Three days of violence forced African-American families to run for their lives and the aftereffects are still felt in the Illinois city today
Two National Guard escort an African-American man in the tense summer weeks of 1917 in East St. Louis, Illinois. (Bettmann)
No one really knows about this. . . . I know about it because my father, uncles and aunts lived through it,” Dhati Kennedy says.
He’s referring to an incident that survivors call the East St. Louis Race War. From July 1 through July 3, 1917, a small Illinois city located across the river from its Missouri counterpart was overrun with violence. Kennedy’s father Samuel, who was born in 1910 lived in East St. Louis when the conflict occurred. A smoldering labor dispute turned deadly as rampaging whites began brutally beating and killing African-Americans. By the end of the three-day crisis, the official death toll was 39 black individuals and nine whites, but many believe that more than 100 African-Americans were killed.
“We spent a lifetime as children hearing these stories. It was clear to me my father was suffering from some form of what they call PTSD,” Kennedy recalls. “He witnessed horrible things: people’s houses being set ablaze, . . . people being shot when they tried to flee, some trying to swim to the other side of the Mississippi while being shot at by white mobs with rifles, others being dragged out of street cars and beaten and hanged from street lamps.”
Kennedy is the founder of the Committee for Historical Truth, a group that has spent 20 years commemorating the event and the subsequent black exodus from the city. This year, the Kennedys, survivors, historians and human rights activists are hosting three days of activities in East St. Louis and St. Louis, as well as on the Eads Bridge that connects the two cities. Many residents of East St. Louis used this bridge to flee into Missouri.
“Thousands of blacks were streaming across that bridge when what they called the ‘race war’ got into full swing,” Kennedy says. “When that happened, the police shut down the bridge, and no one could escape. Some, in desperation, tried to swim and drowned.”
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture holds within its collections a copy of the September 1917 issue of The Crisis, a NAACP publication. The magazine includes articles about the East St. Louis race massacres and the Silent Parade held in Harlem, New York, to bring attention to the atrocities happening in Illinois.
The September 1917 issue of The Crisis(Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Bobbie Ross in memory of Elizabeth Dillard)
Racial tensions began simmering in East St. Louis—a city where thousands of blacks had moved from the South to work in war factories—as early as February 1917. The African-American population was 6,000 in 1910 and nearly double that by 1917. In the spring, the largely white workforce at the Aluminum Ore Company went on strike. Hundreds of blacks were hired. After a City Council meeting on May 28, angry white workers lodged formal complaints against black migrants. When word of an attempted robbery of a white man by an armed black man spread through the city, mobs started beating any African-Americans they found, even pulling individuals off of streetcars and trolleys. The National Guard was called in but dispersed in June.
On July 1, a white man in a Ford shot into black homes. Armed African-Americans gathered in the area and shot into another oncoming Ford, killing two men who turned out to be police officers investigating the shooting. The next morning, whites pouring out of a meeting in the Labor Temple downtown began beating blacks with guns, rocks and pipes. They set fire to homes and shot residents as they fled their burning properties. Blacks were also lynched in other areas of the city.
Carlos F. Hurd, a reporter known for his harrowing interviews with survivors of the R.M.S. Titanic wreck, published a July 3 eyewitness report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The article was also quoted in The Crisis.
“The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a man hunt, conducted on a sporting basis, though with anything but the fair play which is the principle of sport,” Hurd wrote. “There was a horribly cool deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it. ‘Get a n*****’ was the slogan, and it was varied by the recurrent cry, ‘Get another!’”
Racial tensions began simmering in East St. Louis—a city where thousands of blacks had moved from the South to work in war factories—as early as February 1917. (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Bobbie Ross in memory of Elizabeth Dillard)
Hugh L. Wood, writing for the St. Louis Republic, was also quoted in The Crisis: “A Negro weighing 300 pounds came out of the burning line of dwellings just north and east of the Southern fright home. . . . ‘Get him!’ they cried. So a man in the crowd clubbed his revolver and struck the Negro in the face with it. Another dashed an iron bolt between the Negro’s eyes. Still another stood near and battered him with a rock. Then the giant Negro tumbled to the ground. . . . A girl stepped up and struck the bleeding man with her foot. The blood spurted onto her stockings and men laughed and grunted.”
The Crisis articles include more scenes of raw horror: a person was beheaded with a butcher knife, and a 12-year-old African-American girl fainted after being pulled from a trolley bus. Her mother stopped to help and a white crowd attacked, leaving the mother prostrate with a gaping hole in her head.
As Kennedy’s family prepared for a Sunday morning church service, they learned that whites were heading into the “African quarter.” His grandmother called everyone into the house, and his teenaged father and uncles prepared for battle. Some in the city—both white and black—had just returned from World War I.
“Uncle Eddie and some of the other young men were armed—he had a squirrel rifle. They staked out in front of our home and warded off the marauding white mob as they came down our street. They had to take cover because the white men were shooting at them,” Kennedy says. “There was a standoff if you will, and I understand from my uncle that it seemed to last for hours. They witnessed the burning of homes and people. . . . People were hanged as well.”
By early Monday morning, the whole neighborhood was on fire. Kennedy’s family decided to run for the river under the cover of darkness.
“According to my uncles, it took four hours to get across that river. . . .They fashioned a raft out of old doors and charred wood to cross the Mississippi River and get to the St. Louis side,” Kennedy explains. “The raft [sprung] leaks, but they were able to get across.”
Even now, Kennedy says, the family deals with the aftermath of those harrowing days. His grandmother, Katherine Horne Kennedy, died several weeks after the riots from pneumonia and the stress of the crossing. To this day, the family tells children answering the door to look out of the window and stand aside—somebody might be waiting outside with a gun.
“My uncles said they had to stay on the Missouri side of the river, and in the east the horizon was just glowing for weeks from burning buildings. For days afterward, you could still hear screams and gunshots,” Kennedy says.
He is looking forward to the centennial commemoration because as he explains, freedom did not come easily to African-Americans, and people need to know what happened. East St. Louis was not the only example of violence against blacks: Other cities suffered similar destruction, including Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, and Rosewood, Florida, in 1923.
The centennial begins with a film festival in East St Louis on July 1. The next day, a procession accompanied by drummers will leave from East St. Louis and proceed to the middle of the Eads Bridge. A memorial wreath will be placed in the river, and sky lanterns will be released in honor of those who died. There will be discussions at a local church on July 3, a day of resurrection.
But Kennedy notes that in East St. Louis, a stone’s throw from Ferguson, Missouri, the healing is far from over. Ferguson is ground zero for the Black Lives Matter movement, which erupted in the wake of the 2014 police killing of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown.
“With all of the talk of healing, especially after Ferguson—here we call it the uprising—my feeling is how can you heal over a festering sore?” Kennedy asks. “You’ve got to clean it out and disinfect it first, and to do that we have to know the truth.”