East St. Louis, 1917

The Hundredth Anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre approaches this weekend. The death toll of the massacre is staggering: 200 black people were killed. Generally, the public assumes this was a one-off style event, a single out-of-the-blue blip on the racial landscape of the 1920’s. Often those I’ve spoken to have not heard of the event that titles this article. It isn’t terribly surprising — the Tulsa Massacre was buried for many decades, and East St. Louis was similarly. Systemically, racist atrocities are either glossed over or completely unaddressed by the American education system. The East St. Louis Massacre officially killed some 40 black citizens, but reports from new Afrikan journalists, the white chief of police, and other sources have put the estimate anywhere from 100 conservatively to 250.

Racial tensions flared in East St. Louis on May 28, 1917 after 2500 white workers went on strike, and corporations hired black laborers to break the strike. On that day, a union meeting turned into a threatening parade of over 1000 whites into the black sections of the town, where they assaulted a number of New Afrikan people. The National Guard was called up, and according to Ida Wells-Barnett, a new Afrikan journalist writing for the Chicago defender, the National Guard put down the white revolt, but remained to disarm the local non-white community. This hampered the establishment of an organized armed resistance. Another complicating factor was the inability of black political leaders to connect to the masses; in East St. Louis, middle-class new Afrikan community leaders had “gained a reputation among working-class black people as arrogant, self-appointed leaders of the race espousing the ideology of racial uplift.” [1]

These two factors left the neighborhoods occupied by new Afrikans vulnerable. The spark that ignited the riot in earnest was the shooting of several police officers by black militants in late June. Some sources have claimed that this was part of a pre-meditate self-defense initiative by community leaders, but the main leader, Le Roy Bundy, was absent from East St. Louis at the time. Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, many of the black masses in the area were also skeptical of middle-class political leadership. It is likely that this was a more spontaneous attempt to organize a resistance. Unfortunately, it rapidly became more disorganized as within a day, a mob of whites arrived and attacked the black neighborhood. The new Afrikans did not back down. Although a number were disarmed by the National Guard earlier, many had hidden their weapons. Describing a fleeing man, Wells-Barnett offers a glimpse into how new Afrikans defended themselves: “there were 10 to 12 men with Rev. Taylor when he made a dash for safety, several of them armed.” [2] Rev. Taylor, whose first name was James, lost track of them after he arrived in the black neighborhood at Denverside, which was more defensible.

When the white mob descended on East St. Louis, it sought to eradicate the black population. The whites had cut fire hoses so that the department could not respond, then lit the South Side neighborhood on fire. Men armed with guns and women with knives and clubs awaited new Afrikans fleeing from the burning buildings, then shot, stabbed, and sometimes hung them from the streetlights. One new Afrikan woman was beaten to death by white women while a white Progressive urged them to stop, claiming that it was unladylike behavior. Black men and women shot back from the Denverside neighborhood, where many of those who had escaped the South Side were gathering. Black snipers from the buildings shot at cars full of whites that attempted to enter the neighborhood. Some eight white persons were killed during the violence.

The police and Illinois National Guard were present at the time, and several of them actively participated in the massacre. W. E. B. DuBois’ report in Crisis indicates at least three incidents where the police or state militia openly aided in or committed acts of violence against East St. Louis’ black residents. [3] Wells-Barnet also records an account from a new Afrikan worker that stated “six soldiers and four or five policemen came upon them [a group of black workers] suddenly and shot into the crowd, wounding six.” [4] White reports often claimed a “Negro army” was gathering to launch an all-out assault on the white community in East St. Louis, but these were manufactured to increase racial animosity and justify the acts of the white murderers.

Later that year, the Dyer Commission reported that increased racial tensions built up by white union leaders and employers directly caused the massacre. This is probably true. Sparing the back and forth of three historians, this and in general the increasing black population were probably what caused the event. The white workers felt threatened, a feeling encouraged by both their own leadership and that of their class enemies. This and the white government’s actions led to the high death count. Death counts on these types of events are always difficult to pin down; the number of bodies that are returned to medical examiners and undertakers are often very low compared to the likely death rates. Some new Afrikan community members reported that they saw carloads of bodies being dumped into a local creek, but the investigators never followed the lead.

On the topic of investigation, there was only a single conviction for the East St. Louis Massacre: Le Roy Bundy. A black leader who had left to go to Cleveland days prior, the sham charges brought against him for inciting the new Afrikan population to revolt were obviously an attempt to scapegoat him. During his time in East St. Louis, he had become a power broker that attempted to build a new Afrikan political machine. The prosecutors were likely compelled to indict him by the mayor and chief of police, who implicitly encouraged the mass killing themselves. He was eventually freed after an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, then never returned to his former home, choosing to remain in Ohio.

Whatever the justifications of the East St. Louis Massacre, it is apparent that the white political and economic class helped to incite the white working class to violently attack the new Afrikan communities in the city. The union leaders were complicit in the same scheme; unions had been segregated since their inception in the region. It comes as no surprise that the white workers’ class grievances were shifted onto blacks in this case, since colonial prejudice was deeply attached to union politics and legitimate political power in East St. Louis. White labor organizers had again proven hostile to the interests of black workers, as they would in other cities shortly afterward. The East St. Louis Riot was only the first of many atrocities to come two years later, a series of over thirty race riots that historians now term the Red Summer.

[1] Charles L. Lumpkins, American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Riot and Black Politics (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008), p. 58.

[2] Ida Wells-Barnett, The East St. Louis Massacre: The Greatest Outrage of the Century (1917) (Independent Publisher, 2020), p. 12.

[3] W. E. B. DuBois, “The Massacre of East St. Louis,” Crisis 14, no. 5 (1917): 232–235. Available here.

[4] Wells-Barnett, East St. Louis Massacre, p. 29.

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