Community reception commemorates 100 years since East St. Louis race riots
One hundred years ago the 1917 Race Riots in East St. Louis devastated a community by taking hundreds of lives and causing extensive property damage.
Now, the East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission and Cultural Initiative is working this year to commemorate the pogrom.
Commissioner Marla Byrd organized Saturday’s kickoff event, held at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s East St. Louis Center.
“Today we had our opening reception, which pretty much gave an overview of the events we have planned throughout the year for our 100-year commemoration activity,” she said. “Today we also had the ability to showcase some of the collections we have of art, artifacts and other research.”
The race riots erupted when 400 black workers replaced white workers on strike against the Aluminum Ore Company. Known to historians around the world, the riot is considered one of the bloodiest in American history.
Charmaine Savage is editor and publisher of I Am East St. Louis, The Magazine, which focuses on the positive features of East St. Louis. On Saturday, she addressed the crowd of about 75 people.
“While this is a time for remembrance, it’s also a time to acknowledge and move forward,” she said, adding that the events this year will serve as a way to do that.
East St. Louis Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks echoed those sentiments.
“We can’t be afraid of struggle,” Jackson-Hicks said. “... It is so important to be the holders of our own history — lest someone on the outside try to re-write it.”
She told the audience she was thankful — and humbled — to be a part of Saturday’s event, which put on display several pieces of artwork related to the race riots, including quilts sewn by Edna Patterson-Petty.
“This is a wonderful time for me,” Patterson-Petty said. “... As an artist, your head is full, your heart is full and you have to find a way to get that out, so you have room for other information.”
Among several other speakers, a group of students read the NAACP Soldiers Creed, and Kendrick Smith, an East St. Louis native, played East St. Louis-inspired songs on the saxophone.
Redina Medley, a local actress and facilitator for East St. Louis’ Milestone Institute, read a letter written by Daisy Westbrook, a woman who survived the riots. She discussed the lasting effects of the massacre and how important it was to learn about and from them.
“I understand why so many of my people do not revisit the past,” Medley said. “There are many negative emotions, and they really do fill you up in an ugly way.”