Killed: July 27th, 1919
Cause of death: Drowned
Eugene Williams, whose death sparked the deadly riots, originally was from Georgia, born March 10, 1902. In his article “Searching for Eugene Williams,” Robert Loerzel details his exhaustive search for Williams’s origins and his life leading up to his death. His parents, John and Luella Williams, moved to Chicago from Georgia sometime in 1908 or 1909, before the Great Migration “formally” launched during World War I. Both Williams and his father worked as porters and lived at 3921 S. Prairie Avenue in what then was called the “Black Belt” due to the large number of African Americans living there (now known as Bronzeville). Loerzel called his search for information about Williams’s childhood “guesswork.” By all accounts, Williams lived a typical life for a Black teenager. Loerzel speculated he attended Wendell Phillips High School, located just one block north of his home, and spent his time working, where he made $18 a week, and doing various activities with friends, such as constructing a raft used to float in Lake Michigan and in flooded pools that had been dug out by brickmakers in Lake View. on the Northside. Williams and a group of four friends used their raft to enjoy the lake and escape the heat including on the fateful day of his killing, July 27th. The city’s beaches, notably, were unofficially segregated, also called de facto segregation, so Williams and his friends had no choice but to venture to the 25th Street beach, the only beach where African Americans were “allowed.” Perhaps just south of 25th Street beach, they launched their raft to play in the refreshing waters. However, they and their raft drifted south alongside the 29th Street beach, considered a whites-only beach. Suddenly, they found themselves assaulted by a white man named George Stauber, a 24-year-old baker, who threw rocks at the five Black children. According to Loerzel, the boys had been diving and swimming around the raft, and Williams “had just come up to dive again when somebody averted his attention.” Tragically, a rock that Stauber threw “struck him [Williams] on the right side of his forehead.” Williams sank under the water while the other boys on the raft panicked, none of them knowing how to swim well. By the time a lifeguard reached them, Williams had drowned.
Many details of his death, at the time of his killing and subsequently, remained in dispute. The 1922 report issued by the Chicago Commission of Race Relations, entitled The Negro in Chicago, stated, “a quarrel arose between Negroes and whites in regard to use of the beach. Many stones were thrown on both sides.” The Chicago Evening Post falsely blamed two Negro couples who demanded usage of the whites-only beach. What is known is what happened right after Williams’ death. Chicago Police Officer Daniel Callahan, a white man, refused to arrest Stauber and also refused to let a Black police officer do so. The failure to arrest Williams’s killer was the immediate spark of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.
Williams, aged seventeen when killed, was buried in an unmarked grave in what was an all-Black Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, just south of Chicago, because Black people then were not legally allowed to be buried in the city limits. On the centennial of his killing, in 2018, a monument finally was unveiled at the gravesite. Local historian Tammy Gibson led a small group who conducted the research and funded this laudable effort.
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