By Erick Johnson
Last July Tammy Gibson, a Black historian, went to Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island to visit the grave of Eugene Williams, the 17-year old Black teenager who was killed in the infamous Chicago Race Riot in 1919.
When she discovered that for 100 years, Williams had been buried in an unmarked grave in a pauper’s section at the historical Black cemetery, Gibson returned to the cemetery office, seeking to find out the cost of getting a headstone for Williams.
That’s when Gibson found out that she would need a lot more money than she thought.
As it turned out, Gibson discovered that in the same section where she stood were the graves of 13 other Black, nameless victims of the Chicago Race Riot who for 100 years also lay six feet under with no marker or memorial that honored their memory. The discovery set Gibson on a mission to raise awareness and funds to have a fitting memorial installed over a grassy section of the cemetery, where many of the dead are forgotten people killed by whites in the bloody race riot that changed Chicago forever.
They died when race riots swept America during a time known as the “Red 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 spread- ing as President Woodrow Wilson boosted segregation in schools, parks, post offices and many public places.
In Chicago on July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams, a 17-year-old teenager, 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.
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 inci- dent 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,” a group of South Side neighborhoods that stretched for 30 blocks along State Street, where Blacks were confined as thousands moved to Chicago during the Great Migration.
The 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.
A white mob stormed the predominately Black Provident Hospital, then located at 29th and Dearborn, where they were stopped by the facility’s security force.
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.
Thirteen Black victims were taken to Lincoln Cemetery, the final resting place of many prominent people of color, including Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbott, Chicago Crusader founder Balm L. Leavell Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gwendolyn Brooks and aviator Bessie Coleman.
Pathia Reese, a cemetery counselor at Lincoln Cemetery, comfirmed the 13 unmarked graves of the victims, but could not release the names to the media without the consent of their relatives. She said that the cemetery will allow a memorial with their names on it to be erected at the site.
“That’s ok because the cemtery owns their graves,” she said.
Days after the riot, the Chicago Defender published the names of 15 Black victims, including Williams and Simpson. However, it’s uncertain if those are the victims buried at Lincoln Cemetery.
While the accomplished and famous rest in peace in more prominent sections, the remains of the victims of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 are located near the back of Lincoln Cemetery, nameless and forgotten. However, in the front section of the cemetery lies a Black Chicago police officer, John Simpson, who was killed at the 31st Street Police Station during the riot. The murder of the 30-year-old officer has never been solved.
The leaders persuaded managers of the connecting neighboring Oak Hill
Cemetery to allow them to purchase a piece of land for Black burials.
Illinois has strict laws when it comes to placing headstones on unmarked graves. Only relatives or descendants can give their approval for installing a marker. But locating a descendent after 100 years could be a long, difficult and nearly impossible goal.
That’s not necessary for the victims of the Chicago Race Riot. Their indigent graves are owned by the cemetery, which makes putting a headstone on an unmarked grave easier.