Eugene Williams was killed in the 1919 Chicago Race Riot. Since then he was buried in an unmarked grave at Lincoln Cemetery.
By Erick Johnson
He was buried over a century ago in a grave in a pauper’s section at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island. His parents had no money to give him a proper burial after he was murdered by a white mob. For 101 years he lay in the unmarked grave near the back of the historic Black cemetery, the final resting place of many of Chicago’s prominent Black pioneers.
This spring at Lincoln Cemetery, he will finally have a name: Eugene Williams. His name will be on an impressive upright ledger that will cost thousands of dollars. To many, the marker will be an appropriate memorial that will help tell the for- gotten story of a young man whose identity has faded over decades.
Months after the Crusader and other newspapers ran a story on the Black teenager who was killed in the Chicago race riots in 1919, a group of resi- dents mounted a successful fundraising campaign to purchase a marker for Williams’ grave.
The move brings to an end 100 years of obscurity for the forgotten, tragic figure whose murder at a segregated beach on the South Side sparked a bloody race riot that became a significant event in Black history and a pivotal moment in Chicago’s political environment.
The story is well known among historians, but Williams is often referred to as just a Black teenager rather than by his name. Little is known about his parents who lived in Bronzeville, which was then called Grand Boulevard.
Without a headstone, very few people visited Williams’ grave or knew about his link to Chicago’s Black past. He is buried in a section at Lincoln for people whose families couldn’t afford to bury their loved ones. Williams was among many people whose grave did not have a marker. A cemetery official in a story in the Crusader last July said the section was full.
Williams’ grave drew several visitors on the 100th anniversary of the Chicago Riot. A wrought iron garden shep- herd’s hook with a patriotic ribbon attached was placed to mark the spot where Williams is buried. It had a type-written sign that says “HERE LIES EUGENE WILLIAMS.”
Enter Tammy Gibson, a businesswoman and Black historian who has helped uncover hidden treasures during her visits to national parks, cemeteries, slave plantations and museums. Days before the anniversary of Williams’ death, Gibson went to Lincoln Cemetery after learning from her research that he was buried there.
“I told them about Eugene Williams and they didn’t know who he was,” Gibson recalled. “That’s when they got involved.”
She wasn’t the only interested donor asking about Williams’ grave.
Days later, the Chicago chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Black fraternity called the cemetery and asked about Williams’ grave. Then came other people who were interested in raising money for Williams’ marker. So did Chicago Attorney Scott Priz. All of them were strangers before they were brought together by their curiosity and concern about honoring William’s memory on the 100th anniversary of his death.
While Gibson was collecting donations, Omega Psi Phi mounted a fundraising internet campaign that raised the biggest chunk of funds. Altogether the donors raised more than $4,300 for a large ledger that will finally give Williams a name.
“I felt that this is something that we should take charge of,” said David Browning, who said he was searching for events that happened 100 years ago because it was the 100th anniversary of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
It’s uncertain whether Williams’ family had money to give their son a funeral. There were no stories in Chicago newspapers that reported on any services that honored Williams’ life.
Pathia Reese, a counselor at Lincoln Cemetery, said the ledger will be installed during the spring or summer.