Children's Literature Bookshelf

“A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919” by Claire Hartfield. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2018, 198 pages, Grades 7-9.

“A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919” by Claire Hartfield.  
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2018, 198 pages, Grades 7-9.

Racism is the dislike or hatred of people of a certain race. It differs from ethnic animosity which is centered on having virulent feelings toward a certain nationality. When these two awful bigotries merge, there is usually violent conflict. We have seen both of these erupting in recent history. In the United States, both evil sentiments have had a long history as well. The institution of slavery and the deadly Cherokees Trail of Tears are two examples.

When the Irish Potato Famine began in the 1840s, a million or so destitute Irish came to North America. A large population of Irish settled in Chicago. There, they suffered persecution because of their religion and background. Eastern Europeans such as the Poles later settled in Chicago. All these immigrant groups suffered from poverty and desperation and government neglect. Industrialists took advantage of their misery and oppressed them with low wages and dangerous work.

When World War I breaks out, many of these new immigrants enlist in the armed forces. This leads to an acute labor shortage in Chicago. However, the rich meat packers find a solution to their problem: hire poor African-Americans arriving in Chicago in great numbers. These black workers are treated as badly, if not worse than, the white immigrants. But when World War I ends, all the white workers return to Chicago. Now there is a surplus of workers and two desperate sides begin fighting for survival. Racism and ethnic hatred merge and become the breeding ground for the Chicago Race Riots of 1919.

The Chicago Stock Yards were one of the largest meat packing areas in the United States. Rich meat packers such as Gustavus Swift desire the highest returns at the lowest cost. They first oppress the white immigrants with low pay and dangerous work. During World War I, the owners start hiring newly arrived black workers to work in the huge stockyards. Having just escaped from the racially oppressed South, the black meat cutters can’t believe their good luck. Finally, they have money in their pockets and hope for a better future.

This happy time continues until the end of World War I. As the American Army returns from France, white and black veterans arrive home in Chicago. Now everyone needs the same thing: a good job. But Chicago institutions and white prejudice work against the newly arrived black families. The city segregates into an apartheid society. Some parts of the city are for blacks and other parts are for whites. Some beaches on Lake Michigan are segregated as well. As black citizens begin pushing out of their prescribed areas, white gangs begin attacking them. Within the white communities different ethnic groups fight each other. Economic privation pile upon racial and ethnic hatred.

All that needs to happen is for a spark to set off this long smoldering time bomb. That takes place through a singular event on a Lake Michigan beach. What then occurs sears the city of Chicago and the entire nation. What is involved in this tragedy?

Why does all this anger and bitterness erupt in Illinois in 1919? Why do the newspapers want to blame the black communities for the riots? What role do the white gangs play in this catastrophe?  How is the Mayor’s Office partially responsible for the debacle? Why are thousands of National Guardsmen necessary to stop the mayhem? What does the United States learn about the riots? Do we still need to learn these lessons today? To find out the answers to the above questions, go to the library and read this outstanding account of the Chicago Race Riots of 1919. Hartfield gives an authoritative and unvarnished account of this American tragedy. It is a compelling and harrowing story we need to learn from.

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