2019 CSK Author Award Acceptance by Claire Hartfield

When I was a young girl, growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was lucky enough to have weekly visits with my grandmother, Thelma Shepherd Rone, whom the adults called Dearest or Day but whom I always knew as Grammie. I was a quiet little girl, but I loved listening to stories. And Grammie was a great storyteller, painting a picture for me of what life was like when she was young. She was born in Woodville, Mississippi, but her mother died in childbirth when Grammie was just three years old, and her father was killed by a lightning strike when Grammie was a teenager. So she moved to the big city of New Orleans, where she worked as a nanny. But it wasn’t long before she was itching for more excitement, and when she had saved up a little money, she moved up north to the even-bigger city of Chicago. She and her cousin got an apartment in the black community, which was known as the Black Belt, and Grammie got herself a factory job. She and her cousin called themselves “bachelor girls,” and they loved their life in Chicago, taking full advantage of the bustling social scene that poet Langston Hughes described: “South State Street was in its glory then, a teeming Negro street with crowded theaters, restaurants, and cabarets. And excitement from noon to noon.”

But my Grammie also told me this story:

One hot July day in 1919, my Grammie was riding home from work on the streetcar. As she got closer to home, she looked out her window and saw mobs of young men — black men and white men — fighting in the streets. They threw rocks at the streetcar. The streetcar driver refused to stop at any of the regular stops, but instead dumped all the passengers out at the end of the line. My Grammie had to walk home through the rioting. She was very afraid, but she made it home safely.

The author's grandmother, Thelma Shepherd Rone ("Grammie"). Photo courtesy of Claire Hartfield.

My grandmother later found out that she had walked right into the middle of a race riot that would last an entire week. Thirty-eight people were killed. Over five hundred were injured. And many homes were destroyed by bombs and arson.

Not long after my grandmother told me this story, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. I was ten years old. I was at the grocery store happily devouring teen magazines while my father shopped — when suddenly a woman screamed: “They’ve killed him. They’ve killed Martin.” Her cries were so piercing. It felt like the whole world was being shattered by those screams. On the news the next day there was footage of people running through the streets, storefront windows smashed in, debris everywhere. There were rows of police officers armed and armored. My recollection is that the people in the streets were black. The police officers were mostly white. I also listened to Martin’s speeches that day as they were being replayed on the radio. And I remember the rise of his voice as he envisioned a time when “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last!’” And without knowing exactly why, I felt like crying, too.

Later, in high school, one of my favorite social activities was attending football games. We didn’t have a home field, so during football season we took a fan bus to stadiums in nearby neighborhoods. Sometimes we encountered white people standing on the sidewalks, yelling racial slurs as the bus rode through their neighborhood. I didn’t really understand. Why were these people so angry? Where did all this hatred come from? Some of the kids on my bus opened the windows and shouted racial slurs right back. As each group tried to shout over the other, the noise was deafening. Those of us who weren’t shouting ducked our heads and covered our ears.

Claire Hartfield and Grammie at Claire's wedding. Photo: Edward Fox Photography.

A few years ago, watching CNN, I saw images of people out in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting the killing of a young African American man named Michael Brown. And after all these years, the memories of my youth and of my grandmother’s story came roaring back. I wanted to know what had been going on in 1919. What had changed? What remained the same?

I started doing research, thinking I’d find the root causes of the riot lurking somewhere nearby in time. And, to be sure, there were key short-term events that raised tensions. But I had to go all the way back to Chicago’s beginnings, when slavery was still the law of the South; slog on through the bloodshed of the Civil War; ride high on the hope black people felt about the promise of Reconstruction; watch these same black people retreat in quiet resignation as segregation hardened in northern cities across the country. And then the 1919 explosion. Uncovering all this history, I could clearly see, in a way I never had before, the cycles of convulsion and complacency. I thought about my own history. The quiet early childhood and then the volatile 1960s, a few more quiet decades, then the [1991] Rodney King explosion, another period of quiet, and now here we are again in convulsion. And I could see the clear line running from the 1919 riot to the 2019 tensions we now face. I am an optimistic person by nature. But even for me, this cycle of convulsion and complacency is daunting. Confronted with our history, I question: Is the continuation of this cycle inevitable?

