July 27, 1919: 29th Street Beach in Chicago. Eugene Williams, floating across an invisible border separating the black and white swimming areas, is hit by a stone thrown by a hostile white man, falls off his raft and drowns. The police refuse the gathering black crowd’s demands to arrest the man responsible, provoking tensions that have been percolating all summer long as groups of white men attacked black boys in Chicago and nationwide. The confrontation on the beach blew up into the 1919 Chicago Race Riots. Over the course of three days, gangs of white men attacked black people across the city’s Black Belt, dragging them off streetcars, beating them in the streets and setting fire to entire blocks of houses. In the end, twenty-three black people and fifteen white people had been killed, 537 were injured and 1,000 others were left homeless. Many of the newly homeless returned to the South, tracing in reverse the route of the Great Migration from a city that had promised better jobs and prosperity, as well as freedom from the South’s torments and lynch mobs.
As the hundredth anniversary of the 1919 Chicago Riots arrives, a cohort of organizers, archivists, sociologists, writers and artists are working to ensure that the incidents are not forgotten. This group is insistent that the occasion be reflected upon and learned from. Eve Ewing released a compelling book of poetry about the riots and the events that led up to it, entitled simply “1919.” The Newberry Library, in partnership with other institutions, including the DuSable Museum and the Chicago History Museum, has scheduled nearly a year’s worth of programming, “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots.”
Among those working to redress the incidents and injustices, threats and violence against black bodies during what James Weldon Johnson termed the “Red Summer” is Chicago-based artist Jefferson Pinder. His 2019 project, “Red Summer Road Trip,” will manifest as multiple performative responses to events that occurred across the South a century ago. Traveling by car and making stops in D.C., Houston, New Orleans and culminating in Chicago, each performance asserts black people’s perseverance through injustice then and now.
The most forceful expression of this perseverance comes through in the kickoff piece, “This is Not a Drill.” Developed in part as a means to prepare for potential conflict to be faced in the road trip south, the performance is sixty minutes of military-like drills executed by a cohort of performers called The Middle Passage Guerrilla Theatre Company.
Clad in black-and-red uniforms and bulletproof vests, the group performs exercises that push their bodies to the limit—they run laps and do push ups; they practice ducking, dodging and punching. In a set of drills with Bo staffs, they practice delivering and receiving blows. They practice killing. They practice dying.
Interspersed with the drills are periods of synced marching, knees bouncing high, arms thrust back and forth. The sound of each foot stamping the ground creates a beat that is present throughout. This beat, interspersed with ambient sounds and music sampled by artist AJ McClenon, adds to the hypnotizing intensity of the piece. The performance is incredibly effective at creating an audience of witnesses of this units’ preparation for confrontation that is still possible in 2019.
The theme of militaristic self-defense continues in Pinder’s performance “Fire and Movement” in Houston, in which his group retraces the steps of a march on the city carried out by revolting members of the Third Battalion of the all-black Twenty-fourth Infantry Regiment on August 23, 1917. The march was in response to violence against black people by the local white population soon after the regiment’s arrival at Camp Logan in Houston. It was not a pristine instance of protest. Several innocents were killed by the marching soldiers. And yet Pinder’s revisiting of the incident is a reminder of what lengths a vulnerable and violated population will turn to when faced with consistent injustice. It recalls, too, the severe retaliation against the revolt: the number of soldiers court-martialed for their role in the riots remains the largest in history. Of the forty-one convicted, nineteen were hanged.
While each of these performances focus on physical action and create a high level of tension around the danger of what could and what has happened, other performances within Pinder’s “Red Summer” series concentrate instead on the simple sustained presence of black bodies and audiences witnessing.
In “Sonic Boom,” staged in Washington, D.C., a local fanfare brass band and a local pit crew join Pinder on a funerary procession for a muscle car. Once the car arrives at its resting spot, the crew strips off its wheels, and Pinder, clad in a tattered racing uniform and helmet, crawls inside and floors the accelerator. For a moment, the gunning engine drowns out the sound of the band, and there is an uneasy feeling that the car might rocket forward into the crowd. But then the car sparks fire. Pinder kills the engine. Is this a suggestion that the movement of fierce, unchecked power has burnt itself out while the local, suppressed population continues forth? Pinder emerges from the outgoing vestige, and the band plays on.
On July 27, 2019, on 29th Street Beach where Eugene Williams was killed one-hundred years before, Pinder will stage a centennial memorial called “FLOAT.” He will provide newly fabricated floats. AJ McClenon, whose work frequently focuses on black people’s different relationships with water, will once again supply the sound. Participants will be invited into the water to reenact the invisible border crossing that resulted in death and displacement.
It is important that so many are now calling attention to the Chicago Race Riots, urging us to do better. The city is hearing it: “FLOAT” is formally sponsored as part of the Year of Chicago Theatre and is put on by the Chicago Park District. “This is Not a Drill” was funded in part by DCASE and is performed at the Chicago Cultural Center. While these efforts will provide multiple opportunities for large audiences to reflect upon the death of Williams, it will not absolve anyone of the murder. This is an acknowledgement that it is merely a step, in a time when there are still so many mis-steps.
Only a few years ago, seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot sixteen times for crossing an invisible barrier that white police officer Jason Van Dyke considered too close for comfort. This time at least the killer has been arrested and tried, and as the tense city waited for the verdict, a crowd of activists stood outside the courthouse saying, if the verdict is not guilty, we will shut this city down. Like Pinder’s group of soldiers, they were open to protest and confrontation, open to arrest and harm in the face of injustice.
“FLOAT” will occur at Margaret T. Burroughs Beach, 3100 South Lake Shore, on July 27 from 3:00 to 5:15 pm.