by Carl Sandburg (2013)

In my February 2019 blog, I talked a bit about the civil unrest that arose in the U.S. in the years immediately following WWI. That incident in Tulsa, Oklahoma, took place in 1921, but there were dozens of other riots and attacks that occurred throughout the country from the late winter to early autumn of 1919. That period became known as the “Red Summer,” and this book is a reprint of a collection of newspaper reports written during that period by Carl Sandburg for the “Chicago Daily News.”

Wait, you say (as I did when I found this book): wasn’t Carl Sandburg a POET?? The one we studied in school, the one who wrote the famous poem “Chicago,” the “city of the big shoulders?” Yes indeed, it’s the same man.

What we probably never knew about Sandburg is that he held many jobs before he became a renowned American poet. He was a “traveling salesman of stereoscopic photographs;” became involved in the socialist movement; turned to lecturing on a wide variety of topics, and later included singing and playing guitar in his appearances. This nomadic period of his life taught him about American and African-American life and culture. His personal observations and experiences enriched his understanding of events when he reported on them for the “Chicago Daily News.”

During the Red Summer, dozens of attacks, mostly by whites, were perpetrated against blacks around the U.S. In some cases, but not all, blacks fought back. Soldiers returning from WWI battlefields sometimes suffered from what we now call PTSD; some were gassed in the trenches. They returned home to find competition for jobs, housing, and services. In some northern cities like Chicago, they also encountered an influx of blacks fleeing the prejudice, oppression, lack of opportunities, and lynching threats and acts prevalent in southern states. During the war, jobs were plentiful for them, but not so much after the end of the war when soldiers were returning.

The southern black population began the decades-long Great Migration north especially to Chicago, putting a severe strain on existing housing because expansion to other areas was limited. Whites believed that their property values would decrease if blacks moved into or near their areas, so tried to keep blacks confined to their existing neighborhoods. Sandburg found that a fairly common practice was to buy property at a low price, then raise rents, thereby forcing blacks to pay higher than normal rent. More of a black family’s budget had to be spent on rent.

Many blacks had learned job skills in the military that they were able to put to use when they returned home. Proving they could do the work helped others think of them more highly, as well as create a more stable family life. The stockyards were especially lucrative places to work, as well as one of the places where most whites and blacks worked easily together. Union membership also helped ease white-black relations.

Then as now, the consensus was that economic equality was the most important right. One labor organizer said, “All we demand is an open door.” The prevailing theory was that “when economic equality of the races is admitted, then the social, housing, real estate, transportation or educational phases are not difficult.” [p. 57]

The event that ignited the July 27 riot, however, was not related to any of the above issues, but rather a social one. A black youth swimming in Lake Michigan swam into an area normally used by whites, who then stoned and drowned him. The police, who were largely ethnic Irish, refused to do anything about the attack, and young black men retaliated with violence. Gangs of both whites (mainly Irish) and blacks battled for 13 days, finally ending conflict when Illinois authorities called in 7 militia regiments.

In addition to hundreds of dead and injured, many black homes and businesses were destroyed by white mobs. To me, the message being sent to blacks was to “stay in their place” and not forget it, betraying simmering white (especially Irish) social anxiety. (In the Tulsa violence two year later, the message was that blacks were TOO successful and needed to be taken down a few notches.)

Sandburg also reported on social aspects of the black community. For example, there was a push by those who had lived in Chicago longer to assist newcomers adjust their behavior to the urban environment. They urged such habits as cleanliness, wearing nice clothes and shoes in public (no sleepwear, curlers, or going barefoot), not throwing garbage off the front stoop like they did “down in Alabam’.” Newcomers were told that every mistake or good thing they did reflected on the entire group. He also conveyed the efforts to create community in neighborhood parks, churches, schools, and organizations.

The advantage of a primary source like this collection of articles is that it provides on-the-spot reporting of events. We readers can see them through his eyes, his thoughts and reactions. I had no idea that Sandburg had been a reporter, much less that he had been present for the worst race riot of the Red Summer in the city he loved. I found it valuable and interesting to learn about it, not just from some dry history written decades later, but from someone who could put events in their current context.

One additional note: Walter Lippmann wrote an Introductory Note to the original 1919 edition which is included in this 2013 edition. Lippmann was a famous journalist of the time, regarded by some as the “most influential journalist” of the 20th century, as well as winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. In other words, people listened to and paid attention to what he said.

Lippmann characterized “the race problem” as “a by-product of our planless, disordered, bedraggled, drifting democracy.” [p. v] “Hence the Negro who desires to be an imitation white man. Hence again the determination to suppress the Negro who attempts to imitate the white man.” Given the limits that currently exist, “the ideal would seem to lie in what might be called race parallelism.” This certainly sounds like the “separate but equal” doctrine (still in effect at that time), but it’s clear he doesn’t see that as a practical way forward. He continues:

“Pride of race will come to the Negro when a dark skin is no longer associated with poverty, ignorance, misery, terror and insult. When this pride arises, every white man in America will be the happier for it.” [p. vi]

The tone of his Note is one of deep frustration. I picture him throwing up his hands at his inability to find a solution and way forward concerning “the race problem.” In some ways, we’ve come far in this past century. In other ways, we have not.

—Donna Rueff—