Robert Williams

Robert Williams’s entry in the Commission Report overlaid on Van Buren and State Street. Image: Chicago Daily News collection, Chicago History Museum.

Born: 1878
Occupation: Janitor
Killed: July 29, 1919
Cause of death: Stabbing

Robert Williams was a Black man born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1878. He migrated to Chicago, where he lived at 1532 W. Jackson Boulevard on the Near West Side and worked as a janitor.

On the morning of July 29th, a large mob of white men chased Williams around State and Van Buren streets in the Loop. One of the mob-members stabbed Williams twice as he ran west on Van Buren, but he escaped and continued to run for several blocks. He managed to reach the area around Harrison and State Streets and told an eyewitness that he had been attacked by a mob of white men before he died, according to the Commission Report.

James Williams, a Black man who worked as a city garbage collector, witnessed Robert Williams’s stabbing and eventually identified 17-year-old Frank Bigart (alias ‘Biga’) as the person who murdered him. The coroner’s jury recommended that Bigart be held to the grand jury upon a charge of murder. However, the apprehension of Bigart for this crime was a difficult process.

On the day of July 29th, several eyewitnesses identified Bigart to the police as the leader of white gangs targeting Black men in the Loop district. Bigart was arrested later in the day after Williams had died from his injuries, but was initially only charged with disorderly conduct. He was booked in boys’ court (which had jurisdiction over male defendants between the ages of 17 and 21), was fined $5, and sentenced to 30 days in the Chicago House of Corrections. Bigart escaped from the prison shortly afterward on August 5th.

On August 9th, James Williams sighted Bigart in Grant Park and identified him to police at South Clark Station as the person who killed Robert Williams on July 29th. Bigart was held and questioned for this crime, at which point he confessed to murdering a cobbler on August 8th as well. It was for this murder that Bigart was issued a life sentence at the Joliet penitentiary on February 18, 1920. A week later, the Chicago Defender ran the headline ‘White Riot Murderer Gets Life Sentence.’

Robert Williams was buried at Montrose Cemetery on August 9, 1919. He was 41 years old when he was murdered.

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