Even though I live near Chicago and know quite a bit about history, this whole subject had completely eluded me until I read this book. In 1919, after years of migration and immigration into Chicago, tensions between black migrants and immigrants from Europe were heating up. For over close to fifty years, the stock yards of Chicago had supplied much of the area with meat and with the invent of refrigerated train cars, the reach grew more each year to include most of the country. Unions were trying to form to increase wages and improve the horrible working conditions. The owners of the slaughter houses however, didn’t want to have to pay more, and with new immigrants looking for work, most of the time, they didn’t have to. When the unions were able to get something going and strike, often there were blacks who would step across the strike line to take the jobs.
Even over fifty years after the end of the Civil War, blacks were still viewed as second class citizens. Most employers would give jobs to immigrants who didn’t speak English over black citizens so when a job opened up, blacks were quick to take it.
When World War I erupted and the United States joined the war, many young men left Chicago and left thousands of open jobs at the stockyards. With a war on, meat was needed in greater quantities than ever, so many blacks from the South were encouraged to migrate North to Chicago where jobs were available for the taking.
After the war ended, unions were still trying to get better wages and working conditions and many returning soldiers displaced blacks who had been working for the past few years. Plus, many blacks didn’t feel that the unions would equally represent them and were hesitant to join, and immigrants didn’t trust blacks who didn’t want to join them in the union. All these tensions led to fights between the groups as well as crowded living conditions.
This all came to a head one August afternoon in 1919 when a four black boys were out swimming in Lake Michigan and drifted down toward a predominately white beach. A few white boys on the beach began yelling at the boys to drive them away and then threw stones at them. At first the black boys were ducking under their raft but one boy was hit in the head with a stone and he drown. Right away, all the years of resentment boiled over and riots consumed parts of Chicago for days.
A Few Red Drops by Claire Hartfield is an engaging, and interesting read about a little known part of our history. While the book is about the race riot in Chicago, the main portion of the book is describing all the events, circumstances and issues that created the atmosphere that allowed the riot to erupt.
Recommended for students in grades 7 and up.