Richard J. Daley: A Separate World

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An excerpt from "American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley — His Battle for Chicago and the Nation" by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor

Jump to: 1 (Chicago) | 2 (The Neighborhood) | 3 (Irish Immigration)
4 (Daley's Childhood) | 5 (Daley's Education) | 6 (The Athletic Club)
7 (Racism) | 8 (Irish Politics) | 9 (Daley's Early Political Career)

Another prime function of the athletic clubs was defending their narrow stretch of turf from outsiders. Before World War II, Chicago was divided into ethnic enclaves that were bitterly mistrustful of their neighbors on all sides. When an Irish neighborhood adjoined a Slavic one, or a Polish neighborhood adjoined a Scandinavian one, the fault lines were clear and the animosities barely restrained. For Bridgeport, the great dividing line was Wentworth Avenue, which separated it from the black neighborhoods to the east. Bridgeport's fears were exacerbated by the fact that the population in the black ghetto was expanding rapidly as a result of migration from the South. At any moment, it seemed, the black neighborhoods to the east might expand and grow large enough to overrun Bridgeport.

The intensity of Bridgeport's racial feelings would be laid bare decades later by a small but brutally revealing incident. It was June 1961, just weeks after busloads of Freedom Riders had been beaten up in the segregated bus stations of the South. The old Douglas Hotel on the black South Side had caught fire, and eighty residents had suddenly been made homeless. Red Cross volunteers had arrived on the scene and — unaware of Bridgeport's racial sensitivities — evacuated the refugees to temporary quarters in Bridgeport's Holy Cross Lutheran Church, a few blocks from Daley's home. Word spread quickly, and almost immediately a crowd of jeering whites was standing outside the church demanding the removal of the black fire victims. "They threatened to break windows in the church and screamed obscenities I can't repeat," Helen Constien, the pastor's wife, said afterward. "They threatened to destroy the church if we didn't get the Negroes out of the building." The Red Cross quickly took the black fire victims out of Bridgeport.

The work of patrolling the South Side's racial borders was often taken care of by gangs like Daley's Hamburg Athletic Club. Because of these gangs' propensity for violence, blacks who walked through neighborhoods like Bridgeport did so at their peril. It was a lesson that black children growing up on the South Side absorbed with their ABC's, but newly arrived blacks who wandered into the area from outside could be caught unaware, often with dire results. In 1918, the poet Langston Hughes made the mistake of walking across Wentworth Avenue into the heart of the white South Side. It was Hughes's first Sunday in Chicago — he was a high school student at the time — and he "went out walking alone to see what the city looked like." Hughes returned to the black side of Wentworth with black eyes and a swollen jaw, having been beaten up by an unidentified Irish street gang — it is lost to history whether it was the Hamburg Athletic Club — "who said they didn't allow niggers in that neighborhood."

Blacks have lived in the Chicago area longer than any group but Native Americans. "Chicago's first white man," the old Chicago saying has it, "was a Negro." The man in question was Jean Baptiste du Sable, a Haitian black who built a trading post at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1779 to trade with the Potawatomi Indians. The city's black population grew slowly at first: black migration into Illinois was limited until the Civil War by laws that barred blacks, both slave and free, from settling in the state. Despite the legal prohibitions, enough fugitive slaves followed the Underground Railroad to Chicago in the 1840s and 1850s that it came to be known among pro-slavery polemicists as a "sink hole of abolition." By the 1870s, Illinois blacks had the franchise, and in 1876 Chicago sent a black representative to the Illinois legislature. Chicago had 3,700 black residents — 1.2 percent of the total population — when, as legend had it, Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over the lantern that started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. By the turn of the century, blacks still numbered only 30,000. Although they were starting to concentrate in a small "Black Belt" on the South Side, even as late as 1915 blacks were still living in virtually every part of Chicago.

