This year marks two significant anniversaries in American history: the 400th anniversary of African slaves being brought to what is now the United States and the centennial of the Red Summer of 1919, when deadly racial clashes and lynchings across the country led to the deaths of hundreds of people, mostly African-Americans, as well as the destruction of thousands of African-American homes and businesses. In the decade leading up to the summer of 1919, the Great Migration had begun in 1910, initiating the relocation north and west of six million African-Americans from the southern United States. Spurred by economic oppression and Jim Crow segregation laws, African-Americans found employment in Northern cities that were experiencing labor shortages due to World War I. However, returning white soldiers resented black Americans who had been given the jobs they themselves once held. African-American soldiers, in turn, resented their exclusion from the peacetime benefits enjoyed by white soldiers. Tensions reached a boiling point in the spring of 1919 when the first racially motivated attacks began. Lasting from May through October, the period of these conflicts became known as the "Red Summer."
In a spirit of equal justice and reconciliation, Grace Chorale of Brooklyn commissioned Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa, a Zimbabwean composer and singer, and Flannery Cunningham, an American composer and musicologist, to write a piece that would commemorate this seminal period in American history that is often overlooked. They chose to tell the story of the death of Euguene Williams, and the Chorale premiered the piece in March of this year.
Eugene Williams was killed a century ago today on Sunday July 27, 1919, when five teenagers met at the 27th Street beach by Lake Michigan. The 25th Street beach was known as the “black beach” and at 29th Street was the “white beach,” but the boys had claimed 27th Street as their own. For several weeks, a team of black boys had come to 27th Street to work on a raft that would keep them afloat on the lake. The boys could not swim, but they knew if they held onto the raft, they could safely enjoy the water.
That Sunday, however, their safety was challenged by a white man, George Stauber, standing at the breakwater near 26th Street. The man hurled stones in an effort to drive the boys off. At first the boys made dodging the stones into a game, but the game soon turned tragic. Eugene was struck on the forehead and drowned. All this was reported to a black policeman, who marched up to 29th Street to identify Eugene’s killer. Officer Daniel Callahan, the white police officer on duty, refused to permit the arrest. As the two policeman argued, word spread like wildfire; hundreds of black patrons descended upon 29th Street beach and violence ensued. The death of Eugene Williams triggered a vicious clash that would be recorded in history as the “Chicago Race Riot,” the most devastating of at least 25 violent racial wars that took place during the summer of 1919.
“A Stone to the Head: The Death of Eugene Williams” is a choral drama for a mixed chamber group, including an improvising percussionist and fixed media which features mbira recordings performed by Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa. The composers explain, “The Mbira dzaVadzimu is a Madzimbabwe (present-day Zimbabwe) instrument whose ritual purpose is to facilitate communication between the human plane and the ancestral realm. In Madzimbabwe cosmologies and spiritual practice, a murdered spirit cannot become an ancestor unless Kuripa, a ritual of confession and collective responsibility, is conducted. Until this happens, the spirit is to doomed to wander listlessly in the realm of the living — Kudzungaira — with no way to transition to Nyikadzimu, the land of the ancestors. Eugene’s spirit was condemned to such a fate. The purpose of this piece is to call on Eugene’s spirit, to tell his story and to assume collective responsibility that will at last usher his spirit to the land of ancestors where he can finally rest. As such, our goal with the text was to honor Eugene’s narrative through the use of as much primary source material as possible. We spent a great deal of time in detailed research, looking at sources that would serve our intention to tell this story as honestly as we could. These sources included firsthand accounts as well as the music and songs of the time.”
James Baldwin is quoted as saying, "The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it with us and are unconsciously controlled by it... history is literally present in all that we do." This work is a vivid reminder of a painful chapter in American history that still defines who we are as a country today.
Learn more about the Red Summer by reading Cameron McWhirter’s Red Summer: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America.