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A Black Communist in the Freedom StruggleThe Life of Harry Haywood$

Harry Haywood and Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780816679058

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816679058.001.0001

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Prologue

Prologue

Chapter:
(p.3) Prologue
Source:
A Black Communist in the Freedom Struggle
Author(s):

Harry Haywood

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

Publisher:
University of Minnesota Press
DOI:10.5749/minnesota/9780816679058.003.0001

Abstract and Keywords

In this prologue, Harry Haywood talks about an eventful date in his life: July 28, 1919. On that day, he literally stepped into a battle that was to last the rest of his life. Exactly three months after mustering out of the U.S. army fighting in World War I, he found himself in the midst of one of the bloodiest race riots in U.S. history. For Haywood, it was certainly a most dramatic return to the realities of American democracy. He had a job as a waiter on the Michigan Central Railroad at the time. In July, he was working the Wolverine, the crack Michigan Central train between Chicago and New York. On July 27, the Wolverine left on a regular run to St. Thomas, Canada. Passing through Detroit, they heard news that a race riot had broken out in Chicago. The following day, Southside Chicago, the Black ghetto, was like a besieged city.

Keywords:   race riots, Harry Haywood, democracy, Michigan Central Railroad, Wolverine, Chicago, New York, St. Thomas, Canada, Southside Chicago

On July 28, 1919, I literally stepped into a battle that was to last the rest of my life. Exactly three months after mustering out of the army, I found myself in the midst of one of the bloodiest race riots in U.S. history. It was certainly a most dramatic return to the realities of American democracy.

It came to me then that I had been fighting the wrong war. The Germans weren’t the enemy—the enemy was right here at home. These ideas had been developing ever since I landed home in April, and a lot of other Black veterans were having the same thoughts.

I had a job as a waiter on the Michigan Central Railroad at the time. In July, I was working the Wolverine, the crack Michigan Central train between Chicago and New York. We would serve lunch and dinner on the run out of Chicago to St. Thomas, Canada, where the dining car was cut off the train. The next morning our cars would be attached to the Chicago-bound train and we would serve breakfast and lunch into Chicago.

On July 27, the Wolverine left on a regular run to St. Thomas. Passing through Detroit, we heard news that a race riot had broken out in Chicago. The situation had been tense for some time. Several members of the crew, all of them Black, had bought revolvers and ammunition the previous week when on a special to Battle Creek, Michigan. Thus, when we returned to Chicago at about 2:00 p.m. the next day (July 28), we were apprehensive about what awaited us.

The whole dining-car crew, six waiters and four cooks, got off at the Twelfth Street Station in Chicago. Usually we would stay on the car while it backed out to the yards, but the station seemed a better route now. We were all tense as we passed through the station on the way to the elevated that would take us to the Southside and home. Suddenly a white trainman accosted us.

“Hey, you guys going out to the Southside?”

“Yeah, so what?” I said, immediately on the alert, thinking he might start something.

“If I were you I wouldn’t go by the avenue.” He meant Michigan Avenue, which was right in front of the station.

“Why?”

“There’s a big race riot going on out there, and already this morning a couple (p.4) of colored soldiers were killed coming in unsuspectingly. If I were you I’d keep off the street, and go right out those tracks by the lake.”

We took the trainman’s advice, thanked him, and turned toward the tracks. It would be much slower walking home, but if he were right, it would be safer. As we turned down the tracks toward the Southside of the city, toward the Black ghetto, I thought of what I had just been through in Europe and what now lay before me in America.

On one side of us lay the summer warmness of Lake Michigan. On the other was Chicago, a huge and still-growing industrial center of the nation, bursting at its seams; brawling, sprawling Chicago, “hog butcher for the nation,” as Carl Sandburg had called it.

As we walked, I remembered the war. On returning from Europe, I had felt good to be alive. I was glad to be back with my family—Mom, Pop, and my sister. At twenty-one, my life lay before me. What should I do? The only trade I had learned was waiting tables. I hadn’t even finished the eighth grade. Perhaps I should go back to France, live there and become a French citizen? After all, I hadn’t seen any Jim Crow there.

Had race prejudice in the United States lessened? I knew better. Conditions in the States had not changed, but we Blacks had. We were determined not to take it anymore. But what was I walking into?

Southside Chicago, the Black ghetto, was like a besieged city. Whole sections of it were in ruins. Buildings burned and the air was heavy with smoke, reminiscent of the holocaust from which I had recently returned.

Our small band, huddled like a bunch of raw recruits under machine-gun fire, turned up Twenty-Sixth Street and then into the heart of the ghetto. At Thirty-Fifth and Indiana, we split up to go our various ways; I headed for home at Forty-Second Place and Bowen. None of us returned to work until the riot was over, more than a week later.

The battle at home was just as real as the battle in France had been. As I recall, there was full-scale street fighting between Black and white. Blacks were snatched from streetcars and beaten or killed; pitched battles were fought in ghetto streets; hoodlums roamed the neighborhood, shooting at random. Blacks fought back.

As I saw it at the time, Chicago was two cities. The one was the Chamber of Commerce’s city of the “American Miracle,” the Chicago of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. It was the new industrial city that had grown in fifty years from a frontier town to become the second-largest city in the country.

The other, the Black community, had been part of Chicago almost from the (p.5) time the city was founded. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Black trapper from French Canada, was the first settler. Later came fugitive slaves, and after the Civil War—more Blacks, fleeing from post-Reconstruction terror, taking jobs as domestics and personal servants.

The large increase was in the late 1880s through World War I, as industry in the city expanded and as Blacks streamed north following the promise of jobs, housing, and an end to Jim Crow lynching. The Illinois Central tracks ran straight through the Deep South from Chicago to New Orleans, and the Panama Limited made the run every day.

Those that took the train north didn’t find a promised land. They found jobs and housing, all right, but they had to compete with the thousands of recent immigrants from Europe who were also drawn to the jobs in the packing houses, stockyards, and steel mills.

The promise of an end to Jim Crow was nowhere fulfilled. In those days, the beaches on Lake Michigan were segregated. Most were reserved for whites only. The Twenty-Sixth Street Beach, close to the Black community, was open to Blacks—but only as long as they stayed on their own side.

The riot had started at this beach, which was then jammed with a late-July crowd. Eugene Williams, a seventeen-year-old Black youth, was killed while swimming off the white side of the beach. The Black community was immediately alive with accounts of what had happened—that he had been murdered while swimming, that a group of whites had thrown rocks at him and killed him, and that the policeman on duty at the beach had refused to make any arrests.

This incident was the spark that ignited the flames of racial animosity that had been smoldering for months. Fighting between Blacks and whites broke out on the Twenty-Sixth Street Beach after Williams’s death. It soon spread beyond the beach and lasted over six days. Before it was over, 38 people—Black and white—were dead, 537 injured, and over 1,000 homeless.

The memory of this mass rebellion is still very sharp in my mind. It was the great turning point in my life, and I have dedicated myself to the struggle against capitalism ever since. In the following pages of my autobiography, I have attempted to trace the development of that struggle in the hopes that today’s youth can learn from both our successes and failures. It is for the youth and the bright future of a socialist USA that this book has been written. (p.6)