The Crusader Newspaper Group

By Erick Johnson

He was just a Black teenager who was enjoying a day at a public beach on the South Side when he was killed by several white men on July 27, 1919.

E. Williams
Eugene Williams

One hundred years ago, the murder of Eugene Williams ignited an intense race riot that left nearly 40 people dead, many of whom were Black. It was called the Red Summer of 1919 when race riots broke out in major cities across the country, including Washington, D.C., and Memphis.This weekend, on the 100th anniversary of that bloody summer, Chicago will mark an event that remains one of the most violent racial encounters in the city’s history.

But as the Race Riot of 1919 remains one of the most well-documented and remembered events, the teenager who died after he was stoned for venturing into an all white section at the beach remains largely a forgotten martyr. It’s also the 100th anniversary of the death of Williams, but his murder will forever be overshadowed by the mayhem that came after his stoning.

For 100 years, Williams has been buried in an unmarked grave in a section reserved for the poor at Lincoln Cemetery, the final resting place for many of Chicago’s most prominent Blacks. They include Chicago Crusader Founder Balm L. Leavell Jr., Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbott, and Gwendolyn Brooks, the nation’s first Black Pulitzer-Prize winning author. Aviator Bessie Coleman and businessman A.R. Leak, the founder of the historic A.R. Leak Funeral Home on Cottage Grove in Chatham are buried at Lincoln Cemetery.

They and many other important figures have headstones, some bigger and grander than others. But hundreds of yards away, near the back of the cemetery in front of a garage, lie the remains of a young man who has no headstone or identity.

When the Chicago Race Riots story is reported today, Williams’ name is rarely mentioned. Some reports simply refer to him as a “Black teenager.” One office worker at Lincoln Cemetery said she knew about the race riot but did not know of Williams or the role he had in one of the most significant events in race relations in Chicago.

Half of America was on fire in the summer of 1919. In Washington D.C., 15 people died following four days of rioting after rumors swirled that a Black man was arrested for raping a white woman. Racial tensions were spreading as President Woodrow Wilson boosted segregation in schools, parks, post offices and many public places.

In Chicago on July 27, 1919, Williams was at the 29th Street Beach. Numerous reports say that Williams was on a raft in Lake Michigan when he crossed the unofficial barrier that separated the city’s “white” and “Black” beaches. That’s when a group of white men threw stones at Williams, knocking him off the raft, causing him to drown.

ILLINOIS STATE MILITIA troops were called to protect Black residents following days of rioting in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)

The Chicago Defender reported that when police refused to arrest one of the white men, George Stauber, a mob of 50 Blacks heard about the incident and marched to the site from the 26th Street beach. The crowd dispersed but rioting between Blacks and whites erupted in an area known as “the Black Belt,” where Blacks were confined as thousands moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. The white-owned, defunct Chicago Daily News reported that “300 armed Negroes” gathered at 35th and State Street “to start an immediate attack on whites in the neighborhood.”

White men stoning an African American man during the 1919 race riots. e1564069692177
WHITE MEN STONING an African-American man during the 1919 race riots. (Photo courtesy of the History Museum.

When the riots ended August 3, 15 whites and 23 Blacks had been killed and more than 500 people injured; an additional 1,000 Black families had lost their homes when they were torched by rioters.

The Crusader wasn’t operating until 1940, but the Defender on its front page, listed all the names of Blacks who were killed and injured.

One day after the riots ended, Eugene Williams was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island on August 4. At the time the cemetery was just nine years old after being founded by a group of Black funeral directors who wanted an alternative burial ground other than nearby Oak Hill Cemetery.

Just two miles away, 14-year-old Emmett Till, another Black teenage victim of racism, would be buried at Burr Oak Cemetery in 1955 after he was killed by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi.

Although he was murdered, Williams’ death certificate listed drowning as the cause of death. The death certificate also listed Charles Jackson of the historic but defunct Jackson Funeral Home as the undertaker.

According to his death certificate, Williams lived at 3921 S. Prairie Avenue. His father, John W. Williams was born in South Carolina, but his mother, who was born in Georgia, was not listed on the death certificate.

That’s all that is known about Eugene Williams.

An official at Lincoln Cemetery said Williams was buried in a single-elect grave, in an inexpensive section of the cemetery that holds the remains of many indigent citizens. A wrought iron garden shepherd’s hook with a patriotic ribbon attached has been placed to mark the spot where Williams is buried. It has a type-written sign that says “HERE LIES EUGENE WILLIAMS.”

Most of the graves do not have headstones, but a cemetery official said the section is full. Many families during that time, were unable to purchase headstones for their loved ones. However, next to Williams is the grave of a man who died the same year as Williams.

In June, prominent television journalist Russ Ewing was buried in a more affluent section just several yards across the road from Williams’ unmarked grave.

The cemetery office has made copies of maps that provide a brief story of Williams’ death. On the 100th anniversary of his death, several people have visited the grave, including a school teacher who has started a fund-raising campaign to purchase a headstone for Williams’ grave.

A special ceremony was reportedly scheduled for the weekend to mark the 100th anniversary of Williams’ death. The Crusader was unable to confirm the time and date of the event.


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