On Public Art, Historical Memory, and Racial Violence

(Wesley Fryer, Flickr)

In 1919, two dozen race riots broke out across the United States, and the collective racial terror traumatized Black communities. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured in conflicts that ranged from white soldiers attacking civilians in Washington, DC to a White mob lynching a Black man in Omaha. 

Among the deadliest happened in Chicago where 38 people were killed, 537 were injured, and a thousand left homeless in the violent chaos. The turmoil erupted on July 27th when a group of Black male teens were swimming in Lake Michigan near a “white” beach. After a white man started hurling rocks at these children, Eugene Williams, aged 17, drowned. Black beachgoers urged a white police officer to arrest the man who killed Williams for “swimming while Black,” and tensions escalated after the officer refused. That night, white gangs, euphemistically called “athletic clubs,” invaded the city’s predominantly Black neighborhood and started attacking innocent Black people. Black residents, including local veterans, defended their community.

In 2019, the 100th anniversary of these tragic events prompted discussions, documentaries, and lectures to explore this history and its ongoing legacy. Drs. Peter Cole and Franklin Cosey-Gay, co-directors of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19), were involved in those efforts and are working in Chicago to commemorate its deadliest incident of racial violence. Dr. Melanie Chambliss interviewed Drs. Cole and Cosey-Gay on anniversaries, public art, and other aspects of historical memory and racial violence.

Melanie Chambliss: Talk about the significance of publicly marked anniversaries like we are witnessing now for the Tulsa Race Massacre. As an organization still committed to commemorating the lives lost and uplifting the larger significance of Chicago’s race riot–years after its centennial–what are the advantages and the disadvantages of such memorials? I’m thinking specifically about what happens after the spotlight shifts?

Peter Cole and Franklin Cosey-Gay: Anniversaries are useful for focusing the public’s attention on historically significant events, including the Tulsa Race Massacre, but we must ask ourselves what happens next? In other words, annual celebrations, such as Juneteenth, are wonderful and necessary. So, too, are anniversary events such as MLK Day, but what happens for the other 364 days a year? Or in the case of Chicago 1919, what happens after the centennial? That’s one of the many reasons we embrace public art, precisely because it’s ever-present, 365-days a year, and long enduring. Moreover, for those who may have been mis- or undereducated about Black history, public art has the tremendous potential to reach all people–not just those who seek out this history. Statues, installations, and counter-monuments by artists like Kehinde Wiley educate, provoke, and inspire. As actor and activist Ossie Davis declared, “Any form of art is a form of power; it has impact, it can affect change – it can not only move us, it makes us move.” 

MC: For those unfamiliar, can you discuss what the CRR19 project is and what inspired it?

Cole and Cosey-Gay: While briefly living in Germany, Peter encountered an impressive Holocaust memorial called “Stolpersteine,” which translates as “stumbling stones.” In the 1990s, artist Gunter Demnig started installing plaques into sidewalks outside the last known residences of Holocaust victims. What he began as a guerrilla act developed into an incredibly successful public art project. Today, 80,000 Stolpersteine dot the streets of German and other European cities with thousands more installed annually. Although Germany’s memory isn’t perfect, particularly in relation to its colonial past, the contrast to the U.S. is striking. Peter thought something like Stolpersteine could educate Chicagoans about its own racist history by placing markers at every location someone was killed in 1919. 

In 2018, Peter started networking with activists, educators, and other Chicagoans to build the needed community support. At a meeting in early 2019, at the historic Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, he met Franklin, a public health professional who collaborates with community partners on violence prevention in Chicago. The Greater Bronzeville Community Action Council (GBCAC), which operates in the neighborhood where much of the riot occurred, asked Franklin to co-direct. 

Ever since, we’ve given dozens of presentations, gained local endorsements, organized events, lobbied government officials, written op-eds, helped craft curriculum for Chicago Public Schools, raised funds, secured an art studio, and more.

MC: It’s great that you’ve had this continued interest in the project. How do you think you’ve been able to maintain this traction?

