The Real Watchmen: 100 Years Ago, a Race Riot Created Chicago’s Black Street Gangs

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On Sunday, the highly-anticipated HBO series Watchmen set the internet ablaze with America’s shocked reactions to a little-known incident frequently called the Tulsa Race Riots. The bombing of Black Wall Street is common knowledge to a large percentage of black folks (we’ve written about it at least 20 times, including here, here and here), but apparently it’s news to a lot of people who prefer a whitewashed, sanitized version of American history.


Although the Tulsa Race Massacre is disturbing, discussing it as an isolated incident dilutes its importance. When placed in its proper context, the 1921 event was part of a series of national white supremacist uprisings that began after black soldiers returned from World War I with notions of humanity and equality. This group of men, who dubbed themselves the “New Negro,” insisted on asserting their rights and spoke out against injustices, namely the lynchings that were erupting across America.

Between 1908 and 1918, at least 651 black people were lynched in the U.S. As black organizations spoke out and black people asserted their rights across the country, instead of agreeing to their calls for equality, white Americans did the opposite. In 1917, Mississippi Senator James K. Vardaman warned the Senate: “Impress the negro with the fact that he is defending the flag, inflate his untutored soul with military airs, teach him that it is his duty to keep the emblem of the Nation flying triumphantly in the air.” But the senator also added: “It is but a short step to the conclusion that his political rights must be respected.”

It all came to a head in the “Red Summer” of 1919, when white mobs attacked blacks, burned homes and killed innocent men, women, and children in 29 incidents across the country. The public sentiment was that it was the fault of African Americans. Most of these events were deemed “riots” that were caused by “radical propaganda among negroes.” The most famous of these racial attacks, the 1919 Chicago Riot, explains how whiteness became part of America’s cultural capital and would eventually birth the phenomenon known as the modern street gang.

But the “riots” in Tulsa and Chicago actually happened and Watchmen is fictional. The show is set in a dystopian alternate future world ruled by violent gangs that essentially emulate white supremacist mobs. Comparing an HBO superhero show to reality sounds crazy.

Or is it?

How the Irish Became White

“[T]hey steal, they are cruel and bloody, full of revenge, and delighting in deadly execution, licentious, swearers and blasphemers, common ravishers of women, and murderers of children.” —Edmund Spencer


This is not a quote from a Trump rally or an “alt-right” message board. This is a historical statement from yesteryear describing a despised race of people in America. It is indicative of the sentiment of white people throughout this country who believed a subhuman species good for nothing but work and servitude might ruin America with their crime, poverty, and interbreeding with white women. They were not referring to Africans, Mexicans or Muslims.

They were talking about the Irish.

We should never forget that both “American” and whiteness are sociopolitical constructs that have evolved over a period of time, always seeking exclusion and supremacy, and that it was not so long ago that Irish Americans were on the outside looking in.


Thaddeus Russell explains in The Renegade History of the United States that the first large wave of Irish immigrants worked low-paying jobs—mostly building the canals along the Canadian border—that other Americans wouldn’t do, and eventually populated the city of Chicago to work in construction and stockyards. In How the Irish Became White, author Noel Ignatiev notes, “While the white skin made the Irish eligible for membership in the white race, it did not guarantee their admission; they had to earn it.” Like finding out a song you thought was new is actually a 100-year-old remake, the Irish were simultaneously accused of stealing all the good jobs and branded as “lazy” and “shiftless.”

They were also thought to be the nonwhite “missing link” between the superior European and the savage African, based on stereotypes from the early American media, according to the Boston Globe:

In the popular press, the Irish were depicted as subhuman. They were carriers of disease. They were drawn as lazy, clannish, unclean, drunken brawlers who wallowed in crime and bred like rats. Most disturbingly, the Irish were Roman Catholics coming to an overwhelmingly Protestant nation and their devotion to the pope made their allegiance to the United States suspect.


So how did the Irish become white?

Russell suggests they did it by coalescing their political power while simultaneously assimilating into the American mainstream, specifically with jobs in civil service (which is why most cities’ St. Patrick Day parades are ostensibly celebrations of police and fire departments). Other scholars argue that the sons of Ireland gained their white status by embracing the oldest American tradition of them all: white supremacy.