Daley's childhood coincided with one of the nation's most far-reaching social transformations: the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North. With the start of World War I, the booming wartime economy in the North faced a severe labor shortage, as the war cut off the flow of European immigrants. Realizing that there was a ready supply of workers in the rural South, where agricultural automation was fast reducing the need for black farm laborers, northern recruiters spread out across the Deep South.

Many northern cities were competing for these black workers, but Chicago had a unique advantage. The Chicago Defender, the nation's leading black newspaper, was widely read throughout the South, and it painted an especially rosy picture of the high-paying jobs and good life that awaited black migrants in Chicago's factories and slaughterhouses. "MILLIONS TO LEAVE SOUTH," a banner headline in the January 6, 1917, Chicago Defender declared. "Northern Invasion Will Start in Spring — Bound for the Promised Land." To many southern blacks living in conditions of extreme poverty and chafing under the oppression of Jim Crow, Chicago and the other large northern cities became a "glorious symbol of hope." Even blues singers from the era got caught up in the spirit:

I used to have a woman that lived up on a hill
I used to have a woman that lived up on a hill
She was crazy 'bout me, ooh well, well, cause
I worked at the Chicago Mill.

The trip itself was not difficult. The Illinois Central Railroad, dubbed the "Fried Chicken Special" for the homemade lunches carried by the migrants, provided easy passage from New Orleans through the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and on up to Chicago. A half-million southern blacks made the journey north between 1916 and 1919 alone, and another million followed in the 1920s. Large numbers of blacks headed to New York, Detroit, and Cleveland, but as one Mississippi migrant recalled, "the mecca was Chicago."

As the city's black population soared, blacks were increasingly concentrated in a distinct ghetto — the South Side's Black Belt. Many of the southern migrants pouring into the Illinois Central Railroad Station clutched the addresses of friends and family who lived in the Black Belt, and those who arrived with no plans were generally steered in that direction. By 1920, the Black Belt — an area roughly bounded by 26th Street to the north, 55th Street to the south, State Street to the west, and Lake Michigan to the east — was home to about 85 percent of the city's blacks. "[S]egregation has been increasing," Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal wrote of Chicago in An American Dilemma, his classic survey of American race relations.

"[E]ven the upper class Negroes whose ancestors lived in Chicago on terms of almost complete social equality with their white neighbors are now forced into Negro ghettos and are hardly differentiated from the impoverished Negro just arrived from the South." The upside of this racial segregation was that a remarkable African-American world began to take shape on the South Side. The stone-front houses and apartment buildings along once-white avenues like South Parkway and Michigan Boulevard now housed black teachers, lawyers, and other pillars of the black middle class. And the Black Belt's business districts were filled with black-owned stores and black doctors' and lawyers' offices. "Why should Negro doctors and dentists give a damn that most white folks would rather die than let skilled black fingers repair their vital organs?" St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton wrote in Black Metropolis, their 1945 study of Chicago's "Bronzeville."

"The Negro masses were gradually learning to trust their own professional men and would some day scorn to enrich white physicians at the expense of their own. Why beg white stores and offices to rescue educated colored girls from service in the white folks' kitchens and factories? Negroes were learning to support their own businesses, and some day colored entrepreneurs would own all the stores and offices in the Black Belt; cash registers and comptometers and typewriters would click merrily under lithe brown fingers."

The Black Belt provided Chicago's blacks with a measure of control over their own lives, and some refuge against the unfriendly white city outside its borders. But the sad reality was that it remained badly overcrowded and desperately poor, with high illness and mortality rates; a high percentage of residents on relief; a high crime rate; inadequate recreational facilities; lack of building repairs; accumulated garbage and dirty streets; overcrowded schools; and high rates of police brutality.

In white Chicago, the Great Migration produced a response that ranged from wariness to undisguised panic. The Chicago newspapers ran inflammatory headlines such as "Half a Million Darkies from Dixie Swarm to the North to Better Themselves" and "Negroes Arrive by Thousands — Peril to Health." Articles in the city's three leading papers — the Tribune, the Daily News, and the Herald Examiner — generally overstated the size of the migration, and focused on the new arrivals' purported sickness, criminality, and vice.

