Metro-East News

Commemorative quilt ‘embodies spirit’ of East St. Louis race riot victims

Edna Patterson Petty and retired Judge Milton Wharton pose with the quilt.
Edna Patterson Petty and retired Judge Milton Wharton pose with the quilt. Carolyn P. Smith

A quilt made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1917 East St. Louis race riots has been hung inside the St. Clair County Courthouse.

Renowned artist Edna Patterson Petty joined retired St. Clair County Circuit Judge Milton S. Wharton and others in a ceremony Monday. Petty said she made the quilt to embody the spirit of those who paid with their blood, sweat and tears to change conditions for African-Americans in East St. Louis.

As the two of them stood in front of the quilt, passersby paused briefly to look at and read some of the content. Some remarked how glad they were to see that the event was being held. Others said this is a part of history America should be shamed of. Some said this part of history needs to be pointed out because although progress has been made, America still has a long ways to go.

The quilt was made using recycled material. Petty said she started working on it in February 2014 and finished at the end of March, despite her personal struggle with her husband’s health condition.

Reginald Petty suffered a stroke March 15.

It’s important to let our young people, black and white, know about the courage of African-Americans who endured the bloodshed of the program and yet were courageous enough to remain in East St. Louis and to come back to East St. Louis seeking a better life for them and their children.

Milton Wharton, retired judge

“He wanted to always see it, and I felt it would help him to recover. It took about two months to finally get it finished,” she said.

Next to the quilt is the frame of a black mannequin. It represents a testifying woman. The mannequin is wearing a white dress with several names on it. Those names, Petty said, are all of the women who were victims and who testified at a congressional hearing. Petty painted red streaks on the arms of the mannequin to show the blood that was shed during the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis.

“I got their names from the congressional hearings. They all testified about the race riot and provided their personal accounts of what they saw and were a part of,” Petty said.

The borders of the quilt, which is brownish in color, is made with ethnic cloth. Newspaper articles, research articles obtained from library books, and other publications are spread out in the quilt with images of the bloody event and images of individuals killed, injured and arrested.

Petty said her husband did a lot of research at the library, and both of them know that while a lot of people may not read the history, visualizing it is another way to get people to look at things. Hence, the idea was born to put the articles in with the pictures and lay them out together on the quilt.

“It’s important to let our young people, black and white, know about the courage of African-Americans who endured the bloodshed of the pogrom and yet were courageous enough to remain in East St. Louis and to come back to East St. Louis seeking a better life for them and their children,” Wharton said.

The Rev. Joseph Brown, a professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a member of the 1917 East St. Louis Centennial Commission, commented on Petty’s quilt saying, “As usual, Edna Patterson Petty constructed a way of challenging us to imagine our past using bits and pieces of the stories that have always been told.

“When she constructed that quilt, it became a useful way for us to explain the centennial because she made that quilt before we even had the Commission,” Brown said. “And, now we are in some ways presenting events that helped to explain her quilt.”

If you go

  • 9 a.m. Friday — A ceremony to commemorate the 1917 ESL race riots will be held in front of the St. Clair County Courthouse in Belleville.
  • 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday — “A Day of Remembrance” with speakers, exhibits, documentary previews, poetry, music, dance, theater, refreshments and a youth luncheon with the Bow Tie Boys at SIUE East St. Louis Center, Building D, 601 James Thompson Boulevard.
  • 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday — “A Day of Reconciliation” with a worship service at Truelight Baptist Church, 1535 Tudor Ave. in East St. Louis.
  • 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday — 1917 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).
  • 6:30 p.m. Sunday. A public march to commemorate the riots will begin day at the SIUE East St. Louis Education Center, 601 James R. Thompson Blvd. Marchers will proceed to the Eads Bridge, where a wreath toss will take place at 7 p.m. The public is invited.
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