“If there was racial harmony and equality in the year 2019, maybe we wouldn’t need to talk about the race riots of 1919.” A conversation with historian Peter Cole

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Interview by Elise Schimke

Professor Peter Cole makes it a priority to discuss the 1919 Chicago race riots in his classroom— but he wants to take his history lessons beyond the walls of Western Illinois University.  Late this summer Cole sat down with ACM at Fancy Plants Cafe to talk about why, a century later, the events of the Red Summer are still relevant to Chicagoans and the rest of the U.S., and how he plans to create a public art installation that would make learning about 1919 more accessible to audiences in 2019 and beyond. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation, with an e-mail update.

ACM: Confession: Before this year and before I moved to Chicago, I’d never heard about the 1919 Race Riots. It seems strange to me that I’ve gone more than twenty years not knowing about a weeklong event that left dozens dead and more injured and homeless— am I alone in my ignorance?

Cole: I wanna bet that if we asked everyone in this room, the answer is that none of them would have known it transpired. I have no doubt some people do, but I wouldn’t say it’s the majority. And it’s not just young people who haven’t been taught it. It’s their parents and grandparents who are not passing on this to their children or through the institutions of the city of Chicago—including Chicago Public Schools. 

I’ve taught at Western Illinois University—four hours from Chicago—for nineteen years. And for nineteen years, I’ve probably taught at least a little bit in an intro U.S. history class—and sometimes a lot—about Chicago 1919, including occasionally assigning a book on the subject. Based on my experience teaching—I don’t want to exaggerate, but—probably more than several thousand students over the years, I’m not sure if I’ve ever gotten anyone who’s really known in any depth anything about it, and probably most nothing. People might say “Oh, I’ve heard about it.” But if you were to ask someone what transpired—I don’t know if I’ve ever had a single person be able to answer that question.

Why is it important that we know what transpired in 1919—i.e., the events of a century ago—in 2019? 

If there was racial harmony and equality in the year 2019, maybe we wouldn’t need to talk about the race riots of 1919. But there is a pervasive inequality in money, wealth, crime, quality of life, longevity, policing, education and healthcare. Not talking about the past has not resulted in equality, despite claims that the U.S. has committed to the idea of equality. The paradox of America is always that, right? We have a society committed to racial equality in principle, but in practice, it failed. If we want to live up to our professed ideals, we need to confront the past in order to make a better future.

Can you expand on the significance of racial inequality when it comes to confronting this history?

I should note, as a white person among the white majority of Americans, that white people need to be more reminded of this history because it’s easier for white people to ignore that history. 

I grew up in a place where I didn’t suffer, but also my family and my community didn’t educate me on the history of racism. I had to learn it as a university student who chose to major in history and I think I was educated well by my professors. I chose to become a history professor. My parents were good people, but they didn’t think, apparently, that I needed to learn. 

By contrast, African American children have to be educated about contemporary racism because they are still victims of it. Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old kid in Cleveland, can be shot and killed by the police because he intimidated those police even though he was a child. 

As a history professor, how do you bridge space, time and racial divisiveness so that all of your students can appreciate the impact of 1919? 

For me, the key is to make history relevant. The few times I’ve had the chance to speak to children in Chicago, in Oak Park, what I say to the audience is, “How many of you are seventeen-years-old or know someone who is seventeen-years old?” When I speak to a group of juniors and seniors in high school, a lot of hands go up. And I say, “Well, a hundred years ago, you and some people like you were swimming in Lake Michigan and you were killed. Simply for swimming and being of the wrong color.” I think it’s quite easy for people to relate when they learn the details of how the 1919 riots began. And then the question is “How does it affect them?” How can things be different in the future? Is there the potential that a black kid walking down the streets of Chicago could be killed for no other reason than the color of his skin? Yes. In a way, nothing has changed. 

You’re also working to start an accessible conversation about this history outside the classroom. Your initiative, Chicago Race Riot Commemoration Project, has proposed commemorating the thirty-eight victims of the race riots through engraved paving stones marking the streets on which each victim lived. It’s similar to artist Gunter Demnig’s “stolpersteine” in Europe, created in memory of Holocaust victims. Can you expand on the ideology behind the two projects?

I have spent a lot of time in Germany in recent years because of my girlfriend’s research among Syrian refugees in Germany. I’ve had the opportunity to spend, therefore, a lot of time in Berlin and Hamburg and other cities. As a historian of America—but also as someone who’s interested in and writes about race relations—I was struck by the contrast between what Germany is doing to confront its past to what the U.S. is doing to confront its past, which is nothing. We still have several thousand monuments to Confederate veterans and some people claim that’s unproblematic. 

