Looking back at the 1917 East St. Louis race riots
Following are articles, excerpts and an editorial published by the Belleville News-Democrat on the violence in the East St. Louis race riot of 1917. The language used in these articles from 100 years ago, quoted verbatim from the newspaper, may be offensive to some readers.
July 3, 1917: “Monday’s riot worst in nation’s history”
A mob of ten thousand blood-thirsty negro-hating white persons killed at least a hundred negroes and burned six square blocks in East St. Louis Monday afternoon and night in the most terrible race riot in the nation’s history.
Two white men were shot and killed. Five hundred persons were hurt. The property loss is estimated at $1,000,000. Troops were unable to quell the mob which wrought havoc on the city and revenge on the negroes for ten hours until tired out. East St. Louis today is under martial law.
Negroes were lynched, shot to death, clubbed to death, incinerated in their flaming homes and drowned in Cahokia Creek... Men, women and children participated in the rioting which occurred in the following localities: Collinsville avenue and Broadway; Collinsville and Missouri avenues; Collinsville avenue and State street; Collinsville and St. Louis avenues; Third street and St. Louis avenue; Third street and Summit avenue; Free Bridge approach at Tenth street and Piggott avenue.
Fire set to negro shanties spread to the Broadway Opera House, destroying it at a property loss of $100,000 and to the Southern Freight House, the loss there being $250,000.
Thousands of negroes fled from the city to St. Louis and to the surrounding country. The one thousand national guardsmen arrested more than four hundred persons during the reign of terror, some of them prominent citizens.
The rioting began early in the day, when 100 white men met at Labor Temple Hall, 408 Collinsville avenue. They went down Collinsville avenue, and at Broadway, the most important transfer point in the city, they encountered a negro on a street car.
He ran out the front door, but was seized, knocked down and repeatedly kicked. As he lay on the ground a white man walked from the mob, and, standing over him, fired six times. Two bullets entered his body, in the back above the waist.
The mob then turned back down the street, and at the mouth of “The Black Valley” encountered a negro mob of 50 men. The white men turned back and in front of the Illmo Hotel encountered another lone negro. He ran and the white mob threw bricks at him. Someone fired two shots at the fleeing man.
At least 6,000 white men and women paraded through the downtown streets shortly after noon, demanding that the authorities force every negro to leave town.
Riot call after riot call swept into police headquarters and patrol wagons dashed about the city from one section to the other in what appeared to be a futile effort to stop the growing disregard of the mobs for law and order.
In many instances the patrol wagons were met with bricks and other missiles and policemen openly jeered.
The frightfulness of the entire spectacle – a spectacle which will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it – was ... by the death cries of the negroes as they were ... in their tracks or suspended with ropes from the telephone ... poles.
The wailing of prisoners in the city jail... mothers and children who were seeking information... the anguished cries of the black women... they fled in night clothes and without shoes...
At frequent intervals throughout the night auto trucks loaded with negro refugees from the burning sections of the city traversed the streets, under heavy military guard, carrying the men and women to the municipal buildings for protection. At these concentration camps a heavy military detail was maintained all the time.
Added terror among the blacks came with the severing of electric light wires. Knowing they were not safe on the streets at any time, it became impossible for the negroes to slink along in sheltered spots because they did not know at what moment a hiding white man would pounce on them.
When “torches,” acting under instructions from mob leaders, fired the negro huts in Black Valley and other segregated zones, the crazed black(s) appeared in the doorways seeking an avenue of escape. White snipers concealed at points of vantage nearby, picked them off with rifles and revolvers.
Others, fearful to make an attempt to run the hidden gauntlet, disappeared within their burning homes and were incinerated. How many lives were ended in this manner it is impossible to estimate, and probably never will be known.
Crowds of white men stormed negro shacks everywhere. Armed with weapons and battering rams improvised from anything at hand, they broke into the houses and shot down the inmates. Then they fired the buildings. The negroes fired back and wounded many of the attackers.
As the soldiers arrested the male negroes they compelled their prisoners to form into a marching order and proceed with hands aloft.
Seized with the mob spirit, two young white girls climbed on a car at Broadway and Main street at about 4 p.m. and dragged a negress from her seat. As they dragged the struggling negress through the door to the street there was a great cheer from men on the sidewalk.
As the negress attempted to break away from the assailants one of the girls—for they were only about 17 years old—pulled off her shoe and started to beat the victim over the head. The victim flinched under the blows of the girl and was bleeding when she was rescued by militiamen.
