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An Installation at Ground Zero for Chicago’s 1919 Race Riot

On Saturday, 100 participants will float in the water off of Margaret T. Burroughs Beach — one for each year since Eugene Williams was killed there.

The shore at Margaret T. Burroughs Beach, where the murder of Eugene Williams sparked Chicago’s 1919 Race Riot.   Photo: Getty

Over the past two months, artist and SAIC professor Jefferson Pinder has been on what he calls the “Red Summer Road Trip” — a series of nationwide performances about the perseverance of black people in the face of injustice. During the journey, Pinder has facilitated conversations about race and visited sites of racist violence across the country, like a cotton field in Elaine, Arkansas that is rumored to be the burial site of more than 200 African American citizens who were massacred there in 1919.

Jefferson Pinder Photo: Luis Acosta Tejada

Pinder’s journey culminates on Saturday with his performance, FLOAT, during which 100 participants will drift in the water on inner tubes just off the shore of Margaret T. Burroughs Beach. In collaboration with Chicago sound artist AJ McClenon, the piece is a tribute to Eugene Williams, a 17-year-old black boy who drowned at the same beach on July 27, 1919 after a white man hurled stones at him. Williams’s death catalyzed the 1919 Race Riot in Chicago. Exactly a century after his death, the work examines how the event changed the course of Chicago’s history.

How does FLOAT work? Are the participants people who have been performing with you on your past shows or is it open to a wider audience?

We asked 100 people to participate, each representing every year that has passed since Eugene’s death. For every group of 10 people, there’s an anchor, the first line of safety. They’ll have a whistle to notify the lifeguard if there’s a problem and also be responsible for their group. Each group will be connected to each other by holding onto ropes or linking arms, and we’ll be floating in the water. We’ve dropped cinder blocks into the water with rope tied around them so people can hold onto and to make sure that they stay in place during the performance. We also have enough floatation devices for all the participants.

This is a meditative memorial; it’s about connection and unity. We’re pushing you to think about what happened on this beach a hundred years ago and how this place has changed because of what happened, and how it’s impacted us.

Why did you choose to do a memorial this way?

We wanted to create a piece so that the community could be involved and interact with the history at that site, and in some way, we can make commentary on what has changed and what hasn’t. My hope is that people aren’t going to be coming back in the shore the same way. When someone goes to the lake, I want them to think about Eugene Williams.

This project is a collaboration with Chicago-based artist AJ McClenon. Why did you want to work with her?

I’ve known her for over 10 years; she was my student, and we both moved here at the same time. Recently I saw a piece of her work where she dealt with black bodies and our relationship to water, in a historical and political sense. I had been thinking about my project for a while, and I thought this would be an incredible opportunity for us to come together and share expertise.

I focus on the performance, and she focuses on abstract sounds, [sampling] water noises, segments of rhythms, and a recording of a 107-year-old woman who lived through [the riot]. Together, they’ll give the audience a deeper interaction with the environment and help us get to that spiritual space.

What do you mean by black bodies and our relationship to water?

There’s this stereotype of black people having a fear of swimming and being in water, but why is that? How does Eugene’s death connect to that? Maybe in the past, we didn’t have a relaxed experience — we didn’t get to leisurely enjoy things because we feared for our lives.

I want people to see how our past, present, and future are all linked. Once you understand the connection, you can begin to understand how complex and strong we are as people. It’s part of the black experience. If I can get people to understand how this experience affects who we are, then maybe it can push them to think about how things that have happened in the city really fractured and damaged the African American community, and how we continue to be resilient through it.

DETAILS: Douglas. Margaret T. Burroughs Beach. 4:15 p.m. Free. jeffersonpinder.com

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