Plans are underway to commemorate the 100th anniversary of one of the most violent race riots in American history.
The Centennial Commission and Cultural Initiative met Wednesday at the East St. Louis Center of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to announce some of the upcoming events that have been planned.
The event “is our way of officially announcing to the world and to the city of East St. Louis, especially, that this commission has been planning and discussing events that are appropriate and respectful,” said the Rev. Joseph Brown, chairman of the Centennial Commission and Cultural Initiative and a history professor at SIUE.
“We want this to get launched in a way that lets the entire community know that people have been paying attention to this upcoming anniversary.”
Some of the events scheduled in January include:
▪ A creative essay contest in District 189 schools.
▪ A reception on Jan 15 that will be by invitation only. Details will be released later.
▪ A Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service on Jan. 16 at the Jackie Joyner Kersee Center.
▪ An educational exhibit, sponsored by St. Louis Community College, beginning Jan. 23 at the Mildred E. Bastian Theater in East St. Louis.
Other events will be held from February through the anniversary of the riots in July. Details will be released later.
“I am very pleased with the hard work this commission has done in helping us to remember our past,” said East St. Louis Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks. “I am most proud of the people and the community work that’s being done to show us what needs to be kept alive.”
In 1917 East St. Louis was the setting for one of the bloodiest race riots in the United States. When more than 400 black workers were hired to replace white workers who had gone on strike against the Aluminum Ore Company, racial tensions heightened.
The riots of May and July 1917 were an outbreak of labor- and race-related violence that caused hundreds of deaths and extensive property damage, according to Brown and historical sources. The riots are considered among the worst examples of labor-related and racial violence in U.S. history.
In May of that year, white workers were angry about blacks migrating from the South to the city for jobs. White mobs began targeting blacks on trolleys and streetcars. Some blacks were beaten or shot by the mobs, according to newspaper articles and other historical sources.
Gov. Frank D. Lowden called in the National Guard to quell the unrest. But on July 2, 1917, the violence broke out again. The homes of blacks were burned. Some black people were lynched.
The riots “were a failure of the community and religious leaders to step forward and prevent this,” said retired Judge Milton Wharton. “I hope the country will look at the racial atmosphere that was generated during the presidential campaign that just concluded and see that a tragedy can escalate like that which occurred in 1917.”
It will take a renewed effort to “commit ourselves to prevent and avoid the mistakes of the past,” Wharton said.
Brown, a native of East St. Louis, said some historians believe that the death toll could be as high as 300-400 people when factoring in people who were beaten or wounded and died somewhere else. People marched in sympathy to the victims as far away as New York, and the events were covered by newspapers as far away as Chicago.
Newspaper headlines from the time described the violence. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat had a banner headline that read: “100 negroes shot, burned, clubbed to death in East St. Louis race war.” The St. Louis Argus declared the riots “A National Disgrace.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that several hundred blacks were brought to St. Louis “under the protection of militiamen.”
The riots, which have also been described as a “massacre” and “black holocaust” in historical writings, should not be forgotten, Brown said, and the commission aims to see that doesn’t happen.
“We’ve been working for almost two years. ... We want to make sure that when we honor our ancestors who died for us, we show them proper respect. We want East St. Louis to know how valuable and important the community has always been. We want children ... to know they come from people who never gave up no matter what happened with them.”
Brown said the commission hopes to convey that “what we are going through and what we see today has a long history.”
The NAACP and Urban League both cite the East St. Louis riots among their organizing principles.
“The U.S. Army did a formal investigation for the United States Congress. So, you had people all over the country ... marching in sympathy in New York City and other places. There was a national outpouring over this terrible event that happened over three days in 1917,” Brown said.
Michael McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, and Stanley Franklin, president of the East St. Louis branch of the NAACP, both said the national organizations will be involved in some way in the commemoration events.