone was keyed up and had been worrying about my safety in getting from the station to the house.
Following our brief reunion, I tore loose from the family to find out what was happening outside. I went up to the Regimental Armory at Thirty-fifth and Giles Avenue because I wanted to find some of my buddies from the regiment. The street, old Forrest Avenue, had recently been renamed in honor of Lt. Giles, a member of our outfit killed in France. I knew they would be planning an armed defense and I wanted to get in on the action. I found them and they told me their plans. It was rumored that Irishmen from the west of the Wentworth Avenue dividing line were planning to invade the ghetto that night, coming in across the tracks by way of Fifty-first Street. We planned a defensive action to meet them.
It was not surprising that defensive preparations were under way. There had been clashed before, often when white youths in 'athletic clubs' invaded the Black community. These "clubs" were really racist gangs, organized by the city ward heelers and precinct captains.
One of the guys from the regiment took us to the apartment of a friend. It had a good position overlooking Fifty-first Street near State. Someone had brought a Browning submachine gun; he'd gotten it sometime before, most likely from the Regiment Armory. We didn't ask where it had come from, or the origin of the 1903 Springfield rifles (Army issue) that appeared. We set to work mounting the submachine gun and set up watch for the invaders. Fortunately for them, they never arrived and we all returned home in the morning. The following day it rained and the National Guard moved into the Black community, so overt raids by whites did not materialize.
Ours was not the only group which used its recent Army training for self-defense of the Black community. We heard rumors about another group of veterans who set up a similar ambush. On several occasions groups of whites had driven a truck at breakneck speed up south State Street, in the heart of of the Black ghetto, with six or seven men in the back firing indiscriminately at the people on the sidewalks.
The Black veterans set up their ambush at Thirty-fifth and State, waiting in a car with the engine running. When the whites on the truck came through, they pulled in behind and opened up with a machine gun. The truck crashed into a telephone pole at Thirty-ninth Street; most of the men in the truck had been shot down and the others fled. Among them were several Chicago police officers—"off duty," of course!
I remember standing before the Angeles Flats on Thirty-fifth and Wabash where the day before four Blacks had been shot by police. It appeared that enranged Blacks had set fire to the building and were attacking some white police officers when the latter fired on them.
Along with other Blacks, I gloated over the mysterious killing of two Black cops with a history of viciousness in the Black community. They had been found dead in an alley between State and Wabash. Undoubtedly they had been killed by Blacks who had taken advantage of the confusion to settle old scores with these Black enforcers of the white man's law.
Bewilderment and shock struck the Black community as well. I had seen Blacks standing before the burned-out buildings of their former homes, trying to salvage whatever possible. Apparent on their faces was bewilderment and anger.
The Chicago rebellion of 1919 was a pivotal point in my life. Always I had been hot-tempered and never took any insults lying down. This was even more true after the war. I had walked out of a number of jobs because of my refusal to take any crap from anyone. My experiences abroad in the Army and at home with the police left me totally disillusioned about being able to find any solution to the racial problem through the help of the government; for I had seen that official agnecies of the country were among the most racist and most dangerous to me and my people.
I began to see that I had to fight; I had to commit myself to struggle against whatever it was that made racism possible. Racism, which erupted in the Chicago riot—and the bombings and terrorist attacks which preceded it—must be eliminated. My spirit was not unique—it was shared by many young Blacks at that time. The returned veterans and other young militants were all fighting back. And there was a lot to fight against. Racism reached a high tide in the summer of 1919. This was the "Red Summer" which involved twenty-six race riots across the country—"red" for the blood that ran in the streets. Chicago was the bloodiest.
The holocaust in Chicago was the worst race riot in the nation's post-war history. But riots took place in such widely seperate places as Long View, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; Elaine, Arkansas; Knoxville, Tennessee, and Omaha, Nebraska. The flareup of racial violence in Omaha, my old home town, followed the Chicago riots by less than two months. It resulted in the lynching of Will Brown, a packing house worker, for an alleged assault on a white woman. When Omaha's mayor, Edward P. Smith, sought to intervene, he was seized by the mob. They were close to hanging the mayor from a trolley pole when the police cut the rope and rushed him to a hospital, badly injured.
The common underlying cause of riots in most of the northern cities was the racial tension caused by the migration of tens of thousands of Blacks into these centers and the competition for jobs, housing and the facilities of the city. Rather than being at a temporary peak, this outbreak of racism was more like the rising of a plateau—it never got any higher, but it never really went down, either. Writing in the middle of a riot in Washington, D.C., that summer, the Black poet Claude McKay caught the bitter and belligerent mood of many Blacks:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die
So that our precious blood my not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back
Back To History Is A Weapon's Front Page