Saturday, July 1, 2017

The East St. Louis Riots of 1917

One hundred years ago today a fascinating (and gruesome) event took place in East St. Louis Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis.  The East St. Louis riots have been described as one of the worst race riots in U.S. history.

Today the city is a high-crime, high-poverty area, but in the early 20th century it had a strong industrial economy.   Between 1900 and 1920 more than 100 manufacturing plants opened in and around East St. Louis. Companies began to recruit black workers from Southern states in an effort to flood the labor market, keep wages low, and weaken unionization efforts.  As a result, racial tensions began to increase.

In May, 1917 white workers attacked several blacks; the black residents organized to defend their neighborhoods.  Resentment on both sides continued to grow.  On July 1, a black man attacked a white man.  In retaliation a group of whites fired randomly into black homes from a speeding car. An angry crowd of black residents gathered. When two detectives arrived to investigate, the crowd mistook them for the gunmen, opened fire, and killed them.

Thousands of whites went on a rampage the next day. They mobbed the black section of town, burned entire sections of the city, and shot or lynched black people as they escaped the flames. The police and National Guard stood by and did nothing (and several accounts say the Guard even joined in the rioting). Thousands of blacks fled across the  Mississippi River bridges to St. Louis.  The violence lasted for three days.  Officially, 39 blacks and nine whites died in the riots (but the toll may have been much higher).  Some news accounts at the time say as many as 250 blacks died.

This week there have been newspaper and magazine articles, television and radio programs, and ceremonies commemorating the event.  Hopefully all the publicity will help educate people so this important event isn't forgotten.

Five years ago today: Feeding Finches Revisited