For Claire Hartfield, the history of race relations in Chicago has a special meaning rooted in the stories her grandmother told her. Those stories inspired her to write “A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919,” which was awarded the prestigious Coretta Scott King book award.
“When I was a little girl, I used to go visit my grandmother once a week and she would tell me stories that I found fascinating,” said Hartfield during an interview.
On a summer day in 1919, at a South Side beach that no longer exists, a white man became enraged when he believed a black swimmer came too close to the section of the beach reserved for white bathers. The black swimmer was killed, and racial of violence erupted in neighborhoods throughout the South Side.
Her grandmother told her about being caught up in the rioting on her way home from work to the “back belt” – which today is the northern section of Bronzeville – that then housed the city’s black population.
The trolley Hartfield’s grandmother rode got embroiled in the violence, so much so that the driver wouldn’t let passengers get off until the end of its route. After she got off the trolley on that day, she had to walk home amid the violence.
In the rioting, 38 people died; 500 were injured; and $1 million in property was destroyed. Two-thirds of the victims were African American, one-third were white.
“The city stationed heavy concentrations of police officers in the riot area,” she said. “But hardly anyone was arrested. That begs the question, what were they doing?”
In recent years, Hartfield said, explaining her decision to write the book, which is aimed at young adult readers, she would see turmoil in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. “That would call up my memory of the story that my grandmother had told me.”
Hartfield drew comparisons between life for black Chicagoans today and back in 1919, such as the distrust between blacks and the police. She said there were incidents on a weekly basis back then about injustices that were occurring.
The lifelong Hyde Parker said she has focused her life’s work on helping young people achieve their potential. As a lawyer (she attended University of Chicago law school) she pursued school desegregation litigation. Later she headed a non-profit organization that runs the charter school in the impoverished East Garfield Park neighborhood.
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