Q&A with Author Claire Hartfield

Q&A with Author Claire Hartfield

Claire Hartfield

On Tuesday, September 24, author of A Few Red Drops, Claire Hartfield, gave a talk and lead a discussion on Chicago’s 1919 race riots as part of Mercy Home’s Speaker Series workshops.

Before Hartfield’s visit, we chatted with her about the book and the importance of discussing events like Chicago’s race riots.

Q: While you were researching the book and writing it, did you learn anything new?

A: I learned a lot of new things about the systems that I just mentioned. And the other thing is that I didn’t want to write an academic book. I wanted to try to tell the story of how these systems got put into place and the responses to them through the lives of actual people. There [are] stories about a lot of people who are, well known like Gustavus F. Swift, owner of the Swift meat packing company. There’s lots of material out there about him. I had to dig deep to find the material about kind of what I would call the average man or woman on the street and what their stories were. I learned an incredible amount actually about some of these people and it really gave lights to the more academic part of the story. One person in particular that I learned a lot about is Ida B. Wells. And just as a sort of side story, I read her autobiography and she was a leader back then and was instrumental in making the black community as vibrant as it, as it was able to become and was also a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. And subsequent to my writing the book, I found out that there was some talk about renaming one of the central downtown [Chicago] streets. It was going to be Balbo Drive, but it ended up being Congress Parkway. I got involved, very much involved in that. Eventually the Congress Parkway did get changed to Ida B. Wells Drive. And the reason why that’s important to me is because it’s precisely the same reason why I wrote this book, which is that we all need to understand the very many strands of our city’s multicultural history, both the negative parts and also the really wonderful parts. Some of the things that Ida B. Wells did were really quite wonderful and quite amazing. I really did learn quite a bit about some of the people who were living back then.

Q: Why do you feel it’s important to discuss this particular event in Chicago history?
A: There’s an ongoing discussion, has been for centuries, over why is history important? Some people like to read history. I know people who like to read just for history’s sake because it’s interesting. But I think there are two really important reasons that certain kinds of histories are important. One of them, and I use this example because everybody knows it, is in cases such as the Holocaust. We learned that history so that we won’t repeat it. The Holocaust was an event, it’s over. There may be strands of antisemitism for sure that exist. But the primary reason that we talk about the Holocaust is so that we won’t repeat it. The other reason for knowing history, which was more the case here, is to understand the seeds of problems that do still exist today. It’s not like we can look back in 1919 and say, oh, we’re going to stay away from that. Never again. No. We find ourselves right now in the thick of these same problems. And so the reason why it’s important to learn that kind of history is so that we can learn and look at sort of the arc of how did we get here, how did we get to where we are? And through knowing that we can then be intentional about moving forward and in a better way. So that’s my hope with that.

Q: How do you feel the particular instance of this race riot in 1919 plays into the larger about the history of race relations in Chicago?

A: I’ve been going around for the last year and a half now talking with various different groups. Some of them are kids, some of them are adults, some of them are urban, some of them suburban. I’ve even gone to rural towns. And one of the things that I’ve been struck with is first of all, how many people, even those who lived here all their lives had never heard of this really important event in Chicago history and really national history? Because the Chicago race riot also needs to be placed in a national context. There were at least 25 riots that summer of 1919 across the country, and the summer is now called the Red Summer because of all the bloodshed across the country. It’s not just a Chicago issue. But there are certain things about it, that I said before that you can see [how] this is the beginning of a trajectory of how we got to where we are today. I think that it helps us in our larger conversations about not even just the history of race relations, but race relations today. It helps us to understand them, to know this particular history. It’s very important. As another example, the Laquan McDonald case, which was very recent [and] really hit a raw nerve in Chicago. On the one hand, the way that it resulted is very different then what could have possibly happened in 1919. So for example, there was a young man who was killed, [he] drowned, [was] killed, [was] stoned to death, that was the catalyst. A young African American man was stoned to death and that was the catalyst for the emotions that exploded at that time. And when I talk to young people who say, well, things haven’t changed at all, I say, well, actually they have. You look at the criminal justice system for example, and even though horrific things are still happening, back in those days, there was really no recourse for people [to have] any kind of justice. Now the courts don’t always arrive at the right decisions, but there is a recourse to go to the courts about those kinds of things. However, that said, I remember when the verdict was going to come down for the police officer in the Laquan McDonald case, I felt as I was walking around and the whole city had sucked in its breath and was waiting with great trepidation to hear what was going to happen. And people really did talk about, for example, in schools, what do they do if it sets off rioting and the kids are in school? I think that giving context to these kinds of issues that are really raw and we’re dealing with today is a really, really important thing.

Speaker Series with Claire Hartfield
Speaker Series with Claire Hartfield

Q: How did you get involved with the Mercy Home Speaker Series?
A: I’ve written one other book, but a lot of my career has been working with schools and within education. I have actually never been a teacher and I’ve never been a principal. But, for example, I practiced law for 10 years and did school desegregation litigation. And more recently, I have worked with an organization that runs a charter school in East Garfield Park on the west side [of Chicago]. It’s called the Alain Locke Charter School. I’m the chair of the board now. We have an associate board, which is designed to draw in enthusiastic young people who want to help to fundraise and to friend-raise for the organization to continue to be able to provide these kids with educational equity. One of the people on the associate board, Andrea Simari [Mercy Home’s Manager of Learning Partnerships], contacted me because she was aware of my book and asked me if I might come to Mercy Home.

Q: What are you hoping for attendees to get out of this Speaker Series event?
A: One of the things that we talk about in my presentation is what can people do right now? And there are a lot of different things I like to chew over with people who are at the presentation. Right now our society is so very polarized that it feels difficult sometimes I think for people to find other people to sit and talk about things that they’re really thinking about quite seriously. Part of this is to present a forum for people to come and not only learn, but to talk about their own experiences and to listen to the experiences of other people. My hope, and what I really try to do, is send the people who come, send them forth and to encourage them to keep the conversation going and to collaborate across all sorts of lines on projects that can move us forward in a better direction. I hope that it will be a catalyst for people to find other people to be able to go and really make change, do good things.

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