Metro-East Living

‘You will die’: East St. Louis massacre rivals Orlando

A front page of the News-Democrat during the time of the attacks.
A front page of the News-Democrat during the time of the attacks.

Q: For days, I’ve heard and read over and over that the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla., last weekend was the deadliest mass shooting ever in the United States. Is that true?

F.C., of Belleville

A: Believe it or not, it may depend on how you define “mass shootings.” Some limit them to killings by a lone gunman or small group in a well-defined area such as a school, theater or nightclub. The only goal is murder and mayhem. If you agree, then the Pulse may fit the description.

But others say such a narrow focus prevents comparisons with any number of horrific events in U.S. history linked to fear, discrimination, intolerance and the nation’s gun culture. They argue that as shocking and ghastly as the Florida tragedy was, it actually pales in comparison to at least a half dozen shooting massacres that have occurred over the years.

And what metro-east residents may find surprising (and shameful) is that one of those abominable events took place right here in East St. Louis, where 100 blacks — and possibly untold dozens more — likely were slaughtered during a bloody July in 1917.

With World War I raging in Europe, Southern blacks were flooding north to take advantage of employment opportunities in wartime and other industries. In 1916 and 1917 alone, between 10,000 and 12,000 blacks are estimated to have poured into East St. Louis as part of this “Great Migration.” As you might expect — especially a century ago — this influx of blacks taking over jobs in the city’s industrial plants (Aluminum Ore, American Steel, etc.) disturbed residents of a city that had been predominantly white.

Hostility grew as white workers increasingly feared an end to the job and wage security they had enjoyed. In an atmosphere not unlike today, they also resented newcomers coming from a different cultural background. Then, on May 28, tensions came to a head after rumors of black men and white women fraternizing at a labor meeting spread through town, according to Elliott Rudwick in his 1964 book, “Race Riot at East St. Louis.”

After the meeting, some 3,000 white men reportedly marched into downtown East St. Louis and began beating any black they saw. With mobs destroying buildings and attacking blacks at will, Gov. Frank Lowden ordered in the National Guard to quell the disturbances. This produced a shaky month-long truce, but nothing was done to attack the root causes — ensuring white job security, for example, or recognizing the union, according to blackpast.org. Bad feelings continued to simmer, so with the National Guard long gone, it likely surprised few when all hell broke loose on July 2.

The riot actually had been precipitated the night before when two cars filled with white gunmen “made a number of trips” through black neighborhoods, firing into the homes of blacks as they went, according to a grand jury impaneled to examine the matter. An hour later, another car containing a white journalist and two white police officers returned to the area to investigate the shooting reports. Thinking they were the suspects who had been harassing them all evening, blacks opened fired, killing Detective Sgt. Samuel Coppedge and Detective Frank Wadley.

As news of the lawmen’s deaths spread on July 2, thousands of whites who came to see the detectives’ bloodstained automobile marched into the black section of town and started rioting. According to numerous accounts that have been published in the years since, rioters cut the fire department’s water hoses after setting fire to entire sections of the city. They then shot residents trying to escape the flames. Claiming that “Southern Negros deserved a genuine lynching,” they hanged several blacks. National Guardsmen were called back in, but several accounts accuse at least some of them of joining in the rioting.

“Engendered with false fears, Negroes want only murdered policemen bent on aiding them,” Harper Barnes wrote in his 2008 book, “Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement.” “A rival flame of passion and unreasoning violence ... caused white men to draw guns and clubs and shoot and beat to death some of the oldest and most respected Negro citizens of East St. Louis ...”

The resulting tumult was horrific.

“Ten or 15 young girls about 18 years old chased a negro woman at the Relay Depot at about 5 o’clock,” according to one story. “The girls were brandishing clubs and calling upon the men to kill the woman.”

Over the years, people who lived through the riot have shared gut-wrenching memories with the News-Democrat. In 1997, for example, Jefferson Lewis told of being a 6-year-old on a train pulling into East St. Louis and seeing bodies on fire through the window. He and his family were supposed to be arriving at their new home from Mississippi, but a white man boarded the train and ordered the conductor to keep going.

“If you get off,” the man told the black passengers, “you will die.”

In 2006, St. Louis Alderman Terry Kennedy told us about his grandmother trying to save her family by fleeing toward the Eads Bridge after her home had been attacked and burned.

“The Eads Bridge was blocked because they were not letting evacuees from East St. Louis into St. Louis,” Kennedy said. “So my grandmother had no choice but to build a raft and float across.”

