East St. Louis Race Riots
|East St. Louis Massacre|
Political cartoon about the East St. Louis massacres of 1917. The caption reads, "Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?", referring to Wilson's catch-phrase: "The world must be made safe for democracy" (shown on the document he holds).
|Date||May 28 and July 2, 1917|
|Location||East St. Louis, Illinois|
|Caused by||White mobs inflamed over labor inequities, beat, shot and hanged African Americans|
|Death(s)||nine whites; 40-250 African Americans|
The East St. Louis riots, or East St. Louis massacres, of late May and July 1-3, 1917 were an outbreak of labor- and race-related violence by whites that caused the death of 40-250 black people and approximately $400,000 (over $8 million, in 2017 US Dollars ) in property damage. An estimated 6,000 black people were left homeless. They took place in East St. Louis, Illinois, an industrial city on the east bank of the Mississippi River across from St. Louis, Missouri. The July 1917 riot was marked by white-led violence throughout the city. These events have been described as the worst case of labor-related violence in 20th-century American history, and among the worst race riots in U.S. history. They were covered by national newspapers.
Afterward the East St. Louis Chamber of Commerce called for the resignation of the police chief because of the failure of the police force to suppress the violence and destruction. At the end of July, some 10,000 people marched in silent protest in New York City in condemnation of the riots. A number of blacks left the city permanently; black enrollment in the public schools dropped by 35% when schools opened in the fall.
In 1917 the United States had an active economy boosted by World War I. Many would-be workers were drafted or enlisted in active military service, creating a shortage of labor for industrial employers in major cities, which had been destinations for European immigrants. Concurrently African Americans began the Great Migration from the rural South to seek better work and education, as well as an escape from lynchings and Jim Crow conditions. Labor agencies recruited some workers for specific jobs, especially as strikebreakers but labor demand was sufficient that migrants moved on their own, having heard about opportunities. St. Louis, Missouri and East St. Louis, Illinois both became destinations for southern migrants. For example, blacks were arriving in St. Louis during Spring 1917 at the rate of 2,000 per week.
Major industries in East St. Louis included Aluminum Ore Co., American Steel Foundry, Republic Iron & Steel, Obear Nester Glass and Elliot Frog & Switch (a frog was part of a railroad switch), with many facilities located just outside the city limits to escape taxes. Nearby National City had stockyards and meat packing plants, attracting more workers. It was a rough industrial city, where saloons outnumbered schools and churches. In 1910 East St. Louis had 6,000 blacks in a total population of 58,000. By 1917, the number of African Americans had increased to 10,000, or one-sixth of its population of 60,000.
In the summer of 1916, the 2500 white workers in meat packing near East St. Louis went on strike for higher wages, and the companies imported black workers to replace them. Ultimately the workers won a wage increase but the companies retained 800 blacks, firing as many whites after the strike, according to the former president of the Central Trades and Labor Union of East St. Louis. This added to existing social tensions.
This period was one of frequent labor violence across the country in industrial cities: employers used force to try to suppress labor organizing and strikes, while workers struggled to gain fair wages and working conditions. Many industrial workers were immigrants from Europe. When industries became embroiled in labor strikes, the traditionally white unions sought to strengthen their bargaining position by hindering or excluding black workers. But industry owners hired blacks as replacements or strikebreakers, adding to deep existing societal divisions. The groups competed economically to survive, and white workers feared they would be undercut by black workers taking lower wages. The Springfield race riot of 1908 in Illinois was an expression of the simmering tensions in the region during the nadir of race relations.
While in New Orleans on a lecture tour, Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who founded the UNIA in 1916, became aware that Louisiana planters and the city's Board of Trade were worried about losing their labor force, as he recounted in a speech the following year. He said that Mayor Mollman of East St. Louis was also visiting the city that week, and city leaders asked for his assistance to help discourage black migration to the North.
Ethnic white workers in industrial cities often resented black newcomers, primarily because of economic competition. In addition, the rural blacks came from different cultures than those of the recent European immigrants. In Spring 1917, the mostly white workers of the Aluminum Ore Company in East St. Louis voted for a labor strike. The Company recruited hundreds of black workers to replace them. Tensions between the groups escalated. At a labor meeting on May 28, held in City Hall and made up mostly of white workers, there were also rumors circulating of black men fraternizing with white women.
