This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 1917 East St. Louis Race Riot, one of the most horrid riots we’ve had in the 20th century. While this riot remains a pinnacle point in American history, there are not enough people talking about it, nor enough people who know about it.
Below are five things you need to know about the 1917 East St. Louis Race Riot.
1. White fear and resentment triggered the riot
Very similar to what most white officers say to justify their murders of black bodies, the white man’s fear provoked the race riot in East St. Louis. Many blacks were migrating north and to the midwest from the south, seeking employment and a better life overall in the early 20th century. East St. Louis was a prime opportunity industrial area for employment. Union workers went on several labor strikes and employers were grappling for non-union workers to fill employment spots. Several black migrants assumed these roles. (White) union workers resented many of the black migrants, and spread an irrational fear that a mass of blacks had come—and would continue to come—to East St. Louis to steal their jobs. The irrational fear didn’t stop with employment, but carried over into the political arena.
“One particularly striking parallel to today’s political landscape, local newspapers warned of voter fraud, alleging that black voters were moving between northern cities to swing local elections as part of a far-reaching conspiracy called 'colonization,''" (motherjones.com)
2. Racial tension brewed over time
Tension between blacks and whites thickened during a labor meeting on May 28th, which was the prelude to the July race riot. Over 60 delegates of the East STL labor union expressed formal grievances and initiated a protest against the migration of blacks to the north. Upon the closing of the meeting, a rumor spread that a white man was robbed by a “negro robber,” thus escalating whites to form a mob and begin destroying black property and bodies. Tension soon dissolved, but left an opening to what would become one of the worst race riots in American history in the weeks to follow
3. Men, women, AND children were brutally murdered
White residents set fire to many black households leaving black residents with a gruesome choice to either die by fire or run the risk of coming outside to die by bullets; white residents pulled several blacks out of streetcars and beat, shot and bludgeoned them to death. Black bodies were tossed into the river, pregnant woman had their stomachs stomped in and many Blacks were lynched.
“I saw the most sickening incident of the evening when they got stronger rope. To put the rope around the negro’s neck, one of the lynchers stuck his fingers inside the gaping scalp and lifted the negro’s head by it, literally bathing his hand in the man’s blood. ‘Get hold, and pull for East St. Louis,’ called the man as he seized the other end of rope. The negro was lifted to a height of about seven feet and the body left hanging there for house.”
— St. Louis Post Dispatch interview.
4. Death toll is unknown
An “official” death toll counted 39 blacks and 8 whites, but there is heavy speculation that up to 250 blacks were murdered the evening of July 2nd.
5. Black excellence responded to the violence
Some of the most prominent black leaders of the 20th century responded to the horrid East St. Louis race riot. W.E.B DuBois was summoned by the NAACP to investigate the riot and issued the “Massacre in East St. Louis” report. Marcus Garvey spoke on behalf of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) by stating that the riot was a “crime against humanity” (many attribute his notoriety with black activism to his response to the race riot). The NAACP staged a massive protest in New York City that generated more than 5000 black activists, further emphasizing the race riot as a national issue and not just an East St. Louis issue.
The current climate of our country did not become this way overnight. Black americans have faced years and years and years of systemic and institutionalized racism, oppression, inhumane living conditions and a myriad of glass ceilings strategically put in place by racist white Americans. To understand today, we must learn about our yesterday; research, read, ask questions and inquire. There is absolutely nothing new under the sun, however, we possess the will and the want to keep something like the East STL race riot from ever happening again.