Then there were the vivid stories 95-year-old Olga Wayne experienced firsthand as a 7-year-old girl.

“You could see the blazes in the air while they were beating people and stealing,” Wayne said. “As long as you could see the smoke we stayed up.”

At first, Wayne’s family had been among the lucky. They took refuge at the Aluminum Ore Co. plant, where her father, Walker Falconer, worked. According to Wayne, the company offered shelter for all of its black employees and their families during the unrest. But when Wayne’s young brother, Marvin, became ill, the family was forced to return to their home on McCasland Avenue. Even at her age, Wayne felt the fear and uncertainty, but they remained safe thanks to the quick thinking of her maternal grandfather, Samuel Hayes. Hayes was a well-to-do plantation owner who happened to be visiting from Mississippi. So he hired National Guardsmen to protect the house at night when they were off-duty.

“He went downtown and he brought back 12 guards — three for each side of the house — for the rest of the race riot, and they stayed for five or six days,” Wayne said.

On July 3, readers of the St. Louis Republican saw “Mob Kills Many Negroes. Dead in East St. Louis May Reach 250. Shot Fleeing from Burning Homes. Exact Number Not Known” splashed across the top of the front page. Nor has an accurate death count ever been ascertained. Some bodies reportedly were simply dumped in the Mississippi. Others may not have been counted by morgues or the coroner. A Congressional investigation found that at least 39 blacks and nine whites were killed, but concluded that that no precise death toll could be determined. Police Chief Ransom Payne estimated 100 blacks had been killed while the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People figured there were 100 to 200.

Adding to the carnage, an estimated 6,000 blacks found themselves homeless once the fires went out. Fearing for their lives, 6,000 more are thought to have fled the city and never returned. Property damage was estimated in the millions, including a half-million dollars of merchandise at the Southern Railway Co. and a $100,000 white theater.

On July 6, representatives of the East St. Louis Chamber of Commerce met with the mayor to demand Payne’s resignation for having allowed “this reign of lawlessness.” But the repercussions were felt throughout the nation as the brutality and failure of authorities to protect lives and property mobilized black protests. In New York City, for example, 10,000 blacks marched down Fifth Avenue on July 28 in a silent parade to protest the riot.

“What were called one hundred years ago ‘race riots’ were in fact pogroms, in which mobs armed with guns, explosives and fire – sometimes dropped from private planes – killed African American men, women and children, destroyed homes, and racially cleansed entire towns and cities, driving survivors into exile,” Ariela Gorss, a professor at the University of Southern California, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal after the Florida massacre. “The biggest difference between the hate crimes of the past and Sunday’s mass shooting is that they were group actions rather than the work of a single individual. That is an important difference, to be sure, but it shouldn’t obscure how much yesterday’s events did have in common with past massacres of hated groups.”

As I alluded to initially, such massacres have been, sadly, all too common in U.S. history. Here are five of the worst:

Tulsa, Okla.: In 1921, a white mob burned Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, which was then the wealthiest black business district in the country. Estimates say 50 to 300 people were killed, many of them shot.

Elaine, Ark.: In the fall of 1919, black farmers met to discuss ways of getting more money for their cotton crops. During the meeting, a white man who had been deputized was shot. In the melee that followed, an estimated 200 blacks were shot and killed.

Mountain Meadows, Utah: In 1857, a Mormon militia attacked a wagon train headed to California and killed about 120.

Wounded Knee Creek, S.D.: In 1890, the Army opened fire on Lakota Chief Big Foot and his tribe, killing more than 150 men, women and children.

Sand Creek, Colo.: In 1864, roughly 700 soldiers charged a campsite, killing more than 165 Cheyenne and Arapaho. More than half were women and children because most of the men were hunting, according to the National Park Service. Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle reportedly flew a white flag and American flag on his tepee as the troops approached. He survived, but was killed four years later — during an attack by Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

Today’s trivia

Why are there only 50 different words in Theodore Geisel’s (Dr. Seuss) famous “Green Eggs and Ham”?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: How would you like a nice Hawaiian Punch — on your ice cream? In 1934, A.W. Leo, Tom Yates and Ralph Harrison thought they had concocted a sensational new ice cream topping after stirring up the first batch of Hawaiian Punch in a converted Fullerton, Calif., garage. But when customers started mixing the concentrate with water, they found it to be a refreshing drink so Pacific Hawaiian Products was formed to produce the seven-flavor beverage. Today it’s part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which was spun off from Cadbury Schweppes in 2008.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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