Hot summer days send many of us to the beach, where a cool dip in the water provides a break from sweltering temperatures. But during the Red Summer, floating across an invisible line in Lake Michigan dividing a Chicago beach between the “Black” side and the “white” side sparked the Chicago Race Riots of 1919. The violence took the lives of 23 Black folk and 15 white people, injured 537, and caused widespread property damage across the city.
At the center of it all was a Black youth taking a swim. While on a raft, 17-year-old Eugene Williams drifted into a part of the lake designated for whites only. A white beachgoer, George Stauber, spotted Williams and began hurling rocks at him until he fell into the water and drowned.
Police arrived on the scene and refused to take Stauber into custody. Longstanding tensions between white and Black Chicagoans quickly escalated as gangs of white teens and men, including those from the largest Irish American gang, the Ragen Colts, began terrorizing the city’s Black residents — and Chicago erupted in violence.
Now, more than 100 years later, the recently launched Eugene Williams Scholarship is providing $10,000 in scholarships to Black Chicago youth who are the metaphorical descendants of Eugene Williams.
“What I’m hopeful for is that our youth, our awardees, learn about Eugene Williams. That they learn about the structural policies and practices connected to race and racism, and that they become engaged in civics as active leaders working toward addressing these policies and practices,” says Dr. Franklin Cosey-Gay, the Violence Recovery Program Director at University of Chicago Medicine, a not-for-profit academic medical health system based on the campus of the University of Chicago.
Cosey-Gay, a native of Chicago’s South Side, is also one of the directors of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19), which started the scholarship. Alongside community partners such as the Greater Bronzeville Community Action Council (GBCAC), and program and fiscal sponsor Organic Oneness, CRR19 works to educate Chicagoans on the history of violence against Black people, as well as on the movements of resistance Black people have championed in response to this violence.
The two scholarship recipients are students from the Greater Bronzeville community, high school senior Asean Johnson, and eighth-grade graduate Jalise Leftwich, who along with the scholarship, were given an opportunity to learn more about Black history in their city.
In their application for the scholarship, the two recipients had to “Describe how you think Chicago is still impacted by the legacy of Eugene Williams’ killing and the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.” They also had to “include how you think we should respond, as a community,” and share their ideas for how to “address inequalities, encourage resistance to oppression, and foster resiliency.”
Cosey-Gay believes that the effects of the 1919 Chicago Race Riots are still prevalent in Chicago today. At a time when many white people across the country are putting laws in place to bury America’s racial violence, Cosey-Gay and the CRR19 are using the Eugene Williams Scholarship Fund to shed light on the nation’s true history and to call for reparations.
“Particularly in the United States, we operate where we pretend omission can actually help heal. Omission does not help heal,” Cosey-Gay says. “It only buries the pain or obfuscates the pain. Unfortunately, what that looks like is you have times like now where you have individuals that might blame themselves for the situation that they’re in. You have communities and families that are stigmatized, instead of really looking at the structural roots.”
In fact, Cosey-Gay says the GBCAC and CRR19 received their funding for the Eugene Williams Scholarship Fund from a descendent of Frank Ragen, one of the Irish-American politicians who bankrolled the Ragen Colts — the gang responsible for most of the terrorism and violence during the riots of 1919.
In the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Ragen’s great-niece hoped her donation would serve as an act of “reparations” for the Black families and communities her family hurt.
The fund is expected to award four more recipients over the next five years, and Cosey-Gay says these scholarships are only the start of CRR19 initiatives to improve violence prevention in Chicago, especially among Chicago’s youth.
They also connected with Project FIRE — a Firebird Community Arts glassblowing and trauma recovery program for youth injured by gun violence in Chicago — to give their young artists a chance to create public art in remembrance of the victims of the 1919 riots. The artwork is currently in prototype as CRR19 is working with the City of Chicago to get the art installed.
Dantrelle Black, one of the young artists from Project FIRE who was chosen to help create the public art, remarked on Eugene Williams’ death saying, “Eugene Williams is the same as Breonna Taylor is the same as George Floyd. The only thing different is the day.”
Project FIRE instructor Chiontea Thomas spoke about some of the images that can be expected to be displayed, and why they are important. “They took our faces…Our hands are important because they are using their hands to pull triggers, not noticing how important it is to our communities, we are blindsided and making excuses for the police,” Thomas says.
The Chicago Race Riots were the deadliest riots of the Red Summer which saw at least 25 cities damaged by widespread violence in 1919. But from the murder of George Floyd to the massacre of 10 Black shoppers at the Tops Market in Buffalo, New York, instances of violence against Black folk remain constant. That’s why Cosey-Gay believes that we must be even more persistent in our efforts to fight against violence, demand reparations, and secure equity for our communities.
“It’s just the beginning,” Cosey-Gay says of the scholarship. “But we hope this will begin to activate the critical consciousness of our community, or to further support their existing critical consciousness.”