The Chicago History Museum’s Studs Terkel Center for Oral History first became interested in the Chicago Defender’s 1966 article after conducting research for its West Side oral history project. Forty Blocks: The East Garfield Park Oral History Project is a collaborative endeavor which hopes to collect the history of East Garfield Park since 1970. Learn more about the project here.
On July 18, 1966, the Chicago Defender ran an article reporting the unrest that ensued following the “opening” of a fire hydrant. For an African-American resident on Chicago’s West Side, options for cooling down were scarce. The city closed nearby swimming pools to residents of color.
This Defender article from July 18, two days after the predicted unrest ended, called the National Guard’s presence “an altogether proper and necessary action–but it was, at the same time, a tacit admission of the dismal failure of Mayor Daley and his administration.”
Temperatures soared, and on the West Side, in the African-American neighborhoods of North Lawndale, East and West Garfield Park, and Douglas Park, residents sweltered. A group of African-American teenagers released a hydrant, and policemen came to the area to turn off the valve, citing worries over neighborhood water pressure. The teenagers protested, arguing that police allowed hydrants to flow all night in nearby white neighborhoods.
According to James Parker, as reported in another Defender article, an African-American seventeen-year-old who participated in the opening of the hydrant, “The cops answer was quick and vicious.”
As the tone of the conversation escalated, teenagers began to throw rocks, angering policemen and drawing the attention of neighborhood residents. People began to congregate around the hydrant, more policemen were called, and as the sun set, tensions rose. As the night progressed, police batons, Molotov cocktails, bricks, bottles, and kerosene bombs flew as some African-American residents and policemen engaged violently.
The conflict attracted attention from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as he was living in North Lawndale. Dr. King blamed Mayor Richard J. Daley for the violence, explaining that the mayor did little to address the needs of the African-American community. He also touched on the outcries of police brutality, calling for an African American appointee for chief of police.
After three nights of turmoil, Mayor Daley called in 3,900 national guardsmen to patrol 140 blocks of the West Side, eventually quelling the unrest.
But, as the July 18 editorial explains, it became clear that what appeared to be actions by overheated teenagers were actually indicative of the larger issues facing Chicago’s African-American communities—segregation, police brutality, resource availability, and slum conditions.