As I was researching, I learned that the poet Carl Sandburg lived in Chicago in the early 1900s and covered the riot for one of the daily newspapers. Looking through his poems from the period, I found his take on this cycle of convulsion and complacency. In his poem “I Am the People, the Mob” — and it is from this poem that I took the title of my book — he said,

Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted. I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes me work and give up what I have. And I forget.

Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then—I forget.

But he concluded that this cycle is not predestined, ending: “When I, the People, learn to remember… //The mob — the crowd — the mass — will arrive then.”

Decades later, Martin Luther King also had something to say about this. He said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He was equally clear that it does not bend by itself. We must shape it. And to bend it in the right direction, we must listen to the voices of all our diverse communities and cultures. Speaking about the roots of the violence that periodically explodes in our streets, Martin cautioned us, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

For so much of our history, we have suppressed and ignored the voices of many of our peoples, including Native Americans, Latinxs, Asian Americans, Muslims, the white working class, and African Americans. When I was a small child, I was taught that the continent on which we live was discovered by Christopher Columbus. I remember I had a hazy image of a humongous, dark, uninhabited rocky terrain — and cold, very cold (after all, I lived in Chicago) — that was just sitting there since the beginning of time until one day Columbus bumped up against this desolate place and click! the lights came on, cities popped up, and some years later, I was born. I later was introduced to books that let me know there were people here before Chris made his grand entrance. But I only learned about them through his eyes, as a backdrop to his story. The voices of Native Americans were unheard.

I thought about these things. And I resolved to write this book, to tell the stories of those communities swept up in the 1919 race riot so that we can remember, yes, but also so that we can use our understanding to bend the arc toward justice.

Books hold a special power in shaping who we are. Oral history passed down the Shepherd-Rone-Hartfield family line from generation to generation has been central to my life. It has cemented my understanding of the values and culture of my family, my tribe. Written history has expanded my understanding of the world beyond my family. Books have allowed me — allow all of us — to immerse ourselves in worlds we would not otherwise have access to; to hear the voices of those whose experience is different from ours; and to find, often in ways that surprise us, commonalities with people across our nation and throughout the world. To get it right, we must tell the stories and we must read the stories of all our diverse communities, cultures, and experiences.

I am grateful to the Coretta Scott King Book Awards for leading the way — fifty years of lifting up African American voices and stories. In giving these voices a place in our national consciousness, these awards move us ever closer to Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King’s vision of a time when riots cease and justice prevails, when we put down our weapons and join hands as together we celebrate being free at last.

A huge thank you to Sam Bloom and the entire Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury for shining a national spotlight on this story of people who have been unheard. And for persevering and calling me twice on January 28, because when I saw a Seattle number on my caller ID interrupting my workout, I sent the first call to voicemail.

Thank you to my editor, Dinah Stevenson, and to my agent, Rosemary Stimola, who believed from the beginning in the importance of sharing this story. Both of these wise, wise women made me feel that I was in the best of hands, guiding me to take the complexity and messiness that are always present in real life and to put them into a compelling narrative.

Thank you to my Grammie — so beautiful, strong, and nurturing — for planting the seed for this book so very long ago. Thank you to my Mama, my role model for how to walk through this world with grace and joy and confidence in the importance of my own contributions. And for writing and reading to me her beautiful poetry that gave birth to my love of words. To my Papa, thank you for instilling in me a passion for justice and for your quiet presence that always calms me down and helps me to listen. Thank you to my sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews. We are a big and opinionated group. You have taught me that there is plenty of room for both diversity of thought and unconditional love and support. Thank you to Phil Harris for parenting with me the next generation — our branch of the family is known as the Hartfield-Harrises — and for believing in and supporting my vision for this book. To Rafa, my nonbiological child — actually, he’s my dog — thank you for calmly sitting with me through the writing of every page. And thank you to my daughters, Emily, Caroline, and Corinne, who have taught me that the next generation is the bomb-diggity and will most definitely lead us to a better future.

Claire Hartfield is the winner of the 2019 Coretta Scott King Author Award for A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, published by Clarion Books. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Washington, DC, on June 23, 2019. From the July/August 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2019.
Claire Hartfield
Claire Hartfield is the winner of the 2019 Coretta Scott King Author Award for A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, published by Clarion Books.

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