The East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917
John J. Dunphy
Some scholars have stated that the East St. Louis race riot, with its 39 dead blacks and 9 dead whites, was the most lethal race riot in our nation’s history until the 1992 Los Angeles riot that resulted from the acquittal of the police officers who had been videotaped beating Rodney King. They’re mistaken.
The East St. Louis tragedy still holds the body-count record hands-down. In fact, it isn’t even close.
The official tally of 39 murdered blacks is ridiculously low, although arriving at a reasonable estimate is no easy task. Thousands of blacks, most of whom were never documented, had been lured to East St. Louis during the years before the riot by the promise of plenty of well-paid jobs. Thousands fled the city after the riot, never to return. This made it all but impossible to determine how many members of the African-American community were missing and should be presumed dead. It is also a terrible fact that some blacks — children and even infants — were incinerated in fires set by white mobs.
Some of these victims had been killed by gunshots. Others were literally burnt alive. There were also numerous reports of bullet-riddled black corpses tossed by white mobs into the Mississippi. They were the fortunate ones. As black families tried to flee across the Free Bridge (now known as the MacArthur Bridge) to the relative safety of St. Louis, some were overtaken by whites and thrown into the river. No corpses were recovered from the swift, muddy waters.
A St. Clair County grand jury set the death toll at close to one hundred. Reporters for the St. Louis Argus, a black newspaper based in St. Louis, as well as reporters for the area’s white dailies maintained that over one hundred African-Americans were killed. Investigators sent to East St. Louis by the NAACP and the Chicago Defender, the nation’s most prominent black newspaper, placed the fatalities between one hundred and two hundred. The shocking truth is that we will never know precisely how many African-American men, women and children were murdered during the East St. Louis Race Riot.
Rampaging white mobs and even police officers attacked newspaper photographers, smashed their cameras and deliberately exposed the film. Crazed with racial hatred, these murderers still possessed enough sanity to try to ensure there would be no record of their actions. There is a photo on page 130 of Harper Barnes’s Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement with the caption “Blacks fleeing East St. Louis.” Unfortunately, however, it merely depicts men and women carrying bundles and other items walking along a sidewalk. There is only a hint of the unfolding tragedy. A man holding a large bundle is looking back, as though to determine whether he and the others are being pursued.
A photo that appeared in the June 29, 2008 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to complement book editor Jane Henderson’s interview with Barnes is more successful in capturing the riot. A crowd of men is converging on an East St. Louis streetcar. Most of the men can be identified as civilians by the white shirts they’re wearing. A few men are obviously garbed in the distinctive uniforms of the National Guard and can be seen bearing the bolt-action Springfield rifles that were standard-issue in 1917.
Still, the photo is a long shot and it’s impossible to discern what is occurring around the streetcar. One has to read Never Been A Time or Elliot Rudwick’s Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917 to learn that the white mob is dragging African-Americans from the streetcar. Some will be beaten into unconsciousness and then left alone. Others will be beaten into unconsciousness and then shot to death. Most National Guardsmen are simply bystanders, merely watching what is unfolding before their eyes. They are making no effort to stop the rampaging mob and protect the embattled African-American passengers. Some guardsmen in East St. Louis eventually threw in the rioters and joined them in killing African-Americans.
In order to understand why the riot occurred, it is necessary to delve into American race relations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and how these dynamics impacted East St. Louis. In exchange for southern support to put Rutherford B. Hays in the White House after the disputed election of 1876, the GOP — the party of Lincoln — agreed to end Reconstruction. Through legislation and outright terrorism, Southern blacks were gradually disenfranchised and thrust into a state not far removed from the slavery that had supposedly been abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment, which was written by Senator Lyman Trumbull, the Illinois Republican. Black newspapers, such as the Chicago Defender, urged African-Americans to leave the South and move to the northern states. The factories were booming, jobs were to be had and the northern political climate, while not free of racial bigotry, was far less toxic than anything found in the lynch-happy South.
And leave they did. Between 1910 and 1920, at least half a million blacks moved North, about 400,000 of that number in the second half of the decade. While no few had been encouraged to leave Dixie by letters from relatives who had moved North, there was another group involved in expediting this great migration — and it did not have the best interests of African-Americans at heart.