White Chicagoans worked to prevent the migrants from moving into white neighborhoods. One South Side neighborhood association captured the exclusionary spirit sweeping white Chicago when it declared that "there is nothing in the make-up of a Negro, physically or mentally, which should induce anyone to welcome him as a neighbor." In April 1917, the Chicago Real Estate Board met and — concerned about what officials described as the "invasion of white residence districts by the Negroes" — appointed a Special Committee on Negro Housing to make recommendations. On this committee's recommendation, the board adopted a policy of block-by-block racial segregation, carefully controlled so that "each block shall be filled solidly and . . . further expansion shall be confined to contiguous blocks." Three years later, the board took the further step of voting unanimously to punish by "immediate expulsion" any member who sold property to a black on a block where there were only white owners.

If white Chicago as a whole turned a cold shoulder to the new black arrivals, Daley's Irish kinsmen were particularly unwelcoming.

The Irish and blacks had much in common. Ireland's many years of domination at the hands of the British resembled, if not slavery, then certainly southern sharecropping — with Irish farmers working the land and sending rent to absentee landlords in England. The Irish were dominated, like southern blacks, through violence, and lost many of the same civil rights: to vote, to serve on juries, and to marry outside their group. Indeed, after Cromwell's bloody invasion in the mid-1600s, not only were Irish-Catholics massacred in large numbers, but several thousand were sent in chains to the West Indies, where they were sold into slavery. But these similar histories of oppression did not bring Chicago's Irish and blacks together.

Much of the early difficulty stemmed from rivalry between two groups relegated to the lowest levels of the social order. As early as 1864, a mob of four hundred Irish dockworkers went on a bloody rampage against a dozen blacks they regarded as taking jobs from unemployed Irishmen. The Chicago Tribune — whose WASP management had little affection for Irish-Catholics — argued that this kind of anti-black violence was particularly the province of Irish-Americans. "The Germans never mob colored men from working for whoever may employ them," the Tribune declared. "The English, the Scotch, the French, the Scandinavians, never molest peaceable black people. Americans never think of doing such a thing. No other nationality consider themselves 'degraded' by seeing blacks earning their own living by labor."

Nor was the Catholic Church a force for racial tolerance during these tense times. The Church had more reason to fear the black in-flux than other white institutions. Unlike some faiths, Catholicism is firmly rooted in geography: Catholics' relationship to their Church is determined by the parish in which they reside. Catholics "ascribe sacramental qualities to the neighborhood," one historian has explained, "with the cross on top of the church and the bells ringing each day before Mass as visual and aural reminders of the sacred."

Protestants and Jews who saw blacks moving into their neighborhoods could move to the suburbs, taking their houses of worship with them or joining new ones when they settled in. But for Catholics, the ties to the land were greater, and the threat of losing their parish more deeply felt. "[E]verything they have been taught to value, as Catholics and Americans, is perceived as at risk," wrote a reporter in Cicero, describing the racial siege felt by a parish there.

"The churches and schools they built would become empty, the neighborhood priests, if any were left, would become missionaries. . . ." In 1917, the same year the Chicago Real Estate Board endorsed new steps to preserve racial segregation, Chicago's Archbishop George Mundelein declared that Saint Monica's Parish would henceforth be reserved for the city's black Catholics. Since Mundelein had in the past opposed "national" parishes on principle, it seemed clear that his intention was to keep the races separate within the Church.

The demographic pressures kept mounting as trainload after trainload of blacks arrived from the South — and it was not clear how much longer these new migrants could be squeezed into the borders of the overcrowded Black Belt. The end of World War I had brought the return of black soldiers, many of whom were less willing to accept racial discrimination back home after they had risked their lives for their country. And Chicago had just reelected William Thompson, a mayor many whites felt they could not trust to keep blacks from moving into their neighborhoods. Republican Thompson's close ties to the black community, and his record number of black appointees, had led resentful whites to dub his City Hall "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The racial backlash growing in white neighborhoods was palpable, and word began to spread in the black community that whites were plotting some kind of bloody attack to re-assert their control of the city — perhaps even an invasion of the Black Belt designed to drive blacks out of Chicago.

