Looking back at the 1917 East St. Louis race riots
Fountain of Youth Park has a whimsical name but a horrifying past.
A century ago, it was part of a black neighborhood with homes and businesses. On July 2, 1917, it became the epicenter of hate and violence during the East St. Louis race riot.
Angry whites burned buildings and randomly shot, clubbed, stabbed or lynched as many black people as they could find. Illinois National Guard soldiers stood watch but refused to intervene.
“(Newspaper reporters) counted six dead bodies lying in the street, and more were hanging from lampposts,” said Andrew Theising, 50, chair of the political science department at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “They were left hanging there for hours.”
The mob stopped a streetcar, pulled off its black passengers and beat them. When an ambulance arrived to treat the injured, rioters threatened the driver with death.
The park’s intersection (Fourth and Broadway) is one of 24 sites on a self-guided tour that Theising helped develop as a member of the East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission and Cultural Initiative.
The commission is sponsoring activities all year, but especially this weekend, including a Freedom Trails, Legacies of Hope procession from SIUE’s East St. Louis Center to the Eads Bridge on Sunday.
“We’re commemorating and celebrating,” said commission member Eugene Redmond, 79, emeritus professor of English at SIUE and poet laureate of East St. Louis.
“We’re commemorating what happened and continuing to mourn the victims, but we’re also celebrating the revival and even the renaissance of multifaceted black development and a bounce back of the black community.”
Floyd talked about it occasionally when Joseph was a child. They’d be driving down the street, and he would point to a tree used for a lynching or a porch that people hid under.
If our children don’t know how their ancestors survived horrific cultural traumas, they will not know that within them, they have strategies for survival.
The Rev. Joseph Brown on remembering the riot
The official death count was nine whites and 39 blacks, although the NAACP estimated that 100 to 200 blacks were killed and hundreds more injured, including children. The mob burned more than 250 buildings and destroyed 44 railroad cars.
Brown knows it’s painful to look back, but he thinks it’s important for future generations.
“If our children don’t know how their ancestors survived horrific cultural traumas, they will not know that within them, they have strategies for survival,” he said.
Labor and racial tensions
East St. Louis was booming during World War I with nearly 60,000 residents and proximity to industrial sites such as Aluminum Ore and meat-packing plants such as Armour & Co.
Blacks began pouring into the city after being recruited in Southern states by companies trying to flood the labor market, keep wages low and weaken unionization efforts.
In some cases, blacks unknowingly served as strikebreakers, angering white workers who felt their livelihoods were being threatened.
“They blamed blacks for it, the Negroes, for coming here and taking their jobs,” said Lillian Parks, 84, commission member and retired superintendent of District 189 schools. “But they were just trying to make a few dollars.”
Whites also worried about blacks moving into their neighborhoods and voting in elections, according to Theising’s 2003 book, “Made in U.S.A.: East St. Louis,” which references the 1964 book, “Race Riot at East St. Louis,” by Elliott Rudwick.
On May 28, 1917, white union members lodged a formal complaint against the black migration. As they left City Hall, news arrived that a black robber had shot a white man.
Whites converged on downtown streets and businesses and began attacking black people. Mayor Fred Mollman called in guardsmen stationed at the Aluminum Ore plant.
“Amazingly, no one was killed in the incident, but several were severely beaten or shot,” Theising’s book states.
They blamed blacks for it — the Negroes — for coming here and taking their jobs. But they were just trying to make a few dollars.
Lillian Parks on white anger over black labor
Sporadic violence continued the next few weeks, including the beating of a 66-year-old black man who didn’t give his streetcar seat to a white woman. Rumors spread that blacks were arming themselves for a July 4 retaliation.
On July 1, whites in a Ford car drove through a black neighborhood near 17th and Market, shooting at homes. That prompted someone to ring the bell at Truelight Baptist Church, warning blacks of danger.
When a second Ford showed up near 10th and Bond, black residents fired back, unaware that the car contained two plain-clothed police detectives. Both were killed.
“On the morning of July 2, their bullet-riddled car was parked in front of the police station with blood stains on the upholstery,” Theising’s book states. “One East St. Louis attorney offered to represent any man who would avenge the murders.”
White mob unleashes rage
The brochure for “Sacred Sites: A Self-Guided Tour of the East St. Louis Race Riot” describes what happened in specific locations in the next 15 hours.
Site No. 18 is the intersection of Collinsville and St. Louis avenues, where whites assembled on the morning of July 2, 1917, listened to inflammatory speeches and started marching in military formation toward Broadway.
“Richard Brockway, the white man who inflamed the crowd, eventually was convicted and sentenced to prison for the crime of rioting,” the brochure states.
The mob peaked in the early evening with about 1,000 people, wielding guns, ropes, knives, pipes and rocks. After whites torched buildings, blacks hid among freight on train cars near Fifth Street and Railroad Avenue. Those were burned, too.
Site No. 7 is Broadway Opera House. It was rumored that many blacks died hiding in the basement, but no bodies were found, leading some to speculate their remains had been incinerated.
