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Excerpt: WBEZ's 'City On Fire'


It was 100 years ago this summer that Chicago erupted in riots. July 1919, a young black man named Eugene Williams drowned in Lake Michigan after whites threw rocks at him. The beach was unofficially segregated. And police arrested no one. The city boiled over. Thirteen days of riot and outright murder followed. Hundreds of buildings were burned, most of them black homes. And dozens of people died - more black than white.

Natalie Moore of member station WBEZ, along with Jeremy McCarter, wrote and produced an audio drama they've called "City On Fire: Chicago Race Riot 1919." Here is an excerpt featuring Natalie and Chicago actors in a recreation of those terrible events.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Burned alive - a negro man burned alive.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Stop believing what folks said.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Nobody said. It's right here in the paper.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Says here negroes broke into the armory, got guns - hundreds of them.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Look. Says here...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Says here, there's black bodies in Bubbly Creek. Lots of black bodies...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) He beat a white woman and her baby?

NATALIE MOORE, BYLINE: None of those reports are true. After four days of fighting that have left 35 people dead, Chicagoans believe the worst about each other, especially when a new sound begins to ring out. First one...


MOORE: ...Then another...


MOORE: ...Then a dozen...


MOORE: ...Then more - fire trucks - Chicagoans aren't just destroying each other now. They're destroying the city itself. Firefighters can't reach all those burning houses or the people inside.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) When there was nowhere else to go, we crawled under the kitchen table, me and both girls - one under each arm. I remember thinking it's strange how we'd wish the paint on those walls would hurry up and dry. We'd only just moved in. And now they're burning black all around us. It was hard to see my husband through the smoke. He was using a broken piece of our vanity mirror to look out the window without getting shot. I knew without him saying it that those white boys must still be out there. They wanted us to run out of the burning house because then they got to beat us or maybe shoot us.

Something landed on the table hard - fire all the way to the roof, I thought. My husband crawled over to see if we were hurt. And now it's all four of us under there. And I held the girls tighter. I prayed to God that when they woke up in heaven, they wouldn't even remember the word Chicago.

I don't know how long I prayed before the last window broke. It was a hissing sound - bomb, I thought. Only somehow, the hem of my dress was wet. And my husband knew without me saying it it was time for us to run. We each took a breath and grabbed a girl and ran for the door. We were outside. And we weren't dead. We were outside with a fire truck. It was spraying water on our house.

At both ends of the block, a wall of white faces was screaming at us, cursing us, shaking their fists. Standing between us and them, soldiers, a wall of soldiers with bayonets pointed at the crowd. I was still getting wet. Was it the fire truck? No. Was it from Mary crying? No (laughter). It has started to rain.

SIMON: That's from "City On Fire: Chicago Race Riot 1919." You can hear the entire production at or on the "Make-Believe" podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.