In Chicago, the Irish formed “social athletic clubs” that ran the city, coalesced their voting power and controlled large areas of the municipality. These Irish clubs were sponsored by Irish politicians who expertly practiced the “art of political violence,” according to John Hagedorn, Professor Emeritus of Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hagedorn has authored seven books on gangs, including A World of Gangs, which tells the history of the Hamburg Athletic Association, founded in the Bridgeport area of Chicago in 1904. Some historians call it the most powerful organization in Chicago’s history. It still exists and, in the mid-1990s, the Sun-Times estimated that 70 percent of the club’s membership was employed by the city.


Beginning in 1915, African Americans started migrating from the South to northern cities to take advantage of industrial job growth spurred by the first World War. Chicago’s black population doubled between 1915 and 1940 and Irish athletic clubs started enforcing imaginary Jim Crow boundaries to stop blacks from encroaching into Irish neighborhoods. The Hamburgs notably used violence and intimidation to patrol their turf, including the stockyards, which began replacing Irish employees with black workers. Another Irish athletic club, Ragen’s Colts, also enforced these boundaries with their violent antics. In the early 1920s, a few of the gang’s members left the group to join a brand new athletic organization which later became part of the burgeoning National Football League. The rest eventually gave up the “athletic club” pretense when it became the primary enforcer for a well-known Chicago businessman:

Al Capone.

“They first defended against the invaders,” explained founder Zach “Zook” Jones. “The Irish groups were on guard to protect the neighborhoods and their economy.”


Of course, this is not to say that there weren’t also black gangs. But they were disorganized cloisters of neighborhood youth without a hierarchy and formal structure. Black policymakers (or numbers runners) had criminal organizations but they were just a part of the Chicago underworld.

“Unlike the Irish gangs tied to the ‘machine’ or the Italian gangs that were tied to the ‘outfit,’ the black gangs were typical youth gangs,” Hagedorn told The Root. “The illegal economy—the numbers game—run by the African American gambling kings, was a man’s game. The young people were disconnected from the illegal economy.”


To protect their white terrain, the Hamburgs, Ragen’s Colts and other athletic clubs bombed 25 black homes that were “encroaching” on Irish territory in 1919. The next spring, William Hale Thompson defeated William Dever, the Hamburgs and the Colts’ Democratic mayoral nominee by 21,000 votes, partly because of black voters. To retaliate, Ragen’s Colts attacked black stockyard workers a few weeks later, in June. The Irish “clubs” were using every violent avenue they could to keep the black “invaders” at bay.

On June 27, 1919, 17-year-old Eugene Williams was relaxing in Lake Michigan when his raft drifted past this imaginary border. A group of white men started throwing rocks, which caused Williams to drown, sparking black protests across the city. During the ensuing protests, the Hamburgs opened fire on a group of black men returning home from work who happened to cross this imaginary boundary. Later that night, Ragen’s Colts donned blackface and bombed the homes of Polish and Lithuanian immigrants, causing them to side with the Irish gangs.


That’s how you start a race riot.

The resulting melee would last a week and would leave 38 people dead (23 black and 15 white). One witness to the athletic clubs’ brutality would tell the Chicago Commission on Race Relations in 1922: “I would write I think they are ‘athletic’ only with their fists and brass knuckles and guns.” The commission’s report concluded: “Responsibility for many attacks was definitely placed by many witnesses upon the ‘athletic clubs,’ including Ragen’s Colts, the Hamburgers, Aylwards, Our Flag, the Standard, the Sparklers, and several others.”


“That’s when Chicago’s black neighborhood youth began to form their own groups to protect them from the Irish gangs,” Jones told The Root. “The 1919 riots were the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Living in a Gangster’s Paradise

“To the young victim of the slums, this society has so limited life that the expression of his manhood is reduced to the ability to defend himself physically. No wonder it appears logical to him to strike out, resorting to violence against oppression.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


These early groups of black neighborhood protectors didn’t immediately become the gangs that we know today. History, national discourse and the economic and racial tension from the 1919 Chicago riots changed the politics of the city. The Red Summer of 1919 also fueled Jim Crow by legitimizing the argument that blacks should be separated from whites. Soon after the riots, Chicago’s political machinery would be controlled by former members of the athletic clubs and their first order of business would be to make the city into a national model for segregation and institutional racism.

