Friday, July 1, 2011

July 4th BBQ Reading: A Brief History of Racial Violence at Chicago's Beaches

Question: Why are the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria at the beach?

Zora and I were strolling about one of Chicago's beaches last weekend when she smartly observed that the black folks were sitting on one side of the beach, and the whites on the other. Those of mixed race and members of groups who exist between the black/white binary were quite predictably sprinkled among and between the two groups.

"A practical social scientific puzzle!" I exclaimed.

My intuition was that folks take signals about seating from others and it becomes a game of sorts. Thinking more sentimentally, I also suggested that maybe the black folks sit so that they can see the South and the West of the city. Thus, they are facing home. The whites sit facing north, towards Downtown and The Gold Coast, their "natural" space and 'hood.

We did not resolve the puzzle to our satisfaction. A few days later the obvious dawned on me, in a hyper-segregated city, one with a long history of racial violence at its beaches, perhaps the racially coded spaces were echoes of the near past? Jim Crow may be dead, but history isn't even yesterday. Moreover, our daily habits are functions of the past even if it exists only as cultural memory...or for some, a practical life survival skill.

In what promises to be a long hot summer full of flash mob ign't antics, rumors of race remain real. That phrase, "rumors of race" is so beautiful because it captures so very well, and so much, the history of America. From race riots, to lynchings, to rebellion, to resistance, they are all bundled under that umbrella phrase. Rumors of race does some double work in an era of colorblindness because race remains an unspoken to signifier in the media's coverage of flash mob violence, where "urban" is the politically correct stand in term for "young" or "ghetto" black criminals.

In sum, public space is political space. When black folks would break and refuse the white supremacist law and custom where they were to get off of the sidewalk to let whites pass, those were claims on dignity and rights. Likewise, when African American men and women would put on their finest clothes and parade from their neighborhoods and into unfriendly white ethnic neighborhoods--where violent gangs of whites awaited them--those were claims on citizenship and belonging. Or in one of my newest favorite moments, when soldiers of the United States Colored Troops would remain in uniform and march through the streets of the Old Confederacy daring former rebel secesh trash to stop them, those were claims on manhood and citizenship.

Looking to the long history of the relationship between race and access to public space, Chicago Magazine has a great essay on the city's experience with violence at its beach areas that is well worth reading in its entirety. Of particular note, be sure to pay close attention to how mass public violence against black people engaged in leisure activity is so common (and was in fact fun and a rite of passage and privilege for whites and Whiteness), and the responsibility for said assaults is placed on African Americans for daring to go where they were unwelcome.


A Brief History of Flash Mobs and Chicago Beach Violence

This is starting to look like the summer of the "flash mob." It started with the closure of North Avenue Beach due to several cases of heat exhaustion. But rumors, which could initially be found at the Second City Cop blog—update: here's the right link, that one's from 2010—and newspaper comment threads, spread that the closure was due to groups of young people and/or flash mobs, i.e. groups assembled by text message or social networks to cause havoc (or, in more innocent cases, levity).

The CPD denies that was behind the beach closure, but flash mobs continue to dominate the news: last weekend, it was five youths arrested for robberies in Streeterville and on the Mag Mile, and last night another robbery downtown, though it's unclear whether there was any flash to the mob or whether it was just standard-issue street violence.

It's not terribly surprising that this incipient panic would begin on the beach. Chicago has a long history of newsworthy beach violence, which actually used to be much worse. In the early 20th century, beach riots were a fairly regular occurrence; from a scan of the Tribune archives, it seems residents could count on one every summer or two during the 'teens and 1920s, perhaps because they were even more heavily used before the advent of air conditioning. Beyond the infamous 1919 race riots, which started on a beach at 29th Street and lasted for eight days, Chicago's free and clear lakefront was often the scene of territorial battles and random violence.


(Manhattan Beach was "a popular spot for middle-class boys and girls to meet in the early decades of the twentieth century." It would later become Rainbow Beach, and would be the site of another riot.)


(Allegedly Connell was not wearing a suit that distinguished him as swimming "under the jurisdiction of the Wilson beach company.")


(On the same day, there was a crush at the Clarendon beach when 300 people tried to force their way to the water; one man was slightly injured, "and about twenty men and women fainted in the locker rooms." Temperatures were hot that summer; one night in July an estimated eight to ten thousand people slept in Grant Park, according to the Tribune.)


