They thought he was an ‘agitator’ | Sightseeing | Chicago Reader

They thought he was an ‘agitator’ 

Franklin A. Denison was no rabble-rouser, but the Bureau of Investigation said he sparked the 1919 race riot.

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click to enlarge Denison on the cover of The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - INTERNET ARCHIVE
  • Denison on the cover of The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
  • Internet Archive

The Victory Monument on King Drive near 35th Street honors Black Chicagoans who fought in France during the First World War. Nearby is a plaque for their former commander, Colonel Franklin A. Denison. Beloved by his troops, Denison was removed from command before he could lead his men into battle. He subsequently came under the attention of the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor of the FBI. Its Chicago office identified Denison as "the chief individual agitator" of the 1919 Chicago race riot.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1862, Denison graduated with honors from Lincoln University. In 1890, he was voted valedictorian by his all-white class at Union College of Law, a school affiliated with Northwestern University. A year later he was appointed assistant prosecuting attorney in Chicago, the first person of color to hold that position. Once an apprentice to a carriage maker, Denison briefly presided over the 1908 Republican National Convention.

Denison was no rabble-rouser. On March 27, 1892, Bethel African Methodist Church held a packed protest meeting against southern lynching. Reverend George W. Gaines began to lead "My Country Tis of Thee," but the crowd refused to sing along. One man rose and said that he didn't want "to sing that song until this country is what it claims to be, 'Sweet land of liberty.'"

The white press was aghast. Denison found the event to be "entirely disgraceful." The protest would not be "conducive to legislation to right the wrongs" against Blacks in the south. "No well-mannered colored person with any regard for himself and the community he lives in could afford to use such language and rebel against a patriotic song," Denison told the Chicago Evening Post.

As a measure of his own patriotism, Denison served in the Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, the only all-Black unit in the country. After the unit was mobilized during the Spanish-American War, Denison, who was fluent in Spanish, was appointed a judge of the Court of Claims in Santiago, Cuba. In 1914, he earned the rank of colonel.

In theory, Denison and his men were equal to their white counterparts. However, Black guardsman frequently came under physical harassment when they went on training routines in Springfield. The Eighth Regiment was mobilized to San Antonio in 1916. There, white soldiers refused to salute their superior officers.

After the American declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, Denison worked tirelessly to bring in Black recruits. By August, all National Guard units had been drafted into the U.S. Army. Two days before the regiment left for training at Camp Logan, outside of Houston, Black soldiers marched downtown after officers from the Houston Police Department accosted a local African American woman and a soldier who had tried to intercede on her behalf. The ensuing riot led to 19 deaths. Nineteen Black soldiers were later executed. The Eighth survived Houston with no major incidents. In their final parade, its chaplain, W. S. Braddan, remarked that the Eighth had received not "a handclap from the whites, who regarded us with sullen silence, for never before had Houston seen Negro Soldiers marching her streets under arms."

On their voyage to France, Braddan recalled telling his men that whites were expecting them to fail because they were led by Black officers. Yet on the eve of their deployment to combat, Denison was removed from frontline duty, replaced with Colonel Thomas A. Roberts, who was white. Avoiding the obvious motives for the army to remove high-ranking Black officers, the Chicago Defender reported that Denison was on sick leave for acute rheumatism. Arriving in Chicago, one man at the rail station told Denison that he had four sons in France. "I have 3,500 sons 'over there' who are fighting for the American flag and are an honor to this nation and their race," Denison replied.

On October 8, 1918, the head of the Chicago office of the Bureau of Investigation reported to Washington about a speech Denison had given at Friendship Baptist Church. Two white war bond workers interpreted the colonel's remarks that his men were not afraid of "cold steel" and that he would rather have taken his regiment "to hell than to take them to Houston, Texas, but they are going to Houston, Texas," not as a measure of the determination of courageous Black soldiers to win the war, but rather as a coded message that his men were "unofficially authorized by him to rise up against the whites" if provoked.

Taking out a French coin, Denison elaborated on the inscription "Freedom, Equality and Fraternity." The informants felt that his comments implied that "colored people were deliberately oppressed" and that the motto on American coins, "In God We Trust," was disingenuous. Although Denison "occasionally" mentioned the need to buy war bonds, the informants felt his speech had ruined their prepared presentation. The report touched on rumors that Denison had broken under the strain in France.

If Denison was embittered by not being with his men as they chased the German army all the way to Belgium, he didn't show it in public. Writing in the Broad Ax, a Black Chicago newspaper, Braddan portrayed Roberts as an incompetent schemer who had played up Denison's poor health. In response, Colonel Roberts wrote to Military Intelligence, confirming he had reported Denison's rheumatism. He went on to label Braddan a coward, pleading that the Black officers under his command were incompetent.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1919, law officials did little to address the epidemic of bombings of Black residences and assaults against African Americans in white Chicago neighborhoods. During a tense Independence Day that saw violent confrontations between Blacks and whites, a house owned by Denison was partially wrecked by a white mob. While Black veterans organized themselves to defend the Black Belt during the race riot, there's no record of Denison ever suggesting that Blacks take the law into their own hands.

The federal allegations against Denison, who had returned to his job as assistant attorney general for the state of Illinois, seem to have been built around the perceptions of two white men who felt uncomfortable in a Black church. In addition to Denison, the Chicago office of the Bureau of Investigation singled out Ida B. Wells ("considered by the black population of Chicago [to] be a sort of super-woman") and Black publications like the Defender ("decidedly rabid in their attitude toward the white people of Chicago"). By and large, the federal analysis of the Chicago race riot regarded white violence against Blacks in the summer of 1919 as an understandable reaction to Black encroachment on spaces reserved for whites.

It seems that Denison was not hurt by the confidential musings of the Bureau of Investigation. At his retirement in 1922, he was elevated to brigadier general. After he died in 1932, 6,000 crowded the Eighth Regiment Armory to pay their respects.  v

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