Looking back at the 1917 East St. Louis race riots
A factory worker, an African-American laborer, a white union member. They sit in a room, arguing passionately, explaining their point of view, using documents to prove their points.
This debate is taking place, however, in a Belleville East High School classroom. Each person is a character played by one of 50 students, all of them arguing about an event that happened long before they were born.
Katherine Hoerner watches and facilitates discussion in her American Studies class, encouraging students to use the first-hand accounts they were given to take on different perspectives of the 1917 East St. Louis race riots.
The exercise, she said, is an engaging way to teach her students about an event that still influences their lives today.
Throughout Saturday and Sunday, East St. Louis is commemorating the riots through events such as speakers, tours and a march.
For years, however, local teachers have been using other methods to educate their students about the event.
It’s July 2, 1917, and East St. Louis is burning.
A hundred years ago, St. Louis residents looked out their windows and saw smoke billowing across the Mississippi River, carrying with it the sounds of gunfire and screams.
“This riot didn’t sneak up on people,” said Andrew Theising, associate professor and department chair of political science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He said the city was boiling with tension for months before the 1917 race riots exploded.
In a city filled with political and economic problems, the spark was lit when members of a primarily black neighborhood mistakenly killed two white police officers, confusing them with men who had driven through their streets shortly before and randomly shot into houses. What they thought was an act of defense was perceived as the first shot of war.
A white mob attacked black residents of East St. Louis, beating them, pulling them out of cars, shooting them at random and dumping their bodies into Cahokia Creek. Entire neighborhoods were burned, disappearing into ash.
When reinforcements arrived on July 3, the official body count was 39 black people and nine white, but Theising said this is probably a very low estimate. He believes the count was somewhere between 100 and 250, based on his own research.
In addition to the hundreds of casualties, the riots left scars that persist even a century later.
Theising said the ongoing effect of 1917’s events is why it’s so important that teachers such as Hoerner teach students about the riots.
“Everything we see today is a consequence of actions that came before,” Theising said. “So I judge that it’s important for everyone to know our history.”
Everything we see today is a consequence of actions that came before.
Andrew Theising, professor, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Theising, who wrote a comprehensive history of East St. Louis in his book “Made in USA,” started highlighting this connection to the past by giving tours on the streets where the riots took place.
Theising hopes that teachers will take their students to some of the 24 markings around East St. Louis, many of which are clustered around schools.
Michelle Stacy, teacher and chair of the social studies department at Mascoutah High School, went on one of Theising’s tours and said she’s excited to bring that experience to her students in the fall.
Stacy said local history such as the riots is essential for students to make a strong connection between the past and the present.
“These are places they travel to and drive by, and it makes these topics more meaningful,” Stacy said.
These are places they travel to and drive by, and it makes these topics more meaningful.
Michelle Stacy, teacher, Mascoutah High School
She said that sometimes the curriculum is too focused on textbooks, which cover national history but neglect local history. It falls on individual teachers to seek out information about local events, and if they don’t have the resources to do so, they aren’t able to teach it.
Theising also said it’s important for teachers to have access to these kind of resources so they can build their lessons around them, but up until the past 10 years, these resources were scarce.
Now, documents, books and primary resources make it easier for students to learn about this piece of local history.
Still, it’s unclear if all schools in the area include the riots in their curriculum. About 20 former or current O’Fallon Township High School students surveyed by the News-Democrat said they could not recall ever hearing about them in class.
Local history is also not required by the Illinois State Board of Education in high schools, which could contribute to some teachers focusing more on national history.
A deeper understanding
Ann Collins and Martha Patterson, both doctorate professors at McKendree University in Lebanon, emphasize the importance of local history in their project Illinoistown: A Cultural History of East St. Louis in the Twentieth Century. They used their research on the race riots to teach their conjoined class at McKendree, and also made it available for other teachers in the area to use.
Patterson said she uses literature to further connect students with the events of 1917. Poets such as Claude McKay and Eugene Redmond and novelists such as Toni Morrison reference the riots in their works.
“It gives them an emotional tie to what otherwise is an abstract, long-ago event,” Patterson said.
More than that, being taught about local history gives students a deeper look into the world they live in today, she said.
“Talking about African-American protest poetry and others who work to challenge Jim Crow, violence, and segregation, helps students understand the context they’re living in,” Patterson said. “It shows students that the legacy of the riots and segregation are ongoing today, and very real in this region particularly.”
It shows students that the legacy of the riots and segregation are ongoing today, and very real in this region particularly.
Martha Patterson, professor, McKendree University
She said an example of this legacy is shown even in the disparity of students’ test scores from O’Fallon, versus those 12 miles down the road in East St. Louis, which she said are much lower. Patterson said the roots of this disparity go back to the riots and to slavery as a whole.
Collins also uses literature in class, but she focuses more on primary and secondary resources to connect with students.
Newspapers from 1917, first-hand accounts of the riots and her own research help students connect to the tragedy. Like Patterson, Collins said this understanding of the past extends into a deeper awareness of what’s going on now.
“It’s really important to realize that history isn’t really history after all,” Collins said. “Ferguson did a lot to wake people up, especially white students, about the issues and problems that are still prevalent.”
Like Collins and Patterson, Stacy said in her 15 years of teaching, eight of them at Mascoutah, she has learned the significance of educating students about the race riots, especially because many of them are shocked that such a horrific event happened so close to their home.
“There’s a natural tendency for people to think as a northerner that these things didn’t happen up here, and it was more in the south. It’s a shock to them that they did happen, and in the recent past,” Stacy said.
This realization helps people understand the legacy of the riots and of racism as a whole.
“There is a tremendous cultural legacy of racism in the U.S. today, and I think it’s easy for people to ignore some of these deep-seated issues. It’s important for us that if we’re going to have progress, we need to recognize injustices of the past,” Stacy said. “If they don’t know what happened, they don’t see the problems of today.”
It’s important for us that if we’re going to have progress, we need to recognize injustices of the past. If they don’t know what happened, they don’t see the problems of today.
Michelle Stacy, teacher, Mascoutah High School
At the end of her students’ debate, Hoerner explains to them the importance of unpacking the events of the past through different perspectives.
“There are a lot of lessons we can learn that can help us find our way through the issues of today,” Hoerner said.
This is why she has her students argue with one another, pretending to be men and women from the early 1900s. Through this examination of the area’s history, they can better serve the community they live in today, she said.
She added, “If you understand history, you have a better vision for where you want the future to go.”
Patterson, Collins and Hoerner said they are planning to attend the commemoration this weekend. Theising will speak at the march on Sunday outside SIUE’s East St. Louis Center.