On Public Art, Historical Memory, and Racial Violence

Historians in the News
tags: racism, violence, public history, Chicago Race Riot

In 1919, two dozen race riots broke out across the United States, and the collective racial terror traumatized Black communities. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured in conflicts that ranged from white soldiers attacking civilians in Washington, DC to a White mob lynching a Black man in Omaha. 

Among the deadliest happened in Chicago where 38 people were killed, 537 were injured, and a thousand left homeless in the violent chaos. The turmoil erupted on July 27th when a group of Black male teens were swimming in Lake Michigan near a “white” beach. After a white man started hurling rocks at these children, Eugene Williams, aged 17, drowned. Black beachgoers urged a white police officer to arrest the man who killed Williams for “swimming while Black,” and tensions escalated after the officer refused. That night, white gangs, euphemistically called “athletic clubs,” invaded the city’s predominantly Black neighborhood and started attacking innocent Black people. Black residents, including local veterans, defended their community.

In 2019, the 100th anniversary of these tragic events prompted discussions, documentaries, and lectures to explore this history and its ongoing legacy. Drs. Peter Cole and Franklin Cosey-Gay, co-directors of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19), were involved in those efforts and are working in Chicago to commemorate its deadliest incident of racial violence. Dr. Melanie Chambliss interviewed Drs. Cole and Cosey-Gay on anniversaries, public art, and other aspects of historical memory and racial violence.

Melanie Chambliss: Talk about the significance of publicly marked anniversaries like we are witnessing now for the Tulsa Race Massacre. As an organization still committed to commemorating the lives lost and uplifting the larger significance of Chicago’s race riot–years after its centennial–what are the advantages and the disadvantages of such memorials? I’m thinking specifically about what happens after the spotlight shifts?

Peter Cole and Franklin Cosey-Gay: Anniversaries are useful for focusing the public’s attention on historically significant events, including the Tulsa Race Massacre, but we must ask ourselves what happens next? In other words, annual celebrations, such as Juneteenth, are wonderful and necessary. So, too, are anniversary events such as MLK Day, but what happens for the other 364 days a year? Or in the case of Chicago 1919, what happens after the centennial? That’s one of the many reasons we embrace public art, precisely because it’s ever-present, 365-days a year, and long enduring. Moreover, for those who may have been mis- or undereducated about Black history, public art has the tremendous potential to reach all people–not just those who seek out this history. Statues, installations, and counter-monuments by artists like Kehinde Wiley educate, provoke, and inspire. As actor and activist Ossie Davis declared, “Any form of art is a form of power; it has impact, it can affect change – it can not only move us, it makes us move.” 

MC: For those unfamiliar, can you discuss what the CRR19 project is and what inspired it?

Cole and Cosey-Gay: While briefly living in Germany, Peter encountered an impressive Holocaust memorial called “Stolpersteine,” which translates as “stumbling stones.” In the 1990s, artist Gunter Demnig started installing plaques into sidewalks outside the last known residences of Holocaust victims. What he began as a guerrilla act developed into an incredibly successful public art project. Today, 80,000 Stolpersteine dot the streets of German and other European cities with thousands more installed annually. Although Germany’s memory isn’t perfect, particularly in relation to its colonial past, the contrast to the U.S. is striking. Peter thought something like Stolpersteine could educate Chicagoans about its own racist history by placing markers at every location someone was killed in 1919. 

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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