Photography and The Negro in Chicago

Rachel Tolano

Part I: Representing Riot

This article is one of a series of essays addressing art as seen through the eyes of four budding scholars. Art history graduate students at Boston University, they are interested in exploring the uncharted bounds of African American and African Disporan visual culture.

Frontispiece, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot, published December 1922 by the Chicago Commission on Race RelationsThe Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot is one of the most important primary sources we have today commenting on contemporary urban African American life and race relations during the early 20th century.  Published in December of 1922, The Negro in Chicago is an exhaustive sociological study conducted by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, a group assembled by Illinois’ Governor Frank Lowden to investigate the causes and effects of the devastating Chicago race riot of 1919.  As the British sociologist Martin Bulmer declared in his 1986 history of the Chicago school of sociology, The Negro in Chicago “remains a major landmark in the social scientific study both of race riots and of the condition of the black population in American cities.”[1]  As such, it is no surprise that the book’s invaluable interviews, statistics, graphs, maps and photographs continue to be widely cited and reproduced in popular and scholarly discourse alike.  Recently, however, the content of the study and the circumstances of its creation have become subjects of inquiry as scholars begin to analyze the report’s language within the study’s various historical contexts. We now understand some of the ways in which the politics of the Commission, of the Chicago school of sociology, and of the country more generally impacted the content and presentation of the study.


Frontispiece image, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot, published December 1922 by the Chicago Commission on Race RelationsWhat remains to be critically examined, however, are the illustrations of The Negro in Chicago.  The book features 58 photographs that depict everything from the violence and destruction of the Chicago riot of 1919, to portraits of black Chicagoans, to the various institutions and structures of black Chicago, including schools, homes, churches, and civic organizations.  Presented as facts, as both visual evidence of the Commission’s social-scientific findings and indices of black realities, contemporary and modern-day readers alike have taken the objectivity of these images for granted.  This is evidenced by the fact that these photographs continue to be reproduced, sometimes with their original accompanying captions, in scholarly publications as though they are transparent representations of a past reality, devoid of bias or manipulation of any kind.  The purpose of this paper, then, is to consider these photographs as the material and conceptual constructions that they are.



A close reading of The Negro in Chicago's photographs against the socio-political backdrop of their creation will reveal the assumptions underpinning the book’s ostensibly objective presentation of information.  Although the study was officially authored by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, one member of the Commission’s staff, the young African American sociologist and future leader of the New Negro movement, Charles S. Johnson, is generally agreed by scholars to be the study’s main author.[2]  As is the case with any group project, a number of individuals influenced the study’s tone and content.  I will focus specifically on Johnson’s influence as the study’s architect.  The identities of the study’s photographers are unknown, but we can consider the photographic illustrations of The Negro in Chicago as “authored” by Johnson.  If Johnson was indeed the study’s head researcher, writer, and editor as current scholars claim, then the study’s illustrations — their selection, possible manipulations, arrangement within the book, and accompanying captions — were also controlled by Johnson.  And yet, Johnson’s project was inevitably subject to the agenda of its private funders — Governor Lowden and his liberal white elite peers.  Thus, this paper will analyze the photographs of The Negro in Chicago through the dual lens of Johnson’s social-scientific- and civil-rights-minded aims and of elite Chicago’s progressive but public-relations-driven agenda.


Visually Containing Chaos: Photographing the "Beginning of the Riot"

The Chicago race riot of 1919 was not unexpected. As literary scholar C. K. Doreski points out, ". . . [b]y the spring of 1919 the postwar labor, class, and racial tensions in Chicago were at an all-time high."[3]  It was one of a series of racially motivated acts of brutality that plagued the summer of 1919, a period that would later be termed by historians as the “Red Summer.”  During that summer, there had been rioting even outside of Illinois –  in Charleston, South Carolina, earlier that May; and in Longview, Texas, and Washington, D.C., in July.  Thus, while the death of an African American teenager, Eugene Williams, during a violent public racial feud is generally considered to be the main catalyst of the riot, it was not an unusual incident. Williams’ death, the circumstances of which continue to be debated, cannot be isolated so simply as the “beginning of the riot.”  His death was, instead, a small and arbitrary spark that ignited 13 days of mayhem, resulting in dozens of deaths, hundreds of injuries and about 1,000 displaced Chicagoans.