Steel mills and other industries wanted a large labor force that would serve to drive down wages and undermine unions. While the radical Industrial Workers of the World sought to organize all workers regardless of race, religion or ethnicity, unions belonging to the American Federation of Labor barred black workers. A huge influx of African-Americans who were ignored by organized labor ensured that industrialists would have a ready supply of strikebreakers at their disposal.
Three dozen men in 1916 were fired from Swift, Morris and Armour meat-packing plants in National City, a company town just outside of East St. Louis, for trying to organize a union. When more than four thousand men went out on strike in protest, management brought in hundreds of black
strikebreakers and succeeded in destroying the organizing drive.
Management at the Aluminum Ore Company, also located just outside of East St. Louis, began laying off union workers that year and replacing them with blacks, who would work for meager wages. These union workers, many of whom lived in East St. Louis, now looked upon African-Americans as their enemies. Anger that should have been directed at management instead was aimed at fellow workers of another race.
The Democratic Party also bore no small degree of responsibility for the race riot. Woodrow Wilson, elected to the presidency in 1912, fired a number of high-ranking black federal officials who had served under the preceding GOP administrations and replaced them with white appointees. He also allowed his cabinet members to segregate their departments. Our nation’s capitol, which had been relatively integrated under the Republicans, became segregated under the Democrats.
Wilson had won election in 1912 largely because William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt split the Republican vote at a time when the GOP was the majority party in the United States. The Republicans in 1916, however, had reunited under the candidacy of Charles Evans Hughes, so Wilson was faced with a tough re-election campaign. African-Americans of that era voted overwhelmingly for the party of Lincoln. Wilson’s campaign managers decided to try to win swing states such as Illinois by playing to the fears of many whites that the Republicans would use the large number of blacks who had so recently migrated North to steal the election for the GOP.
The East St. Louis Daily Journal, which backed Wilson and the Democrats, ran a series of sensationalistic articles about “black colonizers” who were supposedly responsible for a crime wave in the city. Even the unions contributed to community fears when an AFL organizer claimed that black rapists made it unsafe for East St. Louis white women to visit their next-door neighbors after dark. Rumors spread that a large number of blacks on election day would vote at dawn in Chicago and board a south-bound train, disembark in central Illinois to vote again and then ride the train to East St. Louis to vote a third time. Dr. Leroy H. Bundy, a prominent African-American dentist who lived in East St. Louis, was arrested and interrogated in the Windy City as the alleged ringleader of this plot. Bundy was released for lack of evidence, but the East St. Louis Daily Journal gave his arrest front-page coverage, further fueling white fears that East St. Louis blacks were part of a conspiracy to steal the presidential election for the Republicans.
Wilson narrowly won re-election but lost Illinois to Hughes. It seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of white East St. Louisans that their city’s African-Americans indeed must have been partners in a conspiracy to place Illinois in the GOP column on election day.
The town was known as the “Pittsburgh of the West,” a nickname that gave the impression East St. Louis possessed a solid industrial base. Actually, nothing could have been further from the truth. Industrialists established company towns around East St. Louis to avoid paying taxes to the city’s treasury. East Coast money built the St. Louis National Stockyards on unincorporated land just north of the East St. Louis city limits. Armour and Swift also moved in to process meat from livestock pens that could accommodate as many as 10,000 sheep, 15,000 cattle and 20,000 hogs. When East St. Louis began annexing unincorporated land, the Meat Trust protected its interests by setting up the company town of National City, with a mayor handpicked by the Meat Trust as well as a tax assessor who was an employee of a meatpacking house. Other company towns near East St. Louis included Alorton, created by the Aluminum Ore Company, and Monsanto, later known as Sauget, set up by the chemical company of the same name.
Many East St. Louisans drew paychecks from these companies, but the city of East St. Louis couldn’t collect a penny in taxes from them. There were, however, two enterprises that thrived within the city limits — saloons and brothels. How important was booze to the economy of East St. Louis? Revenue from saloon licenses in the St. Louis, Missouri of 1916 comprised about 4.5 per cent of that city’s annual budget. By contrast, money derived in 1916 from saloon licenses in East St. Louis amounted to $175,000, which was 43 per cent of the city’s $400,000 for the year.