Cole and Cosey-Gay: We characterize the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 as the “origin story” of the “Two Chicagos,” one Black and one White. While everyone knows Chicago is segregated, few understand when, how, or why that happened. At the core, White supremacy was to blame, but Chicago was not residentially segregated before WWI. 

After the riot, city elites feared a repeat of this extralegal violence so they embraced subtler tactics like restrictive covenants on housing in the 1920s. These racist agreements blocked the encroaching wave of Black migrants from moving into White neighborhoods. Chicago’s Black communities were further disrupted by redlining, “urban renewal” programs, and the strategic placement of the Dan Ryan expressway that decimated Black communities and further segregated them. Chicago’s Black neighborhoods have also been disproportionately divested from public resources for affordable housing, public schools, and mental health clinics. In 2013, the city suffered the largest school closing in US history. We believe we have been able to maintain interest in our project because we can explain to people how the 1919 race riot blazed a path the city has traveled ever since; we’ve made this history relevant.

MC: The majority of the violence in 1919 occurred around Bronzeville, still a predominantly Black neighborhood. What conversations do you want to have with Black Chicagoans through these markers?

Cole and Cosey-Gay: We hope that our presentations, bike tours, and the markers themselves will help combat the stigmatization of Black communities as violent places. We aim for Black students, youth, and community organizations to become stewards of our public art as we continue to educate others on how this riot helped to marginalize and disadvantage Black communities. We hope, eventually, to help push for policy changes to decrease the racial wealth gap, which remains strongly tied to housing. If we can trace these kinds of connections in our city even years after such a big anniversary, we also want to inspire other Black communities impacted by racial violence to do the same.

MC: What’s the project’s current status?

Cole and Cosey-Gay: We’ve raised thousands from individual donors but, last winter, we secured over $50,000 from Niantic Inc., a San Francisco software development company that creates augmented reality mobile games like Pokémon Go. Niantic’s generous donation went to our partner, Firebird Community Arts. Its Project FIRE trains youth impacted by violence by providing trauma support and a safe, creative outlet through glass blowing. Their youth artists will create 38 15’ by 15’ artistic, durable glass markers. We recently revealed some prototypes during a Chicago Monuments Project’s virtual event we offered. We are inspired by the connections these artists make between the history of 1919 and Chicago today. 

We also have funding from Illinois Humanities for our historic bike tours as well as a virtual speaker series highlighting public art, historical memory, and racial violence. 

But we still need–and want–the City’s support to install markers into Chicago sidewalks at the locations where all 38 people were killed. We are meeting with elected officials and City workers to discuss the art’s fabrication, sustainability, and safety so we adhere to all relevant policies.

MC: Where do you hope to go with the project?

Cole and Cosey-Gay: We are committed to raising up this history beyond our public art. We continue working with local schools and organizations via service projects, events, tours, and (eventually) stewarding the markers. Our website also will be, hopefully, the go-to one for exploring this history online. For now, we’re supporting Project FIRE, as they develop the markers, and planning our 3rd annual anniversary event on Saturday, July 24th in Bronzeville. That day we plan to unveil the first markers at what the Chicago Defender named the “vortex of violence” because five people (4 Black, 1 White) were killed at the intersection of 35th Street and Wabash. 

We’re also deeply mindful of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and impressed by its centennial commission’s efforts. We’re proud to have collaborated with them along with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder which developed a Black History Classroom Exchange for high schools in Chicago and Tulsa. We also are organizing a group of bicyclists to join their June 18th Black Wall Street 100, a metric century bike ride through the Greenwood community and greater Tulsa before terminating at the brand-new Greenwood Rising Museum.

Lastly, because we know this riot was just one of countless examples of racial violence in US History, we aspire to “export” our project to other cities to commemorate their own mostly-forgotten histories.

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Melanie Chambliss

Melanie Chambliss is an Assistant Professor in the Humanities, History, and Social Sciences department at Columbia College Chicago. She teaches courses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century African American history and culture. Melanie is currently working on her in-progress manuscript "Saving the Race: Black Archives, Black Liberation, and the Remaking of Modernity."