A series of memorials commemorating the worst case of racial violence in Chicago history that have yet to be installed on the city’s streets are now temporarily visible as part of a neighborhood art gallery’s final exhibit.
The memorials recall the Chicago race riots of 1919, where for an entire week, gangs of white Chicagoans terrorized their black neighbors, who in turn fought back. In all, 38 people died and at least 537 were injured. Of those killed, 23 were black.
Unresolved questions about how to waterproof the memorials – brick-shaped pieces of laminated glass that honor the life of each person killed – have prevented them from being installed at the scenes of the violence more than 100 years ago.
For now, they’re the focus of “Disarm, Everyday Violence, Every Day,” the Weinberg/Newton Gallery’s upcoming exhibition in West Town.
“We wanted something that focused on Illinois and especially Chicago,” said gallery owner David Weinberg, “and that addressed one of those top-of-the-list issues in Chicago, which is gun violence and the reasons for gun violence.” .
The memorials were made by Firebird Community Arts, a West Side organization that teaches glassblowing to victims of gun violence as a way to help them recover. The group has been developing the memorials since 2020.
Two organizations are partnering with the gallery for the final show. The other is the Gun Violence Prevention PAC, a political action committee that Weinberg says played a role in passing Illinois’ recent assault weapons ban.
Weinberg considered the two organizations “bookends” to the problem of violence in Chicago, with one seeking solutions and the other looking for root causes.
The exhibition will be on display at the gallery – open Thursday to Saturday 11am – 5pm – until 9 September, when the gallery will be holding a closing party.
Sitting in his office at the gallery, Weinberg admits he’s something of a “news junkie” and the closing show isn’t the first the gallery has done on an urgent matter.
“We always try to be very relevant with our exhibits,” said Weinberg, 79, whose office is filled with artwork he’s made based on social justice issues. One piece juxtaposes newspaper headlines with images from television news during the 2020 George Floyd murder protests. Another piece, a diptych, shows daily news headlines that Weinberg sees as transient issues and those that, in his opinion warning, pose an existential threat to the country.
Weinberg was able to spread that message of awareness of social issues through art by pairing up with several non-profits focused on various social justice issues.
Past shows have included “For Those Without Choice,” a show with Planned Parenthood about abortion access, and “Can you see me?”, made with Just-Us by SkyART, an organization that seeks to help young people incarcerated.
“I had a feeling that as effective as they were at getting this message across, they very rarely went the route of art,” Weinberg said. “I have this belief that putting something into an art form is much more digestible than a straight story.”
Weinberg who, along with his wife Jerry Newton, ran the gallery out of his own pocket, said he always knew closing was always a matter of time as he never wanted to go through the process of finding donors to support operations .
“We had a good run,” he said.
Past shows have drawn some people’s ire and at least one outcry, Weinberg said, but the payoff has come in bringing people together.
“There aren’t many jobs where everyone you interact with is focused on social justice,” she said. “I will really miss it.”
Weinberg’s mission to use art to speak about social justice issues also inspired Peter Cole and Franklin Cosey-Gay to start the 1919 Chicago Race Riots Memorial Project in 2019.
Cosey-Gay, director of the Violence Recovery Program at the University of Chicago, asked Firebird to create the memorials.
Five bricks are on display, commemorating victims Stefan Horvath, Casmere Lazzeroni, John Walter Humphrey, Robert Williams and William Otterson. Firebird executive director Karen Reyes said they were chosen because they are among the first completed.
The gallery exhibit is the latest thing the group has planned to highlight the history of events over a century ago, which they say is a cause of the city’s continued segregation and violence.
On July 22, the commemoration project includes a bicycle tour of the sites of violence and on July 27, a performance art piece by the Lookingglass Theater on 31st Street Beach, near the site where the first victim, Eugene Williams, died. A video of that performance, “Sunset 1919”, is also available in the gallery.
Williams, 17, and four friends launched a raft off 26th Street Beach. When they got too close to the “whites only” waters, a white man, George Stauber, threw rocks at the raft until Williams fell into the lake and drowned.
An installation on display shows a room filled with sand and a rope, representing the invisible “color line”, stretched across it. It includes photographs of Firebird participants reclaiming the beach where the violence started while enjoying a day there.
Reyes said that much of the project was about victims of gun violence “facing and coping with trauma.” The day at the beach was the opposite, an opportunity “to spark joy and create space for them to be young and joyful and not just think about the worst things that have happened to them.”
Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for Americaa non-profit news program that aims to strengthen the newspaper’s coverage of South Side and West Side communities.