Carl Sandburg, Early Wonk Blogger, On Chicago’s Race Riot of 1919

The great poet, working as a reporter, completed a sophisticated study of the city’s South Side just as Chicago’s most notorious race riot was about to unfold.

Chicago race riot 1919

 

Cameron McWhirter, a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal based out of Atlanta, has written one of two books on the year 1919 that I’ve been meaning to read; the other is Gary Krist’s City of Scoundrels, which Chicago had a brief piece on last year, “12 Bloody Days That Changed Chicago.” McWhirter’s book, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America, also deals with Chicago and its notorious race riot that year—the worst of many that summer, the worst in the state’s history.

I’ve read The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot, a 1922 study led by Charles S. Johnson, a native of far southwestern Virginia who came to Chicago during the Great Migration and who studied sociology during its early flowering at the University of Chicago. It’s an early classic in the field, the Kerner Commission report of its day—comprehensive and heavily data-driven (see below for some pictures and maps from the work).

But I didn’t realize that Carl Sandburg had written a book on black Chicago—reporting on the subject just as the riots were about to break—and McWhirter considers it a masterpiece from an era during which journalism was abysmal on the subject of race, though it has the flaws to be expected of its time:

Yet some journalists during that fateful summer got the story right, including the poet and reporter Carl Sandburg. In the middle of July 1919, as the Red Summer approached its zenith, The Chicago Daily News ran a series of articles by Sandburg about living and working conditions for Chicago’s blacks. Sandburg, 41, already had won acclaim for his poetry and prose, having published several books by 1918. His book of poems, “Cornhuskers,” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1919.

It was so prescient that a reissue of the book got the timeline of Sandburg’s reporting wrong:

Fifty years after the riots, in turbulent 1969 (two years after the poet’s death), Sandburg’s book was reissued, this time with a preface by famed Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill. While praising the book, McGill wrote as if Sandburg reported and wrote after the riots. It must have been hard for McGill—especially amid the riotous late 1960’s—to fathom that a reporter could have seen social ills when they had not yet exploded into violence. That’s how good Sandburg’s reporting was. 

The short book, The Chicago Race Riots, July, 1919, is freely available on the Web. Sandburg’s writing is concise, muscular, and direct, and relies heavily on lengthy, direct quotes from his subjects:

Chicago is a receiving station that connects directly with every town or city where the people conduct a lynching.

“Every time a lynching takes place in a community down south you can depend on it that colored people from that community will arrive in Chicago inside of two weeks,” says Secretary Arnold Hill of the Chicago Urban league, 3032 South Wabash avenue. “We have seen it hapen so often that now whenever we read newspaper dispatches of a public hanging or burning in Texas or a Mississippi town, we get ready to extend greetings to people from the immediate vicinity of the scene of the lynching. If it is Arkansas or Georgia, where a series of lynchings is going on this week, then you may reckon with certainty that there will be large representations from those states among the colored folks getting off the trains at the Illinois Central station two or three weeks from to-day.”

Despite being a poet, Sandburg could easily shift gears into an analytical mode. He knew how to get stats, and brought them to bear on the stories he gathered. The number of companies that hired black women, for instance: 170 firms, 42 of which were hotels or restaurants; 21 hotels or apartment houses; 19 laundries, 12 garment factories, seven stores, and “eight firms, hiring laborers and janitresses"—placement firms, basically. Like reporters and bloggers today, Sandburg liberally used studies, reports and census data, which led to still-resonant writing on the intersection between real estate and race in Chicago that echoes in books like Making the Second Ghetto and Family Properties:

In the matter of homebuying there is something radically abnormal about the situation of the colored people in Chicago. The last census computed 22.5 per cent of the homes occupied by colored citizens in the United States as owned by the occupants. In Illinois 23 per cent of the colored householders owned their premises. But in Chicago the survey of the School of Civics and Philanthropy in 1917 reported that the south division only 4 per cent of the apartments and houses occupied by colored persons were owned by the occupants and on the west side only 8 per cent. In South Chicago and in the stockyards district, where the highest percentage of ownership was found, 18 per cent of the colored families owned their homes. So it is evident that the percentage of homeowners in the district around 35th and State streets is desperately low as compared with other Chicago districts and as compared with the country at large.

It is easy to understand how the doubling of population during the late war made a live real estate situation. Not only was it difficult for the newcomers to buy homes, if they so desired, but it was hard at times for them even to get a place to sleep. The Urban league canvassed real estate dealers one day and found 664 colored applicants for houses on that day and only fifty supplied. The demands for quarters, the higher rentals paid by colored people and other factors were responsible for thirty-six new localities being opened up within three months, these localities having formerly been exclusively white. The increase in rents was from 5 to 30 per cent, and in a few cases 50 per cent.

The district around 35th and State would later be bisected by the Dan Ryan; Stateway Gardens was built at 36th and State, and the Robert Taylor Homes started at 39th and State and went some two miles south from there.

It’s not just that Sandburg happened to be at the right place at the right time, knowing the right questions to ask; Sandburg’s methodology was also strikingly prescient. There are chapters on labor and race; a section on urban planning borrowed from “Lieut. Charles S. Duke, a colored man, a Harvard graduate, and an engineer in the bridge division of the public works department at the city hall” which includes recommendations for green space and a “beautiful branch library in the center of the colored district” (Duke went on to found the National Technical Association); an interview with philanthropist Julius Rosenwald; and concludes with an interview of former NAACP head Joel Spingarn (also an early comp lit expert and co-founder of Harcourt, Brace and Company) on the need for coordination between federal, state, and local governments.

In the way it bounces between reporting, stat-gathering, Q&As, and macro- and micro-analysis, it’s like seeing the seeds of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog or many others like it—not just a glimpse of Chicago’s near future, but journalism’s distant future.

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