The girls were not arrested and started to walk away from the scene. There were bloodstains on their clothes and as they passed their friends they told about the part they had played in the riot.
One negro was seized by a crowd of men. A rope was procured and he was raised to the arm of a telephone pole. The rope broke and the black fell into the arms of the mob members. They laughed. Then someone started shooting the man, and in an instant fifty shots were poured into his body.
Three more negroes were spied by the crowd as the terrorized blacks were trying to escape from a burning building. One of these was strung up to a telephone pole and the other two were shot. The five bodies were left in the street, and no one offered to carry them away.
The declaration of martial law and the swearing in of large numbers of young men of East St. Louis as deputy provost guards resulted in sweeping the streets clear of rioters shortly before midnight.
Every building in the business district was closed and in every district where rioting had occurred every building was thoroughly searched and then closed by guards stationed to prevent damage to property or the setting of fires by stray members of the mob.
With the exception of isolated encounters between whites and negroes at widely separated points, the rioting virtually ceased shortly before midnight.
Whenever a white man attempted to drag a negro off the street, bent on giving him medical attention, the mob, with drawn guns, made him desist. Several negroes were killed and thrown into Cahokia Creek.
July 3, 1917: “‘Jitneys’ prevented from unloading negroes here”
The police Monday night put an early check on which might have resulted in a general influx into Belleville of negro refugees from the wrath of the East St. Louis mob.
With street car service between East St. Louis and Belleville stopped at 7 p.m., few of the negroes arrived in Belleville until two hours later when a motor “jitney” truck loaded with blacks pulled up on the Public Square and discharged its passengers. The negroes had their belongings packed with them and appeared to be prepared for a lengthy stay.
Policemen detained the truck and upon orders from Chief Stookey instructed the driver to take his passengers to the negro settlement near the Ittner brick yards. He was given to understand that not under any circumstances was he to bring any more negroes to Belleville and that his arrest would result if he did not obey. He was ordered to carry the word to other “jitney” drivers. Motorcycle policemen on the Rock Road were ordered to stop incoming negroes and bade them retrace their steps. No more trouble was experienced.
When car service was resumed Tuesday morning a number of fleeing negroes came to this city to take lodging with negro families residing here...
A number of Bellevilleans returning late from work could not make the trip because of the stopping of car service. Others took trains home.
Many motoring parties of sight-seers were organized here to view the operations of the mob.
Armin Leuschner, 12 year old, messenger for a St. Louis newspaper, had an exciting experience. When he left a Belleville car to pick up copy of East St. Louis scribes he found himself in the midst of the mob. Shooting was going on on all sides. He sought refuge behind a telephone pole, where he remained half an hour until the mob moved. He saw three negroes killed. Fearing to return he remained in St. Louis all night.
July 3, 1917: “Christ about due to make second visit”
Rev. Drewes is an eloquent and forceful speaker and preaches the Gospel. Last evening he declared that everything indicates the second coming of Christ—that the event is near at hand.
All the prophecies of the Bible are being fulfilled. “Not only are the Jews returning to Palestine, but they are gathering material to rebuilt Solomon’s Temple.”
“Paul’s description in Second Timothy, 3—1 and 4, of the “perilous time” before Christ’s second coming fit our own age. This is a time of great catastrophes, of earthquakes, riots, fires, battles and disaster.
“The world is going riot, and the alarming rebellious spirit is seen on every hand. Grace at meals has become unknown and ridiculed. People are becoming lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. This is also a blasphemous age. Hearing profanity is common occurrence. In spite of our boasted morality and civilization prostitution of every kind, and war and murder are the fruitful topics of daily papers.”
July 4, 1917: Editorial
We talk about the horrors of Belgium and we pretend to be shocked when we read about the atrocities of the European war.
The worst atrocities which we have read about were all eclipsed and discounted by the blood curdling deed which were perpetrated in the City of East St. Louis this week by a cowardly and bestial mob, the members of which, though well known to the authorities, have not been placed under arrest, nor will they be punished for their crimes.
Such outrages were never perpetrated in this country before, and never was there so complete a break down of all the departments, and all of the branches and every function of government.
We better quit hollering and bawling crocodile tears about mob depredations in the South or about the horrors of war in Europe.
Our advice is that we put our own house back in order first and that we sweep clean before our own door.