As about 200 silent men, women and children marched under a highway overpass in East St. Louis on Sunday, the sound of beating drums that accompanied them intensified.
It bounced off the concrete walls and steel ceiling, echoing throughout the quiet crowd. Beneath their feet was where Cahokia Creek used to run, a creek that 100 years ago was filled with the bodies of black East St. Louis residents who were thrown into its waters.
It is for these victims, and others, that the marchers walk, silent out of respect, at the final event in the weekend-long 1917 race riots commemoration.
A traumatic past
Sylvester Sunshine Lee’s hands look like leather. They’re smooth and brown, worn from nearly 50 years of playing the drums.
And after all that time, he still feels the rhythm that he described as beyond that of any song — a beat that reaches into the soul. On Sunday, he shared that rhythm with the participants of the commemoration’s march that began at the SIUE Higher Education Center in East St. Louis and ended at the peak of Eads Bridge, where the crowd gathered above the Mississippi River.
“The drums are healing. It’s a blessing to others because it can heal,” Lee said.
A century ago, it was on this bridge that thousands of black people fled from the burning city behind them, forced to flee as mobs of white people led one of the largest race riots in U.S. history.
Sunday’s commemorative events served as a way to embrace the struggle of the past and learn how to move forward and heal as a community, East St. Louis Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks said before the ceremony.
“It’s about restoring hope in the community. The past was traumatic, but history makes us who we are today. And we are resilient and strong, and we embrace our history,” Jackson-Hicks said.
It’s about restoring hope in the community. The past was traumatic, but history makes us who we are today. And we are resilient and strong, and we embrace our history.
East St. Louis Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks
Ann Walker, facilitator of the day’s events, expanded on this concept when she addressed the crowd at the pre-march commemoration that included speeches, historical readings, dances, songs and a water blessing.
“This is rich soil because it contains our blood,” Walker said.
Dhati Kennedy, whose father was a survivor of the riot, told the story of his father’s journey and said it’s time to heal. Onstage, with drums softly beating behind him, Kennedy pointed at the crowd before him, many of which were fanning themselves in the heat.
“There is no healing for a festering sore,” Kennedy said. “The truth to us is healing. And when you know the truth, it’s much easier to heal.”
After the commemoration at the SIUE Higher Education Center, the procession headed north on Barack Obama Avenue and left on Riverpark Drive, continuing to the middle of the Eads Bridge.
Lee and his drum group, Sunshine Community Group, walked near the front of the crowd, leading it with their rhythm.
“The drums was (sic) before every kind of communication there was, before AT&T, Verizon Wireless; the drums told the story,” Lee said. “It brought everyone together, such as this gathering now.”
Once they made it to the bridge, the beat sped up and people began dancing and clapping along with the sound.
A woman recorded herself on her phone, saying “I am walking across the bridge; I am meeting my ancestors. This is a homecoming.”
Remembrance and change
A large wreath, adorned with white roses and sunflowers, was thrown over the side of the bridge into the clay-colored waters below in honor of the riots’ victims. The steady sound of a jembae, an African drum, thrummed in the background. The bridge swayed slightly under the feet of the crowd and people in a fishing boat below took photos from afar.
“Growth often comes with struggle and pain,” Jackson-Hicks said at the ceremony, the pink and yellow colors of the setting sun reflecting on the Arch behind her. “But as Frederick Douglas said, ‘If there is no struggle there is no progress.’”
Eugene B. Redmond, poet laureate of St. Louis, shared a poem with the crowd. Laverne Braxtrem sang a patriotic song. After the wreath was thrown, people were given their own white roses to toss over the side of the bridge in remembrance.
“To make progress, we must step out of our comfort zones,” St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said to the crowd. “We are supposed to make it so that our children are better off than we are, and we can’t do that without equipping them with the knowledge of our country’s history.”
Harper Barnes, historian and author of “Never Been a Time,” read a section of his book aloud to the audience. He’s been studying the race riots for years, and said it was the riots that inspired the 1917 “silent” march in New York City in response to the violence in East St. Louis. Tens of thousands of men, women and children walked through the city streets in honor of the victims of racially-motivated attacks across the country.
As he read an excerpt about how black people were unjustly blamed for economic problems and crime, someone from the crowd yelled; “Nothing’s changed!”
And yet, for many at the event, change was a subject which they are passionately pursuing in East St. Louis, and not just through the commemoration.
Jasmine Abber, executive director of the Center for Art, Architecture & Design St. Louis, said the city is an untapped cultural asset, and is working with city officials on creating an East St. Louis art and cultural district.
“This is an amazing and loving community, and they’ve stayed here despite the hardship. This has made them very constructive and very wise,” Abber said. “There’s going to be a turnaround for this community.”
As the sun set over the Eads Bridge, the procession turned to walk back to where they had started. As before, they were accompanied by steady drumbeats. Now, however, the beat was lighter, and underneath its optimistic rhythm was the sound of people laughing and talking as they walked the streets of their city.