Poet Eugene B. Redmond perhaps summed up the purpose of Saturday’s commemorative events best in his description of a mythical bird.
The Sankofa, an African symbol, is a legendary bird depicted with its feet facing backwards and its neck craned back as it looks over its shoulder.
“It means that you don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been,” Redmond explained.
Thus was the goal of the second day of the East St. Louis commemoration of the 1917 race riots that devastated the area a century ago – to educate the young people of the community so they can forge a better future.
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The day was packed with songs, speeches, a play reading called “Tinderbox” and exhibits, one of which Redmond put together himself. About 200 people were in attendance at the SIUE Higher Education Center, forming a “rainbow audience” ranging in age, race, gender and class, Redmond said.
The turnout was exactly what Redmond and Chairman Joseph Brown were hoping for.
“We have people under 18 and over 70 here,” Brown, a professor at SIUC, said. “There is a need to share this information with the young.”
Brown said the only way to heal and establish community is through this kind of inter-generational connection, and one of the best ways to do this is through story-telling.
“Sometimes people don’t tell stories because they’re painful. Well this city has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and as long as we keep it bottled up, we can’t ever start to heal. So we need to be talking about it.”
He said when the young people who attended shared their own songs, dances and poems about their experiences, this connection was strengthened.
“They’re talking to us through that. And when the young people say ‘we’re hurting’ and the old people say ‘well, baby, I know what it means to hurt,’ you got something going on then,” Brown said.
Marla Byrd, the facilitator of Saturday’s events, said the main takeaway of the day was to open up this multi-generational dialogue.
“Today was designed to be a day of remembrance and to encourage the younger generation to learn more history so they’re not destined to repeat it,” Byrd said.
While helping to educate the area on the race riots, Byrd also helped her own 16-year-old daughter learn more about East St. Louis’ history.
Saadya Shy-byrd said she didn’t know much about the riots before she started helping her mom help organize the commemoration. Despite attending a St. Louis high school, Saadya said they never talk about the riots or teach much African American history in general.
Reginald Petty also has a lot to say about education in the area, specifically in East St. Louis.
Petty, 77, described by others as the “best historian on East St. Louis,” can list from memory dozens of highly successful and extraordinary people around the world who are from East St. Louis. And yet, he said, not many people in the area know about them. This is because schools don’t include that information in their curriculum, despite the fact that its students who perhaps need this kind of inspiration most of all.
“It’s a matter of self-image and self-esteem,” Petty said. “They feel like East St. Louis has such a bad reputation, and they shouldn’t because they don’t know about these people. If they knew these people who grew up on the street by them made it, it might make a difference.
Despite talking to the school’s superintendent about the importance of this kind of education, Petty said they still aren’t being mentioned by teachers. He said he hopes after talking to the school board, they will put more pressure for the curriculum to be taught.
It isn’t just Petty who’s working on more education and reform for the future.
Brown said the commissioners are hoping to put on another event like the commemoration again in the fall. He also wants to encourage scholars to write and talk about the race riots.
“We’re not through.” Brown said.
Sunday is the final day of the observance of the race riots and will include a silent procession to the Eads Bridge where a commemorative program will take place.
At a glance
Here are the events scheduled for Sunday:
- 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. — “A Day of Reconciliation” with a worship service at Truelight Baptist Church, 1535 Tudor Ave., East St. Louis.
- 2 to 3 p.m. — Centennial Monument site blessing with speakers, singing, prayer, poetry and libation at East Riverfront MetroLink station, 100 S. Front St., near the Eads Bridge Entrance (park at Casino Queen).
- 4:30 p.m. — “The Gathering: East St. Louis Born Again” with speakers, including author Harper Barnes, spiritual readings, poetry, dance and libation at SIUE East St. Louis Center, 601 James Thompson Boulevard, between Building A and Obama Boulevard.
- 6:30 p.m. — Procession patterned after 1917 “silent” New York City protest with drumming only. Leaving from SIUE East St. Louis Center, going north on Obama Boulevard and left on Park and continuing to the middle of the Eads Bridge. Those unable to walk can join at east entrance.
- 7:30 p.m. — Commemorative program on the bridge with East St. Louis and St. Louis mayoral proclamations, singing, a wreath-drop to honor riot victims and release of sky lanterns. Program will be at East St. Louis City Hall in case of rain.