On July 27, 1919, these tensions exploded when six black teenagers went swimming in the wrong part of Lake Michigan. Young Eugene Williams drifted too close to a "white" beach on the South Side, and drowned after being hit by a rock thrown by a white man standing on the shore. False rumors spread rapidly through both the white and black communities. Blacks reported that a policeman had held a gun on a black crowd while whites threw stones; whites spread word that it was a white swimmer who had drowned after being hit by a rock thrown by a black. Five days of bloody riots ensued, from July 27 to July 31, followed by another week of intermittent violence. White gangs roamed the South Side, attacking blacks indiscriminately, and whites drove through the Black Belt shooting at blacks out of car windows.

Black gangs wandered through black neighborhoods, beating up white merchants. In the end, it took the state militia and a driving rainstorm to bring about a tense peace. But before the hostilities had died down, 23 blacks and 15 whites had been killed, and another 537 injured, two-thirds of them black.

The seventeen-year-old Daley was, at the very least, extremely close to the violence. Bridgeport was a major center of riot activity: by one estimate, 41 percent of all the encounters occurred in and around Daley's neighborhood. South Side youth gangs, including the Hamburg Athletic Club, were later found to have been among the primary instigators of the racial violence. "For weeks, in the spring and summer of 1919, they had been anticipating, even eagerly awaiting, a race riot," one study found. "On several occasions, they themselves had endeavored to precipitate one, and now that racial violence threatened to become generalized and unrestrained throughout Chicago, they were set to exploit the chaos."

The Chicago Commission on Human Relations eventually concluded that without these gangs "it is doubtful if the riot would have gone beyond the first clash." It is also clear that Joseph McDonough, patron of the Hamburg Athletic Club and later Daley's political mentor, actively incited the white community at the time of the riots. McDonough was quoted in the press saying that blacks had "enough ammunition . . . to last for years of guerrilla warfare," and that he had seen police captains warning white South Side residents: "For God's sake, arm. They are coming; we cannot hold them." At the City Council, McDonough told police chief John J. Garrity that "unless something is done at once I am going to advise my people to arm themselves for protection."

Was Daley himself involved in the bloody work of the 1919 race riots? His defenders have always insisted he was not, arguing that it would have been more in character for him to be attending to "his studies" or "family affairs" while much of the Irish-Catholic youth of Bridgeport were out bashing heads. But Daley's critics have long "pictur[ed] him in the pose of a brick-throwing thug." It strains credulity, they say, for Daley to have played no part in the riots when the Hamburg Athletic Club was so heavily involved — particularly when he was only a few years away from being chosen as the group's president. Daley's close ties to McDonough, who played an inflammatory role, also argue for involvement. Adding to the suspicions, Daley always remained secretive about the riots, and declined to respond to direct questions on the subject. It was a convenient political response that allowed Daley to play both sides of the city's racial divide: whites from the ethnic neighborhoods could believe that Daley was a youthful defender of the South Side color line, while blacks could choose to believe the opposite.

Daley's role, or lack of role, is likely lost to history, in part because the police and prosecutors never pursued the white gang members who instigated the violence. At the least, it can be said that Daley was an integral member of a youth gang that played an active role in one of the bloodiest antiblack riots in the nation's history — and that within a few years' time, this same gang would think enough of Daley to select him as its leader.


Jump to: 1 (Chicago) | 2 (The Neighborhood) | 3 (Irish Immigration)
4 (Daley's Childhood) | 5 (Daley's Education) | 6 (The Athletic Club)
7 (Racism) | 8 (Irish Politics) | 9 (Daley's Early Political Career)

Copyright © 2000 by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of Click here for ordering information for "American Pharaoh" at