Following the May 28 meeting, some 1,000-3,000 white men marched into downtown East St. Louis and began attacking African Americans on the street and in streetcars. They burned some buildings. Governor Frank Orren Lowden called in the National Guard to suppress the violence. Although rumors circulated that blacks were planning retaliatory attacks, conditions eased somewhat for a few weeks.
Following the May disorders, the East St. Louis Central Labor Council requested an investigation by the State Council of Defense. Its report said that "southern negroes were misled by false advertisements and unscrupulous employment agents to come to East St. Louis in such numbers under false pretenses of secure jobs and decent living quarters". The tensions between black workers and white workers quickly formed again as no solutions to their economic challenges were agreed upon. Struggling for decent wages, white workers feared competition from blacks.
The rioting was precipitated by fatal errors. On July 1, a black Ford Model T  occupied by white males drove through a black area of the city; passengers fired several shots into a group on the street. An hour later, a Ford containing four people, including a journalist and two police officers (Detective Sergeant Samuel Coppedge and Detective Frank Wadley), passed through the same area. Black residents, possibly assuming this car held the original attackers, opened fire on the car, killing one officer instantly and mortally wounding another.
The next day, thousands of white spectators gathered to view the detectives' bloodstained automobile. From there they rushed into the black sections of town, south and west of the city, and started rioting. They beat and shot blacks on the street indiscriminately, including women and children. After cutting the water hoses of the fire department, white rioters burned entire sections of the city and shot black residents as they escaped the flames. Claiming that "Southern negros deserve[d] a genuine lynching," some whites hanged several blacks.
According to the Post-Dispatch of St. Louis,
"All the impartial witnesses agree that the police were either indifferent or encouraged the barbarities, and that the major part of the National Guard was indifferent or inactive. No organized effort was made to protect the Negroes or disperse the murdering groups. The lack of frenzy and of a large infuriated mob made the task easy. Ten determined officers could have prevented most of the outrages. One hundred men acting with authority and vigor might have prevented any outrage."
Hundreds of blacks fled across the Eads Bridge over the Mississippi River to St. Louis to escape the violence, while 1500 sought refuge in city buildings. St. Louis institutions worked to assist the refugees, including the St. Louis chapter of the Red Cross, the Provident Association, and Jewish Education and Charitable Association, and related charities. The Red Cross Emergency Committee met daily with Acting Mayor Aloe, members of his administration and representatives of the charities to discuss how to aid the refugees.
The governor of Illinois ordered in the Illinois National Guard, who arrived on July 3. Numerous witnesses said that the Guard initially joined in attacks on blacks rather than stopping the riot.[page needed] More whites joined in. The New York Times reported that "ten or fifteen young girls about 18 years old, chased a negro woman at the Relay Depot at about 5 o'clock. The girls were brandishing clubs and calling upon the men to kill the woman."
Few photographs exist of the events, as rioters attacked photographers and destroyed their cameras, and city police harassed journalists. After the riots, the St. Louis Argus said, "The entire country has been aroused to a sense of shame and pity by the magnitude of the national disgrace enacted by the blood-thirsty rioters in East St. Louis Monday, July 2."
After the riots, varying estimates of the death toll circulated. The police chief estimated that 100 African Americans had been killed. The renowned journalist Ida B. Wells reported in The Chicago Defender that 40–150 African-American people were killed during the July riots. The NAACP estimated deaths at 100–200. Some 6,000 African Americans were left homeless after their neighborhoods were burned. A Congressional Investigating Committee, which met in the Fall of that year, concluded that no precise death toll could be determined, but reported that at least 8 whites and 39 African-Americans died. While the local coroner had documented nine white deaths, the deaths of African-American victims were less clearly recorded. Activists who disputed the Committee's conclusion about deaths, argued that the true number of deaths would never be known because many black corpses were not recovered, or did not pass through the hands of undertakers, who reported to the coroner.
Black community's reaction
The ferocious brutality of the attacks and the failure of authorities to protect innocent lives contributed to the radicalization of many blacks in St. Louis and the nation. Marcus Garvey, black nationalist leader of the UNIA from Jamaica, declared in a July 8 speech that the riot was "one of the bloodiest outrages against mankind" and a "wholesale massacre of our people", insisting that "This is no time for fine words, but a time to lift one's voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy."