In 1927, the Chicago Real Estate Board made it illegal for whites to sell property to non-whites. Ten years later, the city founded the Chicago Housing Authority and began razing neighborhoods to build low-cost housing for whites. The CHA used federal funds that required all of these new housing developments to have a homogenous racial makeup. This “Neighborhood Composition Rule” banned blacks from buying property in white neighborhoods and wouldn’t allow banks to finance homes in black neighborhoods. The government eventually came up with a shorter name for the policy based on the colors of its segregation maps.


They called it “redlining.”

By 1940, Chicago’s black residents were barred from owning property in three-fourths of the city. Activist gangs like the 14th Street Clovers and the Imperial Champlains were the only thing to protect black homeowners from being harassed out of West Side neighborhoods by Jewish and Eastern European immigrants. The Second Great migration produced another influx of blacks moving to cities like Chicago beginning in 1940. But where were these black people going to go? Well, Chicago had an answer.


In 1941, the Chicago Housing Authority opened the Ida B. Wells Homes. The city leaders at the time literally described it as “the ghetto.” The housing project would house 1,662 families. The next year, the city opened the Cabrini Homes. In 1962, the high-rise Green Homes would open next door. They were built, in large part, because of Richard J. Daley, who took control of the Cook County Democratic Party political machine in 1953 and was elected mayor of Chicago in 1955. He remains the longest-serving mayor in Chicago history and the head of the most powerful political family in Illinois’ 200-year-history.

“What’s important about the race riots is that they worked,” explained Hagedorn. “It kept black people in their place, through violence. The race riots were very successful from the white standpoint and from [the standpoint of] the Democratic machine. The segregation that was established by the race riots effectively caged the black population.”


The segregated homes (called “slums on top of slums” by Daley) and concentrated poverty helped the loose confederation of protective crews merge and evolve, forming the early version of street gangs that began to fight and protect their turf just like the athletic associations did. Chicago soon became the national model for both gangs and segregation.

“The politics of segregation and racism in Chicago created the large gangs and the super gangs in the 50s and 60s,” said Hagedorn. “And it was because of race. If it was a passing conflict like the Irish and the Poles, then black people would have moved out of the ghetto and gangs would have dissipated.”


During the 50s and 60s, these gangs began to move out of the projects. But moving out from the ghetto meant encounters with Irish and newly-formed Italian gangs. In the early 1950s, black gangs often fought with white gangs for turf. One of the earliest of these gangs, the Vice Lords, began transforming into a community organization and renamed itself.

The Conservative Vice Lords opened a community center and even received a $275,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Because of poverty, there was still gang violence but street gangs also moved to the forefront of the civil rights movement and the fight against rampant police brutality and inequality in the city. It had the same goal that the black street gangs had in 1919:


Protect the neighborhood and its people from being destroyed by whites.

Many gang historians allege that city leaders began targeting these organizations as soon they began to transform into political powers. Hagedorn and Euseni Jenkins, who provided researchers with large chunks of the city’s gang history, note that the Vice Lords, the Black Stone Rangers and the Disciples formed a coalition called “LSD” in the 1960s. The collective began running candidates for office and forcing construction sites to shut down if developers didn’t hire black workers. Black Panther leader Fred Hampton eagerly organized meetings with neighborhood gang leaders to form a united political and economic front.


Martin Luther King Jr. moved to Chicago for his 1966 Chicago Freedom campaign where he marched with Black Stone Rangers and lived among the Vice Lords in Lawndale. Calling the segregated slums an “island of poverty in the midst of an ocean of plenty, King wrote:

It must be remembered that genuine peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice. Justice was not present on Chicago’s West Side, or for that matter, in other slum communities. Riots grow out of intolerable conditions. Violent revolts are generated by revolting conditions and there is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a large segment of people who feel they have no stake in it, who feel they have nothing to lose. To the young victim of the slums, this society has so limited life that the expression of his manhood is reduced to the ability to defend himself physically. No wonder it appears logical to him to strike out, resorting to violence against oppression. That is the only way he thinks he gets recognition...

