Students, teachers, and journalists grapple with how to properly address troublesome, overlooked, and underreported points in history. Part of FRASER’s mission is to provide a full picture of economic history, to assist our users in their efforts. The C3 Framework for Social Studies used by our colleagues on the St. Louis Fed’s economic education team prescribes referencing multiple sources that come from different perspectives. Serving as a great case study for researching a single event referenced by many FRASER sources is the labor unrest that occurred in the stockyards of Chicago in the summer of 1919.

The 1919 Chicago labor unrest manifested out of racial tensions that erupted into race riots. Contemporary reports from sources such as the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and the Department of Labor’s Division of Negro Economics all highlight different key pieces of the event and its relevance to economic life. 

To better understand the racial unrest and the disturbance in the stockyards, the Assistant Secretary of Labor asked sociologist George Edmund Haynes to visit Chicago. At the time, Haynes was director of the Department’s Division of Negro Economics, which was led and staffed by African American sociologists and economists, and he was charged with documenting African American labor issues. As part of his work, Haynes talked with a number of African American and White residents in the Chicago area to understand the situation. Haynes documented his findings in the Division’s 1921 report under a chapter titled Negro Labor and Racial Relationships at Chicago. According to Haynes’s account, the racial tensions grew “out of complex fundamental conditions, mainly economic.” These conditions included political disagreement, union conflicts as White workers wanted African Americans to join their unions, and a housing shortage on the South Side of Chicago related to the Great Migration.

Racial tensions were persistent throughout the summer. However, the “match which lighted the blaze” was lit on July 27, 1919, when White residents drowned an African American boy after he drifted on a raft into a section of a Lake Michigan beach designated for White people only.[1] It was the ensuing riots that led to labor disturbances and the need for Haynes to address the “Chicago situation.” He described it as follows: 

A central economic factor behind the unrest was the employee walkout at the stockyards. According to Haynes’s account, the employers at the stockyard feared the tensions between African American and White workers in light of the race riots throughout the city. The employers, in an attempt to prevent disruptions in the workplace, staffed “extra police guards and details of militia”—but their preventative actions backfired. The union workmen, who were primarily White, took the presence of armed guards as an act against them and the union. The union workers and some African American workers responded by walking off the job and reaching out to public officials. Within a few days, the militia was removed and the workers returned to the stockyards. The resentment of union workers did not persist as the employers and union workers began to cooperate.

Haynes and the Division of Negro Economics were not the only ones reporting on the racial tension and ensuing labor unrest. The Federal Reserve Bulletin published August 1, 1919, reports on “a rather pronounced feeling of labor unrest” that plagued Chicago. The Bulletin does not explicitly mention the stockyards or the race riots. Instead, it refers to industry strikes, employee walkouts, and other strains that Haynes mentioned, such as the housing crisis. The report emphasizes the high cost of living and workers’ desire for higher wages as the main causes of labor unrest.

Likewise, The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago referred to the events at the stockyard in their monthly release on business conditions published August 25, 1919. The report from Chicago detailed the events at the stockyard in the context of other episodes of labor unrest throughout the city. Like Haynes’s account, the Chicago Fed reports that the labor unrest in the stockyards had improved, which is similar to Haynes’s account, but it goes on to say that a “dark cloud” still hung over the steel and iron industry. 

The subsequent monthly Federal Reserve Bulletin (September 1, 1919) discusses the events in Chicago through a different perspective. It explains the labor unrest in Chicago in the context of other episodes of unrest throughout the country. For example, the report stated that in District No. 1 “the industrial unrest has overshadowed all other factors” and that in District No. 4 “the business community is disturbed over the outlook, owing to the continuance of labor agitation….” The report mainly focuses on the economic disruptions caused by the labor unrest. The report’s section on business and financial conditions opens by asserting that factors that normally do not concern business conditions have “exercised great influence on the business situation.” 

To get a full picture of the economic history, it is also important to look at less-specialized reports. In early August 1919, the New York Times published an article on the events at the stockyard, emphasizing the reasons for the walkout along with distinctions between union and non-union workers. Similar to Haynes’s account, the article explained that White union workers cast a vote to walk out in protest of the police and militia. The article goes on to explain that another reason White union workers protested was because of tensions between White union workers and African American non-union workers. These tensions arose after the return of African American non-union employees who had been off the job for 10 days due to the race riots on the South Side of Chicago. 

Combining reports from the Division of Negro Economics, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and the Federal Reserve Board with historical newspapers and other secondary sources makes it easier to understand the magnitude and economic impact of Chicago’s racial tensions during the summer of 1919. Different reports offer different perspectives depending on the institution’s incentives, audience, or goals. Luckily, FRASER’s vast collection makes researching this and other events easier. 

Want to learn more about African American economic history in the 1910s? Check out the classroom lesson “The Acceleration of the Great Migration, 1916-1917” created by the St. Louis Fed’s economic education staff using FRASER primary and secondary source materials. Questions? Ask a librarian!


[1] Karen Griggsby Bates. “Red Summer In Chicago: 100 Years After The Race Riots.” Code Switch, National Public Radio, July 27, 2019. 

© 2020, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis or the Federal Reserve System.

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