("Those in the crowd accused the police of undue violence, of striking girls in bathing costumes, and of roughly handling little children.")


(The beginning of one of the most notorious race riots in American history; it lasted eight days, and 38 people were killed.)


(The "simple little remark" was an exchange: upon hearing two lifeguards say "something about Jews, which Mrs. Stein resented," she responded to the [white] lifeguards, "I hear a life guard once married a white girl." According to R.L. Bessmer, one of said lifeguards, he had said nothing about Jews, and "believed he had been called a Negro and he resented it. He is not a Negro, but his skin has been tanned such a dark color that he has become sensitive about his complexion.")


(The above is an editorial, which requests: "Under the circumstances it would seem that the Negroes could make a definite contribution to good race relationships by remaining away from the beaches where their presence is resented.")


("Police claimed they foiled a plot by gangs of youths from various neighborhoods on the city's south and west sides to attack the integration waders at the sound of a bugle." Social media, circa 1961.)


(The scarlet head-shaving: "Judge Obermiller said yesterday he ordered the boys' heads shaved to identify them as 'teen-agers who drink.'" Because in 1962, the way to identify miscreants was... a buzz cut.)


("Local residents, however, said the increased presence of groups of high-school-age youths in the area concerns them.")

Also worth noting: the ostensible cause of the July 1966 riots, or at least the catalyst, was the closing of fire hydrants that residents were opening to cool off. In the wake of the riots, the city installed pools near where the violence occurred:

Chicago 1966 riot

I'm also reminded of Robert Caro's The Power Broker, his magisterial biography of urban planner Robert Moses, some of which is devoted to the racial conflicts that arose over access to New York's beaches and pools:

Whites routinely beat up blacks and Puerto Ricans in East Harlem when they tried to swim at Jefferson Pool; on occasion whites swam at Colonial Pool, although others felt unwelcome. Moses knew about these situations, referred to in his Harvard speech. Clearly he recognized racial and ethnic categories were in flux in the 1930s: the line was hardening between black and white, as the city became more racially diverse, complicated place. ["Race, Space, and Play: Robert Moses and the WPA Swimming Pools in New York City," Marta Gutman, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, December 2008]

Photograph: juggernautco (CC by 2.0)


Plane Ideas said...


So none of this is new other than the gadgets and smart phones...The racial divide and our domestic civil war continues even in the Obama post industrial/race era..

There was a book out years ago with the title why do all the Black kids eat lunch together yet in my circle we thought that was the wrong question of course our take was why do all the white kids eat lunch together..

I just don't understand the need to turn up the volume and create new verbaige i.e flash mob ign't antics when it appears not much hs changed....The beat goes on the sun keeps pounding rythm to my brain....

We know the outcome already when the summer ends and the attention span of MSM and the majority changes the topic..Black folks will get demonized, indicted, new theories will emerge about
"those urban people"..

Of course when I go to the beach I will ignore the script prepared for me and others that look like me...I will enjoy the sun and make sure I sprinkle some suntan lotion on my Black ass while I am wearing my foster grants as the beat goes one......

LND said...

Do you know whats equally disturbing, if not worst, black on black violence at the beach.
Look what happened last month in New York:

When will ALL people be able to just enjoy a day at the beach?

G Newman said...

Excellent historical survey! As a recipe for race riots, The Beach has EVERYTHING -- youth, sexual imagery, unstable boundaries that permit interracial mixing contrary to white majority norms. That's why beaches and swimming pools were the triggers for so many riots in Chicago and elsewhere.

Interestingly, while the minority might change given different demographics in different regions of the country, white male privilege remained universal: Beaches have been triggers for Anglo-Latino riots in California and white-Asian conflict in pre-war Hawaii. Another good history that might be of interest is "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America," by Jeff Wiltse (University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

chaunceydevega said...

@Thrasher. Suntan lotion? I thought melanin protected the elder brothers from the harmful rays?

@Hurikane. Cool name btw. Ignorance breeds ignorance. Many of them know not how to simply relax and enjoy life.

@G Newman. Thanks for the great ti on the read. I will have to check it out. The history of public space is so fascinating and little discussed. I am always struck by the laws on sidewalks and how parades were so important as acts of civic belonging. I may occasionally start posting excerpts of some of those laws as they make so much of the abstract history more real.

Plane Ideas said...


We burn,lol,lol