I am thinking now of some teenage boys in Chicago. They have nicknames like “Tex,” and “Pueblo,” and “Goat” and “Teddy.” They hail from the Negro slums. Forsaken by society, they once proudly fought and lived for street gangs like the Vice Lords, the Roman Saints, the Rangers. I met these boys and heard their stories in discussions we had on some long, cold nights at the slum apartment I rented in the West Side ghetto of Chicago.


But Daley wasn’t having any of King’s kumbaya nonsense. When he met with King, Daley promised to build new housing projects, end segregation and willingly signed an agreement to do it. It was all a lie. When King left, Daley mocked him and kept ruling Chicago with an iron fist.

Then, another riot happened.

In 1968, the West Side of Chicago exploded after King was assassinated. Daley admitted that he ordered police to “shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand . . . and . . . to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city.” After King’s death, Daley declared a “War on Gangs,” explaining: “Gang claims that they are traditional boys clubs or community organizations ignore the violence and destruction of social values in the neighborhoods they terrorize.” By the fall of 1969, the leader of every major black gang in Chicago would be imprisoned on trumped-up murder charges.


A jury would eventually find Vice Lord spokesman Alphonso Alford innocent. The murder case for Black Stone Rangers spokesman Leonard Sengali would be thrown out. Although multiple people said they could clear Bobby Gore by providing alibis, he would be convicted after police threatened and arrested his potential witnesses.

The police didn’t even attempt to arrest 21-year-old Black Panther Fred Hampton.

Daley’s officers just killed him in his sleep. So what did this have to do with the 1919 riots?


“The 1919 race riots were about the intensity of racial hatred and how the state backed that up,” Hagedorn explained, adding:

“The Chicago gang scene [today] is much different than it was then, partly because the city tore down the housing projects. When they tore down the projects [in the mid-nineties], the gangs were weakened. This is not to say that there isn’t gangs and violence in Chicago. There still is, which tells you that maybe the violence isn’t about the gangs so much. It’s about the racism and the politics of oppression. When people talk about the gang problem in Chicago, it’s not a gang problem. It’s a race problem. “


But who is responsible for that race problem? Should we just blame the Irish gangs and the 100-year-old fight for territory?

“It’s a disservice to reduce the riots or the gang activity to a dispute of geography,” Hagedorn said. “Racism transcends Chicago. It’s a much deeper phenomenon and adds violence to hostility.”


But there is one connection.

In 1923, a few months after the Chicago Commission on Race Relations released its report blaming the riots, in part, on the Hamburg Athletic Association, the Hamburgs elected a new leader. There is no evidence that the new club president took part in the 1919 riot but critics and researchers say it “strains credulity” to assume that he wasn’t involved. By all accounts, this leader spent all of his free time at Hamburg’s headquarters organizing, fraternizing and learning from club members, including his mentor, who warned white people to arm themselves during the 1919 riots. This man frequented the Hamburg Athletic Association clubhouse until his death, and he remains its most famous member.


His name was Mayor Richard J. Daley.

It sounds like the bio for a supervillain. But one of the most powerful men in Illinois’ political history was devoted to the organization that incited the 1919 riots, created the need for black gangs, enforced segregation and fueled poverty in Chicago for over a century.


“To me [racism] is the defining issue of Chigaco,” Hagedorn said. “The riots said that race is going to be the most significant social and political issue in Chicago and it still is.”

Before ending his interview, Hagedorn recounted one final story on the strength of white gangs’ political and civic power in Chicago:

“Years ago, I interviewed a police commander when I first came to UIC in the 60s and he was retiring. He said, when he was young he was really wild and he was in what he would call a ‘gang.’ To him, gangs were black or Latino, but he and his wild, Irish friends definitely fit the description of a gang.


“So, I tell him about my research, that I study gangs and that I’m interested in finding out what happens to gang members as they age,” Hagedorn continued. “So I asked: ‘What happened to your buddies?’

“He paused, thought for a minute, then he replied: ‘Hmmm…’

“Well, most of them became police.”



How are we still here as a people in spite of generations on generations of animosity and terror towards us, we’re still here...