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"The Hydra-Headed Monster of Race-Prejudice": Classics and the Chicago Race Riots

Justine McConnell

King's College London

On 27th July 1919, in the midst of a heatwave, Eugene Williams, an African American teenager from the South Side of Chicago, was playing on a raft when he drifted across an imaginary line in Lake Michigan demarcating the ‘white’ and ‘black’ areas of the beach. A white man threw a rock, Williams went under and drowned. His murder sparked the violent Chicago Race Riots that defined the ‘Red Summer’. But the riots didn’t erupt out of nowhere or from a single source, as journalist and poet Carl Sandburg had presciently observed in The Chicago Daily News in the preceding weeks, and as Chandler Owen highlighted when he termed racism a ‘hydra-headed monster’. 

This paper explores the intersection of Classics and racism during the Chicago Race Riots with two main aims: (1) to illuminate the period’s widespread allusions to Graeco-Roman antiquity and (2) to suggest that ‘classical reception’ can avoid the uncomfortable prioritisation of  ‘Classics’ at the expense of other elements by examining the real worldliness of a precise time and place, as one must in an ecosystem in which multiple, diverse, co-dependent factors are in delicate balance. The evocation of classical antiquity is one important organism in this ecosystem, so to understand it fully, one must explore all the elements with which it interacted.

The paper builds on work conducted as part of the late Kate Bosher’s ‘Classicizing Chicago’ project at Northwestern University and develops its ecological approach from Beecroft. It draws on Eve Ewing’s poetry collection, 1919, on contemporaneous archival sources, and on Sandburg’s articles. The engagement with Graeco-Roman antiquity by African diaspora artists, philosophers, and writers has become a growing field of scholarship over the last 17 years (e.g. Ronnick; Rankine; Goff & Simpson; Greenwood; McConnell; Roynon; Barnard; Moyer, Morse, & Lecznar). Building on this invaluable work, the paper explores the traces of classical antiquity in the discourse surrounding the Chicago Race Riots. From Walter Lippman’s 1919 fear that ‘“the race problem” will remain a sinister mythology’ to Ewing’s allusions to Phillis Wheatley and Ralph Ellison (both of whom persistently engaged with Classics); from Sandburg’s commentary on a portrait of African American leader, Booker T. Washington, amidst ‘photographs of Greek parthenons and Egyptian sphinxes’ in the head office of Sears, Roebuck & Co. to the removal of the Phrygian cap signifying emancipation from slavery when a statue was recast and erected in the ‘black belt’ of the city in 1918, Classics played an illuminating and persistent - but not central - role in this story. Yet combined with Chicago’s broader history, including the neoclassical architecture of their World’s Fair’s White City, the 1899 production of The Return of Odysseus by and for Greek immigrants at Jane Addams’ Hull House, and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), the paper will show how an intense focus on this period in the city, and on its racial tensions, illuminates the history of Chicago, of racial tensions in the United States more widely, and of the deployment of Graeco-Roman allusions in both.

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