Color-coded history

March 7, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More

Consider this description of a significant and tragic event in American history:

[Occurring in May and July 1917, this event] was an outbreak of labor and racially motivated violence against blacks that caused an estimated 100 deaths and extensive property damage in [an American industrial city].  It was the worst incident of labor-related violence in 20th century American history, and one of the worst race riots in U.S. history. It gained national attention. The local Chamber of Commerce called for the resignation of the Police Chief. At the end of the month, ten thousand people marched in silent protest in New York City over the riots, which contributed to the radicalization of many.

[paraphrased from Wikipedia]

Do you know anything about the event described above?  The above passage describes the East St. Louis race riot that occurred on Monday, July 2, 1917.  I learned about this riot for the first time tonight when I had the opportunity to hear a talk by Harper Barnes, a St. Louis journalist who has recently written a book called Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights   Movement.

Harper Barnes - Photo by Erich Vieth

Harper Barnes - Photo by Erich Vieth

In 1914, the first world war was heating up and so were the heavy industries.  East St. Louis, Illinois, located right across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, was the home of large aluminum and steel plants.

To backtrack, through the 1910s, one-half million blacks who had resided in the rural South moved up to northern cities. Employers made use of these blacks as strikebreakers. The blacks certainly wouldn’t have felt much loyalty toward the unions, because the white unions banned black workers.

When many blacks came to town to take jobs to which whites felt an entitlement, this caused great tension. Further, many blacks tried to establish their homes in predominately white towns. Many of these blacks were poor, and some ended up homeless or living in shantytowns.

East St. Louis, Illinois, from St. Louis, Missouri - 2008 photo by Erich Vieth

East St. Louis, Illinois, from St. Louis, Missouri - 2008 photo by Erich Vieth

Many newspapers stories of the day sensationalized reports of black crime and poverty despite the fact that there were many problems in East St. Louis even before the blacks came in search of work. I offer the above as context for a better understanding of the race riot.

In June, 1917, thousands of white men gathered in downtown East St. Louis. They started to attack African-Americans and they destroyed some buildings. The governor of Illinois called in the National Guard to prevent further problems. Several weeks later, on July 1, a black man shot a white man who had attacked him. Other whites came by to retaliate. When the police showed up to investigate, the black man shot at them too, assuming that they were the earlier attackers, killing two of them. The next day, (July 2), thousands of white demonstrators started rioting in the black section of town. They cut the hoses to the fire department and burned large sections of the city. They shot blacks who tried to escape the burning houses, forcing some of them back in. Several blacks were lynched.

Perhaps because two of their officers have been killed, the police did not do much to restrain the rioters. The riot was marked with terrible brutality and by the unwillingness of the authorities to stop the violence. Barnes described the violence in disturbing detail. Children were screaming and running with everything they could carry. One family with six small children ran down to the river with some rope and created a makeshift raft with which they paddled 500 yards across the Mississippi River. Not everyone could escape, however.

About 48 blacks were killed in the riot, a total not exceeded in an American racial riot until 55 people were killed during the Rodney King incident. Hundreds of blacks were attacked and injured during the East St. Louis riot. Thousands of blacks were forced to flee the area. 300 homes were destroyed.  The riots were exacerbated at 2 PM when the mayor ordered the saloons to close, forcing those customers out into the streets.

The silver lining is that many people demonstrated kindness in the aftermath of the riots. 7,000 people from East St. Louis were taken in by families across the river in St. Louis. The mayor of St. Louis encouraged this. The Post-Dispatch poured its resources into writing even-handed accounts of the riots. Barnes indicated that, in his book, the newspaper reporters are portrayed as heroes.  The riot inspired great art. Writer Josephine Baker was a little girl caught up in the riots.  Miles Davis was born a mere nine years after the riot in East St. Louis.  The riot was such a disturbing event that a few weeks after the riot occurred, 10,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to protest the riots.

The 1917 riot of East St. Louis is undoubtedly a significant event in American history. Following the East St. Louis riot, additional racial riots occurred in dozens of other American cities. Some of those riots occurred in 1918, after the soldiers who have served and World War I (which included many blacks) came home with their guns. Barnes commented that in many of these race riots, “Whites murdered blacks were seeking the rights promised to them 50 years earlier.” He further suggested that these riots were undoubtedly “the legacy of American slavery.”

I’ve lived in St. Louis all my life and I like to think that I’m well informed. Yet I’d never heard of the East St. Louis race riot before tonight. Barnes has talked about the riot with many people in the course of researching and writing his book. He characterizes it as arguably “the deadliest riot of the 20th century.” Yet he has found that whites know virtually nothing about the riot, even whites living in the St. Louis area. On the other hand, blacks arewell-informed about the riot; blacks indicate that the riot was caused by whites who were angry that some blacks were moving into their neighborhoods and taking their jobs. This information has been passed down among blacks for decades. Most blacks didn’t learn of the riot by reading anything about it in any history book.

After the lecture, I spoke with a black woman, a school teacher, who currently resides in East St. Louis. She indicated that she and other blacks who live in a St. Louis are well aware of the 1917 race riot. She agreed with Barnes that information about the riot is passed down orally among blacks.

Tonight was yet another reminder that blacks and whites sometimes experience different Americas. Many of us would like to think that the legacy of slavery has been erased (or a least largely erased). Tonight’s talk about the East St. Louis race riot, and the almost total ignorance of this riot by white people is a powerful reminder that official history is most effectively promulgated by those with political power, not by the common folks.  This is a principle that was instilled in me at the age of 18 when I read Howard Zinn’s excellent book, A People’s history of the United States. Tonight I was reminded of that same lesson.


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Category: Bigotry, History, Noteworthy, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Carolyn Cuskey says:

    Mr. Vieth, I need to correct one statement in your East St. Louis Race Riot story. You stated "About 48 blacks were killed in the riot, a total not exceeded in an American racial riot until 55 people were killed during the Rodney King incident." This is inaccurate, as there the worst race riot in American history was the Tulsa Race Riot on May 31/June 1, 1921. This is a well-documented event, with the most in-depth description available online at these websites:… and

    I would appreciate you making this correction in your online information. Thanks. Carolyn Cuskey

  2. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    I remember visiting my grandmother in Belleville, Illinois, one summer back in the 60's. I was 7 years old and one day she had a Dr appointment in St Louis, which meant a trip through East St Louis. I'll remember it always. It looked like a war zone.

  3. Brad says:

    Carolyn, the official death toll in the Tulsa riots was 39.

    • Angie says:

      Actually Brad, if you look it up and read the story (which I did) the unofficial death toll was not 39 but up to 300! I’m going to paste a clip in this comment from the article.

      “The number of dead varies widely. On June 1, 1921, the Tulsa Tribune reported that 9 whites and 68 blacks had died in the riot, but shortly afterward changed this to a total of 176 dead On the next day, the same paper reported the count as 9 whites and 21 blacks. The New York Times said that 77 people had been killed, including 68 blacks, but then lowered the total to 33. The Oklahoma Department of Vital Statistics count put the number of dead at 36: 26 black, 10 white. Maurice Willows, an American Red Cross social worker, reported that up to 300 blacks were killed. He also reported that there was a rush to bury the bodies and that no records were made of many burials”.

      Now at that time all crimes towards Blacks were simply not reported. The same is true today. But come on, do you really think that the City of Tulsa wants to have a rap of a riot that has that many black people dead? No they wouldn’t. They don’t want a record like that as would any other city. Tulsa Riot was definately the worst even though all race riots are bad.

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