Americas,  ER,  United States

East St. Louis Riots of 1917

The Great Migration saw great numbers of Southern African Americans who traveled north to find jobs and opportunities. One of the places that became a stopping point was the industrial city of East St. Louis. In Illinois across the Mississippi river from St. Louis, East St. Louis was booming due to increased production for World War I. The Aluminum Ore Company and American Steel Company were prominent among those hiring. However, tensions were running high as up to 2,000 people a week were arriving from the South. The rate was so high that Marcus Garvey actively tried to discourage migration to East St. Louis, but still people came.

In February 1917, the workers of the Aluminum Ore Company went on strike. Those on the picket lines were replaced by African American workers. This was not an uncommon practice, as strikes were commonly broken up by hiring African American workers. The National Stockyards had crushed a 4,000 strong union strike using this strategy the year before in July 1916. This pitted white workers against African American ones for the scraps the powerful corporations were willing to throw them. Migration became a foremost concern of the whites of East St. Louis.

Tensions simmered until the first outbreak of violence on May 28, 1917. A city council meeting was called and angry white workers lodged formal complaints against the migration with the mayor. This descended into the regular complaints of atrocities committed against white women. This was a common tactic for lynch mobs as found by studies by Ida B. Wells-Barnett. (For more on her, please see this post: ) The mayor called for the end of “hotheadedness”, but everyone pretty much ignored him. Rumors circulated that after the meeting an armed African American man robbed a white man. The tempers were stoked to a fever pitch by lawyer Alexander Flannigen, who made a speech demonizing the African American residents of East St. Louis. His speech ended with him saying,

“As far as I know, there is no law against mob violence.”

He seems nice. Anyway, that was all it took. Armed bands of white men were mobilized and people were handing out mob justice to any African American they could find. Streetcars and trolleys were stopped and passengers pulled off and beaten while the police watched. The Illinois governor called in the National Guard, but it was only a prelude.

On July 2, 1917, a car full of armed white men rolled into the black section of East St. Louis. The tense situation had become a powder keg. An African American man had been attacked near the Municipal Bridge the day before and rumors were running wild the whites of St. Louis planned to celebrate the 4th by killing and burning the black section of East St. Louis. Into that heightened atmosphere of anger and fear, came this black Model T firing gunshots into random homes on Trendley Street. The police were called and two detectives were sent to investigate. The big problem? They drove down to the scene of the crime in a black Model T.

The officers got to the intersection of 10th and Bond, and found 150 people ready to defend their homes and families. Eyewitnesses say they had “everything except a cannon on wheels.” The men exchanged words with the detectives, who were assumed to be the shooters not investigating officers. As the exchange got more tense, the chauffeur driving the Model T hit the gas to get out of there and the car backfired. All hell broke loose. The crowd opened fire and the car escaped in a hail of bullets, but both police detectives were killed in the process.

The banner of the killed officers were taken up like a battle flag, and there were open calls for anyone to take down the dangerous mob and “wipe out” the “Negro problem”. G.E. Popkess, a reporter for the St. Louis Times, reported hearing a prominent attorney promising a free defense for any man who would “avenge the murders of the two policemen”. The mayor of East St. Louis called for the National Guard, but as the city descended into madness sat with the Colonel in charge in a room and refused to give orders. People were killed in front of the National Guardsmen and they shrugged their shoulders and commented they had “no orders”. Soon buildings were on fire and people were being pulled off streetcars and killed. People escaping the burning buildings were met with gunfire, so that they stayed in their homes and burned to death. The bell at the Truelight Baptist Church began ringing in warning.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Carlos Hurd describes pandemonium in his 3.000 word account of the riots which appeared in the paper on July 3, 1917. He said,

“For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless negroes at Broadway and Fourth Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where black skin was a death warrant.”

Hurd’s account left the dispassionate journalistic style of the time behind, and he was frank about the indifference he saw from those who were sworn to protect the innocent and outraged at their criminal behavior. He ended his article with the words,

“In recording this, I do not forget that a policeman — by all accounts a fine and capable policeman — was, killed by negroes the night before. I have not forgotten it in writing about the acts of the men in the street. Whether this crime excuses or palliates a massacre, which probably included none of the offenders, is something I will leave to apologists for last evening’s occurrences, if there are any such, to explain.”

Another description comes from young Freda McDonald, who is better known as the international sensation Josephine Baker, who witnessed the riots from her home in downtown St. Louis. She describes hearing a hum like a coming thunderstorm. Then looking out the door and seeing the end of the world.

“This was the Apocalypse. Clouds, glowing from the incandescent light of huge flames leaping up from the riverbank, raced across the sky . . . but not as quickly as the breathless figures that dashed in all directions. The entire black community appeared to be fleeing.”

It is estimated that 7,000 people escaped over the bridges that night for as long as they were allowed to. Young Samuel Kennedy’s family wasn’t that lucky. When their home was set ablaze, his mother, Katherine Horne Kennedy, hid her family in the tall weeds for hours until it was safe to come out. By that time the bridges were blocked, so the resourceful woman built a raft and sailed her family across the river. Tragically, she caught pneumonia on the river and died a week later. In a happy note, Samuel survived and became an alderman in St. Louis’ 18th Ward. A position his son, Terry, went on to fill as well.

Enough was finally enough, and late in the night of July 2, the National Guardsmen finally acted. 200 rioters attempting lynch an African American man were rounded up and put in the basement of city hall. According to St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, Paul Anderson, that seemed to “break the back of the riot” and people began to disperse. Too bad they hadn’t bothered to act twelve hours before as countless lives and property would have been saved. People cautiously came out to survey the damage and hoped it was the end of the violence. In the end, six block of town were burned, which included 300 homes as well as the Public Library and Opera House. Very few African American people were left in East St. Louis. They had fled or were lying dead in the street. The death toll was reported by the Congressional Investigating Committee later that at least 8 whites and 39 blacks died. Later reports mark the death toll as anywhere from 40 to 150. Other estimates place the death toll as high as 250. No one really knows.

NAACP parade protesting the East Saint Louis Race Riot of 1917, New York City. Photo Credit- Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Traveling from Chicago on behalf of the Negro Fellowship League was Ida B. Wells-Barnett (Again, her post is here, and it is worth a read. She is a badass. ) She interviewed the remaining African Americans left in East St. Louis and found a community in shock. After being amongst the refugees, she described it as being surrounded by

“people who had suddenly been robbed of everything except what they stood in . . . dazed over the thing that had come to them and unable to tell what it was all about.”

Later interviews of both white and African American witness depicted a community unrepentant for the level of violence. Sadly, although the East St. Louis riots were one of the bloodiest, it was merely a trend of violence that was being shown nationwide.

The NAACP tried to elicit a response from President Wilson, who had made promises regarding anti-lynching legislation. They organizing what was called the Silent Parade in New York City. On July 28, 1916, 10,000 African American protesters marched down Fifth Avenue. The women and children were dressed in white and the men dressed in all black. It was the first protest of its kind. President Wilson was as silent as the parade. However, the House of Representatives did break with Wilson and begin an investigation into the riots. That investigation found that there was gross incompetence in the East St. Louis police force, which led to the indictment of several police officers. They also stated

“no terms of condemnation applied to the men who were responsible for these appalling conditions . . . can be too severe.”