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Five questions for Claire Hartfield

Photo: Brian McConkey.

With painstaking historical detail, Claire Hartfield’s nonfiction book  A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 (Clarion, 12–16 years) recounts the week of violence in 1919 Chicago that left thirty-eight people dead and 537 wounded (two-thirds of the casualties were black; one-third, white) and the underlying causes leading to the conflict. Hartfield is the winner of the 2019 Coretta Scott King Author Award for A Few Red Drops. The Coretta Scott King Awards celebrate their fiftieth anniversary this year; see our upcoming May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK at 50. For more on Black History Month visit hbook.com/tag/black-history-month.

1. How does it feel to win the 2019 Coretta Scott King Author Award? (and in its fiftieth anniversary year!)

CH: I am thrilled to receive such a great honor! This year marks a confluence of two anniversaries: the hundredth anniversary of the Chicago Race Riot and the fiftieth anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Author Award. The thing that’s most important and most exciting to me about my win is the spotlight that is now shining on this significant historical moment. I’ve talked with so many readers who say, “I never knew about this.” They are surprised to learn that people in 1919 were experiencing some of the same injustices that we are dealing with today. And after reading the book, they have a greater understanding of how we got here, the mistakes that we want to avoid repeating, and tools for doing it better this time.

2. The book opens with the event that sparked the riot. It goes back to provide deep historical context, then details, day by day, the horrific week of rioting. How did you choose this powerful structure?

CH: When I first started researching the riot, I thought I would find its causes by looking a few months back. Instead, I found that the tensions had been growing for decades. Like so many emotion-fueled explosions in our lives, a seemingly isolated event set off a seismic response that went way beyond the catalyst. The roots of the problem had been simmering for a long time. I wanted to bring that fact home by starting with the event that sparked the riot, then going deeper to explore the underlying causes. By the time I take readers through the riot week itself, they can answer: “Why did this happen?”

3. When and how did you first learn about this historical event?

CH: I first heard about the Chicago race riot of 1919 from my grandmother who lived through it. When I was a little girl, she would tell me stories about life when she was young. In 1919, she had just moved up to Chicago from the South, where she was born. She had gotten herself an apartment in the black community and a job in the industrial neighborhood. She loved her new life in Chicago. But one hot July day in 1919, as she was taking the streetcar home from work, she looked out her window and saw mobs of young men — black and white — fighting in the streets and throwing rocks. She made it home safely, but this turned out to be the first day of a riot that would last an entire week, leaving thirty-eight people dead and over five hundred injured, as well as more than a million dollars of property destroyed.

4. How can we better bring these stories from American history to light for young people?

CH: History is being brought to life in such a new and exciting way by many authors. When I was in school we only had textbooks, which were pretty boring. I am happy to say that the way we present history to young people has changed. In my book, I use many original sources, share stories from the lives of famous and ordinary people who lived in 1919, and pair the text with photographs and editorial cartoons that help readers visualize what it was like to live in that moment one hundred years ago.

5. You take the title of the book from the Carl Sandburg poem “I Am the People, the Mob”: “Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then — I forget.” What do you hope to impart to young readers?

CH: Sometimes when I talk to young people about what is going on in our country today, they say, “Things are worse now than they’ve ever been.” And they don’t see how we can make things better. Knowing and remembering our history helps us to see that we do have the power to shape the future. It teaches us that there have been other times like ours. It helps us learn from the mistakes that were made in the past and to build upon ideas that hold promise for a better future.

From the February 2019 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

About Elissa Gershowitz and Martha V. Parravano

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book Magazine.

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