The genius, in my opinion, of the stolpersteine project, is that it finds people where they’re not looking to be found in their ordinary lives and routines. When you’re walking down the street and thinking about bees, or the Cubs playing, or the Sox playing or “what I’ve got to buy at the store,” then you’re reminded (if these markers exist) that some sort of important event that you didn’t know about, maybe, that in fact affected you, happened right here in this particular place.

Public art, dispersed, does something different than a museum or history book. It has the same intention, in a way, to teach people or educate people, but also provoke people. In Germany and across Europe, there are now about 75,000 stumbling stones. The fact that the first twenty that were installed didn’t just remain twenty—now there’s 75,000 twenty-plus years later—is testimony that a lot of people find this seemingly small little thing to be, in fact, quite powerful. I’m one of those people.

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Who are some others of “those people”— others who’ve joined you to create CRR19? 

I’m fortunate to know a number of really cool and smart, progressive scholars of history, of African Studies. I started to reach out to people who I knew—like a woman named Martha Biondi, who’s an African American studies professor at Northwestern, who introduced me to a guy named Adam Green, who’s an African-American history professor at the University of Chicago. 

I very much wanted to gain support among African-Americans on the South Side because most of the violence was directed at them and most of the suffering was theirs. And I was mindful that—as someone who’s no doubt seen as a white, downstate Illinoian—that I wanted to have members of the group who are not white downstaters.

I’ve met with faith leaders in Bronzeville and Hyde Park and Kenwood. I’ve attempted to meet with faith leaders in other places. I have reached out to the German community. One of the German consulates in America is in Chicago. Last fall, I met with the counsel general and a deputy to get their support, as well as the Goethe-Institut, which is a German cultural arm of the government. And I’ve got a German Studies prof at the University of Illinois at Chicago who’s also on our team. I’ve reached out to so-called Jewish leaders, too, because it’s inspired by the Holocaust project (even though it’s actually not in any other way connected). And I continue to do this. 

A lot of our focus has been on thinking about youth. We want, essentially, the future to be better, right? We don’t want to do it for them. We want them to be involved. I’ve got a lot of people who are part of a Bronzeville-based organization that’s committed to working with schools in Greater Bronzeville so that, during and after school, students basically suffer less violence but also have greater opportunities to do what they can in their lives. This summer, we’re networking with  Chicago Public School’s summer programs to get some students involved in learning about these events, but also then contributing to the project.

Your stolpersteine build on classroom conversationsdo you have any ideas on how you might build on the stolpersteine? How do you see CRR19 functioning in the future?

I’m hoping Chicago Teachers Union, which already is involved, will become more “in” so that teachers start to help create curricula as opposed to just being told what to teach about race relations. Those are the sorts of things that we can envision. And of course I’m going to continue to give talks hopefully in the fall in schools and universities and beyond. We also have hopes to create a museum exhibit that could travel. Um, one of our other team members works in museum studies at UIC and hopefully with her students, we can create an exhibit that tells this history that then can be transported to other sites: museums, schools, libraries, maybe even this fall. We might start on that.

Despite the name of the project—Chicago Race Riot Commemoration Project—could this be exported to other cities? Yes. If we grow and succeed, I suspect that people in other places that have similar desires could follow our example. 

In 1921, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the twentieth century occurred in Tulsa, where over 300 black people were killed and the neighborhood was firebombed. It resulted in thousands of blacks feeling from Tulsa. 2021—that might be a little fast, but there’s going to be events I’m sure happening in Tulsa in 2021. Could other cities adopt this idea? Nothing would make me happier. 

I’ve had communication with and we were supported morally by the project in Berlin. We’re not the first group of people to take that idea and want to apply it in another culture. It gets exciting to think about the possibilities, even though we haven’t even succeeded in Chicago yet. 

October 23 update: 

We’ve started working with some DePaul students to conduct further research on the thirty-eight people killed. Just in the past week, we’ve given talks to students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Illinois state convention of the NAACP, and a daylong symposium on Chicago 1919 at the University of Chicago. We raised more than $8,000 in the first phase of our fundraising campaign and continue to request that folks donate.

Only by acknowledging the city’s long history of racial violence will we ever achieve racial justice in our time.


schimke_elise (1) Elise Schimke is a Chicago-based writer and recent graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

To see Schimke’s coverage of a related bike tour led by Cole, click here.