In New York City on July 28, ten thousand black people marched down Fifth Avenue in a Silent Parade, protesting the East St. Louis riots. They carried signs that highlighted protests about the riots. The march was organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), then based in New York; leader W. E. B. Du Bois, and groups in Harlem. Women and children were dressed in white; the men were dressed in black. The NAACP had arranged for journalists to photograph the destruction in East St. Louis left after the riot: houses, stores, churches, and brick warehouses, were all left in ruins. These were published in the November 1917 issue of The Crisis, the organization's magazine.
Business community's reaction
On July 6, representatives of the East St. Louis Chamber of Commerce met with the mayor to demand the resignation of the Police Chief and Night Police Chief, or radical reform. They were outraged about the rioting and accused the mayor of having allowed a "reign of lawlessness." In addition to the high death toll, the riots had caused extensive property damage to city businesses and houses. The Southern Railway Company's warehouse was burned, with the loss of more than 100 car loads of merchandise, worth more than $525,000 to the company; some 44 freight cars, and 312 houses were also burned. A white-owned theatre, valued at more than $100,000, was also destroyed. Total property damage was estimated at $400,000  (nearly $8.5 million, in 2018 US Dollars).
In a mass meeting in Carnegie Hall on July 12 in New York City, Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor, tried to diminish the role in the massacre attributed to trade unions. He said that an investigation was needed in order to place blame. Theodore Roosevelt, former president of the United States, responded, "Mr. Gompers, why don't I accuse afterwards? I'll answer now, when murder is to be answered." Roosevelt also was reported to say, "I will go to the extreme to bring justice to the laboring man, but when there is murder I will put him down."
Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer (R-MO), a representative from a St. Louis urban district, had asked for a federal investigation. President Woodrow Wilson wrote to him on July 28, saying that special agents of the Department of Justice could not find enough evidence to justify federal action in the matter. He said: "I am informed that the attorney general of the State of Illinois has gone to East St. Louis to add his efforts to those of the officials of the county and city in pressing prosecutions under the State laws. The representatives of the Department of Justice are so far as possible lending aid to the State authorities in their efforts to restore tranquility and guard against further outbreaks."
Hearings on the riots before the Committee on Rules and House of Representatives, 65th Congress began on August 3, 1917. A federal investigation was eventually opened.
In October the state tried 25 blacks and 10 whites on charges related to the riot, including homicide and incitement to riot. Lena Cook survived an attack to testify against two white men, who had killed her husband Ed Cook and son, 14-year-old Lurizza Beard; they were convicted of murder. Included among the defendants was Dr. LeRoy Bundy, a black dentist and prominent leader in the East St. Louis black community. He was formally charged with inciting a riot. The trial was held in the county court of St. Clair County, Illinois. Bundy, along with thirty-four other defendants, of whom ten were white, was convicted and sentenced to prison in connection to the riot. Another source said that a total of nine whites and twelve blacks were convicted of serious crimes and sent to prison.
- "The NEGRO SILENT PROTEST PARADE organized by the NAACP Fifth Ave., New York City July 28, 1917" (PDF). National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, NC. National Humanities Center. 2014. Retrieved July 28, 2017.
- "Calculate the value of $400,000 in 1917". www.dollartimes.com.
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- "Speech by Marcus Garvey, July 8, 1917". Excerpts from Robert A. Hill, ed. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Volume I, 1826 – August 1919. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983, accessed 1 February 2009, PBS, American Experience.
- Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, New York: Verso, 1998, p. 95.
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- McLaughlin, Malcolm. Power, Community, and Racial Killing in East St. Louis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. ISBN 1-4039-7078-5.
- McLaughlin, Malcolm. "Reconsidering the East St Louis Race Riot of 1917", International Review of Social History. 47:2 (August 2002).
- "Race Rioters Fire East St. Louis and Shoot or Hang Many Negroes". The New York Times. July 3, 1917.
- Patrick, James. "The Horror of the East St. Louis Massacre." Exodus. February 22, 2000.
- Rudwick, Elliott M. Race Riot at East St. Louis. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964.
- Wells, Ida B. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Rev. edn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. ISBN 0-226-89344-8.
- The Crisis Magazine, August 1917 report on East St Louis Riot, pp. 177–178.
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- Riot at East St. Louis, Illinois : hearings before the Committee on Rules, House of Representatives, Sixty-fifth Congress, first session, on H.J. res. 118, August 3, 1917