The $175,000 figure doesn’t include revenue derived from “blind tigers,” which were unlicensed saloons that operated outside the law. Proprietors of these establishments paid money not to the city treasury but directly into the pockets of East St. Louis police and politicians. When local ministers and other reform-minded citizens lodged complaints about blind tigers, the police would periodically shut down some of them. A few well-placed bribes later, these saloons would invariably reopen. In East St. Louis, it was never a question of whether the police were on the take but, rather, to what degree they were on the take. A police officer’s salary was just $70 to $80 a month, so bribes from blind tigers and brothels were a necessity.
Booze flowed freely in East St. Louis, although all the licensed saloons and blind tigers combined were not nearly enough to keep the town financially solvent. City Hall in 1917 — the year of the riot — raised the annual saloon license from $500 to $750 in an attempt to get the town’s financial ledger out of the red.
Corruption was a way of life in the city. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter in 1916 wrote a series of articles lambasting East St. Louis Mayor Fred Mollman and Police Chief Ransom Payne for turning a blind eye toward their city’s gambling and prostitution. Mollman, up for re-election in 1917, closed the Commercial Hotel, a center for gambling and prostitution located just two blocks from city hall, to placate the reformers. The place reopened shortly after Mollman was re-elected to office on April 3, 1917.
Tensions in 1917 between whites and blacks often led to fist and stone-throwing fights between street gangs. Racism in East St. Louis was evident even on the police force. The six African-Americans on the seventy-man force were all plainclothesmen, since it was believed that the very sight of blacks in police uniforms would outrage white East St. Louisans.
The Majestic Theater in downtown East St. Louis played for a three-day run D.W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece The Birth of a Nation in February of 1917. White families packed the theater to watch Caucasian actors in blackface menace virginal white women in a black-ruled Reconstruction South. Audience members wondered whether such atrocities would occur in East St. Louis when black migration to their city finally made whites the minority race.
The monstrous July race riot was preceded by a minor riot on May 28. Mollman presided at a city council meeting that was packed with whites alarmed by a crime way supposedly instigated by blacks. The embattled mayor promised to do what he could to stem the tide of African-American migration to their city. By all accounts, some members of the crowd were stirred to a frenzy by an address from Alexander Flannigen, a former city treasurer who, in true East St. Louis tradition, had enriched himself with public funds while in office. Flannigen left no doubt regarding how he thought white East St. Louisans should deal with this influx of blacks.
“As far as I know,” he said, “there is no law against mob violence.” Besides, he continued, even if such a law existed, the police could hardly arrest an entire mob. Much of the audience rose to applaud and cheer, while Mollman and some local labor leaders tried to maintain order.
Flannigen’s inflammatory remarks induced fifty to one hundred men and women to leave city hall, where they were met by other whites with news that a black stick-up artist had wounded a white man. The crowd became further enraged upon seeing police officers with handcuffed black suspects. A gang of white men broke away from the crowd and began moving down Collinsville Avenue in search of African-Americans to assault.
Blacks were accosted and beaten. A gang of whites seized a black man and held him down across a trolley track while urging the trolley driver to run him over. The trolley driver did not comply. Two plainclothes detectives drew their service revolvers and stopped a mob from setting fire to a row of black-owned homes, but most police officers did little or nothing to deter white attacks on blacks. Instead, they concentrated on confiscating firearms from blacks, who were carrying handguns as a defense.
Mollman closed all saloons, theaters and schools the next day and ordered the police to arrest all groups of men larger than five. The National Guard arrived just as the riot flared up again, with whites setting fire to black neighborhoods and throwing stones and bricks at any African-American on the street. Blacks and whites exchanged gunshots just north of downtown.
No one was killed during the May 26–27 riot, but isolated incidents of violence continued into June. An elderly black man was beaten almost to death by a white gang when he refused to give up his seat on a streetcar to a white woman. Union workers beat black strikebreakers outside of Aluminum Ore.
African-Americans began arming themselves in anticipation of another riot. Mollman had prohibited East St. Louis pawnshops from selling guns to blacks, so a lively smuggling business soon got underway. Since police frisked all African-Americans who returned from St. Louis, a few African-Americans who could pass for whites made money bringing firearms from the Gateway City. Barnes reported that black-owned funeral homes with hearses that traveled between the two cities sometimes stashed guns in coffins.
