Editorials

Race riot embers remain 100 years later, but can ignite hope

On July 2, 1917, a white mob surrounds a Collinsville Avenue streetcar during the East St. Louis race riot, attacking black passengers. Illinois National Guard soldiers are on the street corner. They finally quelled the riot late that night, stopping a lynching by a mob of 200.
On July 2, 1917, a white mob surrounds a Collinsville Avenue streetcar during the East St. Louis race riot, attacking black passengers. Illinois National Guard soldiers are on the street corner. They finally quelled the riot late that night, stopping a lynching by a mob of 200. UMass Amherst Libraries

“One of the half dozen men standing around, told me that he saw a woman and two children killed, also her husband. That they were going across the bridge and the mob seized the baby out of her arms and threw it into the river.”

Within days of the anarchy, Ida B. Wells was sent by the Negro Fellowship League from Chicago to East St. Louis. The anti-lynching crusader and journalist spent Independence Day collecting the stories of the victims of the July 2, 1917, race riot.

She had no trouble finding eyewitnesses to the tactics of the white mobs, setting fire to the backs of houses in the Black Bottoms so the family would flee out the front. There the white mobs would wait to kill the black families, shooting babies in the head and men repeatedly in the stomach.

Estimates of the black people killed range from 39 to 300. The fires set by the mobs destroyed 300 homes and left 6,000 residents displaced.

World War I stopped the cheap labor immigrating from Eastern Europe, so industrialists turned to the rural South to lure cheap black labor. As white union members would strike the packing plants and industries in East St. Louis, black workers arriving daily on the trains would replace them. The new black families were Republican, meaning their growing power also threatened the Democrats who ran the city and county.

The riot began after 1,700 Aluminum Ore workers walked off the job and were replaced by black workers. Rumors, incendiary speeches and false newspaper stories propelled a car of whites around midnight to shoot up a black neighborhood. In the early moments of July 2, 1917, about 150 armed black men gathered to protect their homes when an identical car with police came through to investigate. The car backfired, the crowd fired and two dead white police officers set off the race riot.

The violence ran all day, unimpeded by authorities and with Illinois National Guard members claiming they had no orders to intervene. It only ended late that night when guardsmen finally stopped 200 men from lynching a black bystander at Fourth and Broadway.

Wells took the victims’ stories to the Illinois governor. Congress interviewed 100 of them over the course of a month.

Nothing was done to bring justice for the dead or displaced. Just like nothing was done by the authorities as the rioters raged 100 years ago today.

A century fails to erase our blood ties to the people involved in the riot. Our current economy, political climate and relations with one another were forged on that day and the remnants are everywhere if you bother to look and understand.

So today we remember just how horrible human beings can be toward one another when their place of privilege is threatened. The concentration camps of Germany are kept as reminders in the hopes that it doesn’t happen again.

The Eads Bridge is our place of remembrance. It was the path to survival for the black families of East St. Louis. It was the place where a baby who threatened no one was discarded in the river.

We gather on this 100th anniversary at the East St. Louis Community College campus, built atop the ashes of 300 homes. At 6:30 p.m. we retrace the flight out of East St. Louis to the Eads Bridge. At 7 p.m. a wreath will be tossed into the Mississippi River to remember that baby and all the victims.

Then sky lanterns will be ignited. They will fly up to remind us how the same spark that started so much destruction and misery can also be used to illuminate us and allow our humanity to soar.

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