Dust shuttered from a more than 100-year-old bell when it rang once again Sunday morning in Truelight Baptist Church to commemorate the 1917 race riots.
A century ago to the day, the cast-iron bell rang for a drastically different reason — angry white rioters were driving through East St. Louis shooting into homes. The older generation of churchgoers whose grandparents lived in the city during the bloody 1917 race riots say the ringing of that bell saved lives.
It alerted residents of the black neighborhood near 17th and Market streets to the white rioters who started 15 hours of murder, burning and violence that killed as many as 200 blacks and left the city in near ruin.
But when the bell rang on Sunday, it was joyful, said longtime Truelight member Etta Spencer, 89.
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“(It reminds me of) coming to church with my mom,” Spencer said.
The church hosted a special service to commemorate and reconcile the riot’s painful effects, said Shirley Reid, also a longtime Truelight churchgoer. Her grandfather came with his family to East St. Louis from Mississippi to work on the railroads.
Reid said her family never discussed the riots, nor does she remember learning about them in school. Today’s children, Reid said, will learn about the riots and remember them.
“One of the things we need to make sure we do is to understand this part of history so we can make progress,” Reid said. “In order to progress, you have to reconcile the past to the present, and also look to what we can accomplish.”
Jeff Reid, 49, had the honor of ringing the bell. He said the ringing of the bell was “very special.”
“East St. Louis always had a bad light shining on it,” Reid said. “But to look at the significance of 1917, what East St. Louis went through and the pivotal part Truelight Baptist Church played in it is very special.”
Linda Lawson, also a member of the church, said the ringing of the bell represented an important moment in history.
“For me, the bell represents the incredibly bravery in the face of turmoil,” Lawson said.