East St. Louis whites probably knew nothing about this firearms smuggling but believed rumors that blacks were planning a July 4th uprising. Conversely, African-Americans believed that whites intended to massacre everyone who attended a black July 4th celebration in an East St. Louis
city park. The town was a tinderbox — and some random shootings on the night of July 1 provided the spark.
A gang of whites in a car drove through a black neighborhood and fired shots into houses. A short time later, another white gang in a car followed suit. When a police car was dispatched to investigate, it was fired on by blacks. One of the officers was killed immediately, while another died two days later. A third officer suffered a wound to his right arm.
In a deliberately-provocative action, authorities allowed the bullet-riddled car to be left parked just across the street from the police station. Angry whites, some drinking, gathered to look at the vehicle. They began talking about taking revenge on the city’s blacks. A white mob that gathered at the city’s Labor Temple was harangued by Richard Brockway, a security guard for a streetcar company. Brockway concluded his tirade with “We’re going to get some niggers today.” He then marched from the Labor Temple, followed by some men. A few minutes later, they chanced upon a black man. Brockway fired five bullets into him.
By 11 am, blacks were being beaten and murdered from the southern section of downtown to St. Clair Avenue — an area comprising over a square mile. Robert Boylan, a St. Louis Globe-Democrat reporter, stated that whites were pursing blacks “like boys chasing rabbits.” Boylan also saw white prostitutes, wearing kimonos and silk stockings, chasing a black woman who held a little boy by the hand. She finally picked up the child and fled into a shanty. The prostitutes, their faces still wearing the heavy make-up of the previous night, then pelted the shanty with coal chunks.
Illinois National Guardsmen, summoned to quell the riot, proved to be as racist as the mobs that were hunting blacks. G. E. Popkess, a reporter for the East St. Louis Daily Journal, heard a guardsman asked a rioter, “Got your nigger yet?” Some National guardsmen joined in the carnage by shooting blacks with their 30.06-caliber Springfield rifles.
An elderly black man, pursued by a white mob, ran to some guardsmen for protection. They leveled their bayonets at the man to deliberately force him back into the mob, where he was beaten and kicked to death. The next day, in a black-owned funeral parlor, the old man’s arms, stiffened from rigor mortis, still shielded his face.
Whites shot blacks as they fled from burning buildings. African-Americans were hanged from light or telephone poles. One man survived hanging and was sitting on the steps of a drugstore, with the rope still around his neck. A white man noticed him, walked over to where he was sitting and shot him dead.
The rioters traveled in small groups without apparent leadership. They exhibited no signs of frenzy, moving with a cool deliberateness. Many white onlookers watched the rioters’ while they assaulted blacks, either remaining silent or cheering and applauding their actions. A few East St. Louis whites sheltered blacks, undoubtedly saving their lives. Armed blacks tried to protect their neighborhoods when they realized that they could expect no help from the East St. Louis police or National Guard.
Colonel Stephen Tripp, who commanded the guardsmen dispatched to East St. Louis, had spent most of his army career as a quartermaster and possessed no combat experience. He arrived in East St. Louis wearing a business suit, rather than a uniform. Castigated for his incompetency by the congressional committee established to investigate the riot, Tripp failed to organize the guardsmen or even to give them clear orders concerning what they were expected to do. It was only when Lieutenant Colonel E.P. Clayton, an experienced commander, took charge that the National Guard began restoring order in East St. Louis. Mollman was also criticized by the congressional committee for his weak leadership, while the East St. Louis police force was assailed for destroying newspaper photographers’ cameras and threatening them with arrest if they tried to document what was
Area industrialists also bore blame for the riot, according to the congressional committee, since their deliberate use of African-American strikebreakers served to pit black labor against white labor.
W.E.B. Dubois, the black sociologist, journeyed from New York to East St. Louis to investigate the riot for the NAACP. He blamed much of the racial tension that led to the riot on area industrialists’ use of black strikebreakers but argued that the American labor movement also bore responsibility for its failure to allow blacks into its unions.