True to the caption of the photograph shown in Figure 1 and Figure 2, in July of 1919, Williams drowned while swimming in the Twenty Ninth Street beach of Lake Michigan.  Yet this frontispiece image neglects the controversy surrounding Williams’ death — the question of whether it was an accident or a murder.  Swimming in the lake of an unofficially segregated beach, Williams somehow ended up in the “white” section of the water.  After a series of heated exchanges between whites who had ordered Williams and other black youths out of their territory, beach-goers began physically fighting and throwing stones, several of which struck the water surrounding Williams.  Whether he died in an effort to avoid the stones, or whether he was hit by one of them and subsequently drowned, is unclear, and although accusations were made of the alleged stone thrower(s), no arrests were made.


It is with this complicated history of racial tension that The Negro in Chicago attempts to visually present the “beginning of the riot” with its frontispiece photograph. Within the premise of factual reportage, this image assists in the project of constructing an ostensibly even-handed history.  It helps establish the parameters of the story of the Chicago race riot of 1919, and the story of black-white relations in Chicago at large, by constructing a starting point with an iconic tableau.  This particular opening scene of the story of the riot sets the tone of the book, and more generally, the tone of public discourse on race relations in Chicago.  Note that the image chosen to define the beginning of the riot is not as a scene of violence or even of apparent consternation, as we would expect, but instead a scene of relative order and harmony.  The caption describes these individuals as “leaving,” but visually we do not see the dynamism implied in the ongoing action of leaving.  The two vertical posts to the left foreground and in the background on the right break up the visual field, creating a kind of triptych that interrupts motion and enforces stasis.  The triangular form created by the bridge and staircases just left of the photograph's center also lends a graphic quality to the composition, further emphasizing the scene’s tableau quality. This formal balance reinforces the apparent balance of social relations depicted.  One notices the visual uniformity of the individuals.  They are dressed similarly, making it difficult to distinguish blacks from whites.[4]  African American men, who were disproportionately low-income and working class, are here shown in middle-class dress of suits with ties.  Moreover, there appears to be intermingling between the races, with no obvious signs of self-segregating anywhere.  Blacks here are assimilated, and the crowd seems harmonious.


Saving Chicago and Its Negroes: A Conclusion

Both Johnson, a budding civil rights activist, and the white Chicago elite who funded his project, had every reason to oversimplify the social relations of their city.  Representing black and white citizens together and integrated, all conducting themselves as model citizens in a controlled environment, helped Johnson’s belief in the Negro’s potential for successful assimilation into progressive northern city life and helped Lowden’s interest redeeming the reputation of the city after its infamous race riot.  That the riot had been predicted before its breakout in July of 1919 was undoubtedly an embarrassment to the governor.  As historian Arthur Waskow asserted, "[t]hat hostility existed between the races in Chicago and might explode into violence was no secret."[5]  To characterize the socio-political climate of 1919, Waskow cites conversations among prominent white and black members of established Chicago social and civic clubs and organizations who felt disaster was imminent, and who expressed their concerns in public forums. "As the City Club and the Urban League had warned,” Waskow claims, “there was already a new postwar spirit of readiness among Negroes, especially returning soldiers, to defend themselves. National publicity for the Washington riot did its part."[6]  Citing a series of articles on racial tension commissioned by the Chicago Daily News that were written several days before the riot, Doreski points out that “[j]ournalists had warned Chicago that the unaddressed issues of unemployment and poor housing would surely lead to violence.”[7]  Thus, Chicago’s urban issues had been in the national spotlight well before the riot. The city’s failure to prevent the riot was impossible for the press to ignore.  Lowden combated his city’s negative image by appointing an exemplary African American scholar to bring order to the events through objective social-scientific investigation and a progressive-minded spirit of social welfare.




1. Martin Bulmer, The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity, and the Rise of Sociological Research (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 75.


2. See, among others, Patrick J. Gilpin and Marybeth Gasman, Charles S. Johnson: Leadership Beyond the Veil in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: SUNY Press, 2003), 13; Naomi Farber "Charles S. Johnson's The Negro in Chicago," The American Sociologist 26, no.3 (Fall 1995): 81; David Levering Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1981), 47.


3. C.K. Doreski in C.K. Doreski, Eric Sundquist and Albert Gelpi, Writing America Black: Race Rhetoric and the Public Sphere, (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 27.


4. I am grateful to Professor Kim Sichel of Boston University for making this astute observation!


5. Arthur I. Waskow, From Race Riot to Sit-In, 1919 and the 1960s: A Study in the Connection Between Conflict and Violence (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966), 40.


6. Ibid., 41.


7. Doreski, 27.