Site No. 13 is the former location of Scott and Iva Clark’s home at Fourth and Railroad. They were burned out of their house before meeting a national guardsman who seemed willing to protect them. But he backed down when confronted by the mob.
“Mr. Clark was struck in the head with an iron bar, and a rope was placed around his neck,” the brochure states. “He pleaded for his life. The rioters attempted to hang him, but the rope was too short, so they dragged him instead. He died of strangulation four days later.”
Many blacks escaped the city by crossing Mississippi River bridges on foot or in cars or by riding the ferry. More than 7,000 were housed and fed in St. Louis shelters.
Denise Malone’s grandmother, Mattie Malone, still living at 102, used to talk about the harrowing experience of her father, the late James Bolden, during the riot.
Mr. Clark was struck in the head with an iron bar, and a rope was placed around his neck. He pleaded for his life. The rioters attempted to hang him, but the rope was too short, so they dragged him instead. He died of strangulation four days later.
Description in “Sacred Sites” tour brochure
“He and his brothers were living on Goose Hill, north of St. Clair, and they ran into the marsh over by the levee and stayed there until daylight,” said Denise, 62, a retired U.S. Department of Defense employee. “It was dark and wet, and it had snakes.”
Bolden had moved from Mississippi to find work before sending for his wife and children, but the violence scared him. He went back home for a year, then returned to East St. Louis.
Commission member Anne Walker’s cousin, Charles Phillips, recalled arriving by train on July 2 with his mother at age 5. After joining his father, the family wrapped as many belongings as they could in blankets and hid in a wheat field until morning.
“They actually walked across the bridge to St. Louis to stay with relatives,” Walker said.
By the evening of July 2, more guardsmen had arrived in East St. Louis to stop the pandemonium, and St. Louis firefighters were helping to put out blazes. The subsequent clean-up included fishing bodies from Cahokia Creek.
The riot made national news, with headlines such as “Rioting drenches town with blood” and “Rioters shoot men down as they flee burning homes.” It also prompted a massive New York City protest, silent except for drumming.
“East St. Louis is wallowed in a mire of lawlessness and unshamed corruption,” concluded a special committee appointed by Congress to investigate.
Bell still rings at church
In later years, Truelight moved to 16th and Tudor, along with its cast-iron bell. The artifact always has been a source of pride for the congregation because of its role in local history.
Minister of Music Reginald Phillips decided to check out the bell earlier this year after going to Missouri History Museum to see its civil rights exhibit, which covered the 1917 riot. He got a ladder and climbed to the dusty belfry.
“The bell’s in good shape, and it still rings,” said Phillips, 59, who went on to read the 2008 Harper Barnes book “Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot that Sparked the Civil Rights Movement.”
Phillips had heard about the riot’s atrocities but didn’t know details, which he called “eye-opening.”
A portrait of the Rev. James Lampley, who founded Truelight, still hangs in the church sanctuary. He may have been the bell-ringer on July 1, but church records were destroyed in a flood.
“(Learning about the riot) has taken me to an indescribable place,” Phillips said. “If I had been living at that time, what would I have been thinking or feeling? How much time did I have to get out, not knowing how far away the rioters were?
It has taken me to an indescribable place. If I had been living at that time, what would I have been thinking or feeling? How much time did I have to get out, not knowing how far away the rioters were?
Reginald Phillips on learning about the riot
“What kind of possessions could I take with me? If I had children, what would I have had to do to get them out safely?”
Malone sat down recently with elder Truelight members Etta Spencer, Shirley Reid and Gencie Perkins to talk about the riot and how it affected black residents in the decades that followed.
The women believe many suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), similar to what soldiers feel after time on the battlefield.
Reid, 81, a retired school administrator, saw survivors as mentors who showed the next generation how to “carry and present” themselves, looking to the future instead of dwelling on the past.
“It helped me set goals for myself and my family,” she said. “It set an example for us. These are the people who survived some horrible situations, but they remained positive. It didn’t make them bitter. It made them better. They rose above the anger.”
Today, some in the black community object to the term “riot” to describe the events of July 2, 1917. They consider it a “pogrom” or organized massacre of a racial group.
Whatever it’s called, Parks believes it’s important for people to remember what happened 100 years ago in East St. Louis.
“I want it to serve as a reminder for old people, but I also want our children to know about this and be able to react to what’s going on in this country,” she said. “I’m not sure this is over. I’m not sure racism is gone forever.”
Weekend commemorative events
- 9 to 9:45 a.m. Friday — “A Day of Honor” with program and lowering of flags at St. Clair County Courthouse, 10 Public Square 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).
- 4:30 p.m. Sunday — “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. Sunday — 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).
- About 7:30 p.m. Sunday — Commemorative program on bridge with East St. Louis and St. Louis mayoral proclamations, singing, a wreath drop to honor riot victims and release of sky lanterns (program at East St. Louis City Hall in case of rain).