Oscar Leonard, the superintendent of the Jewish Educational and Charitable Association of St, Louis, characterized the riot as a pogrom, the term used to describe the massacre of Jews in Czarist Russia. He also stated that a Russian Jewish immigrant had told him that Russian anti-Semites could take lessons in perpetrating a pogrom from the whites of East St. Louis.
The East St. Louis riot electrified the entire civil rights movement. Membership in the NAACP stood at just 9,200 in 1917. One year later, membership had soared to almost 44,000. Circulation of The Crisis, the organization’s house organ, exceeded 50,000, due in no small part to Dubois’s impassioned articles about the riot.
A city where saloons, blind tigers, gambling dens and brothels abounded was virtually guaranteed to attract the very worst elements of American society. During the years before the riot, a plethora of petty criminals moved to East St. Louis because of its reputation as a wide-open town where civic and judicial corruption were the accepted norm. And they were armed and dangerous. A handgun could be purchased in the downtown pawnshops for as little as fifty cents. This does not mean that East St. Louis lacked decent, hard-working folks. Still, a city that derived 43 per cent of its revenue from saloons could not be expected to produce or attract an overabundance of model citizens.
While the town’s low-life element comprised a sizable portion of the mobs that murdered blacks, they were joined by what society often terms perfectly-respectable people: an ice-wagon driver, a railroad switchman, a messenger boy and too many others to list. Thousands of others, while not participating in the mayhem, watched the beatings and murders and even cheered and applauded. Why? Scholars who grapple with this question postulate that when a mob psychology becomes dominant, it allows people to commit or at least applaud acts that they normally would find morally repellent. Jazz great Miles Davis, who grew up in East St. Louis long after the riot, stated that he always knew that most East St. Louis whites were “racist to the bone.” The mob psychology that ruled East St. Louis on July 2, 1917 unleashed that racism with horrifying results.
Racism hampered the prosecution of those brought to trial for crimes committed during the riots. Very few white East St. Louisans would admit under oath to having seen any fellow whites commit acts of violence on July 2. Six policemen, charged with murder or conspiracy to murder, were offered a sweetheart deal: the murder charges were dropped in exchange for any three of the six pleading guilty to a single charge of rioting. The six officers drew numbers from a hat to determine who would plead guilty. All six pitched in to pay the fine set by Judge George A. Crow, a longtime political hack — just $150. The St. Louis Argus denounced the deal and said that Crow’s ruling effective set the fine for killing a black in East St. Louis at just $50.
Thirteen African-American men were prosecuted for the murder of the officer who was killed when blacks fired on the unmarked police car that drove through a black neighborhood. Crow barred the defense from allowing black witnesses to testify about the carloads of whites who entered black neighborhoods and fired on homes. An all-white jury found ten of the defendants guilty, and Crow sentenced them to a minimum of fourteen years at the Menard State Prison in Chester, Illinois.
Most white people — even those who live in the St. Louis and Metro East area — are unfamiliar with the East St. Louis race riot. That is certainly not the case with the area’s African-American population, however. Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville professor emeritus Eugene Redmond, the official poet laureate of East St. Louis, has stated that there has never been a time when the riot was not alive in the black oral tradition. A tragedy of such magnitude must remain alive in the tradition of every race and culture.
Barnes, Harper. Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement. (New York: Walker and Company, 2008).
— . “Racial memory: Clear as black and white;” Saint Louis Beacon, June 28, 2008.
Dunphy, John J. “The East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917;” Springhouse Magazine, (Volume 9, Number 2).
— . “New Light on the 1917 East St. Louis Race Riot;” Springhouse Magazine, (Volume 26, Number 1).
— -. “The reasons for the riot;” The [Alton, IL] Telegraph, July 19, 2017.
Henderson, Jane. “From riots to civil rights;” St. Louis Post-Dispatch; June 29, 2008.
Lumpkins, Charles L. American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008.
Pollack, Joe. “East St. Louis Race Riot Remembered;” belle lettres, a literary review published by The Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis (Volume IX, Number 1: September/December 2008)
Rudwick, Elliot M. Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964.
Theising, Andrew J. “Lessons of race riot are reassessed;” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 2, 2008.
- John J. Dunphy’s latest book is “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials,” which includes interviews with veterans of the U.S. Army’s 7708 War Crimes Group.