‘Black skin was a death warrant’:
How the East St Louis race massacre was an omen for racial violence to come
Four years before the Tulsa race massacre, white mobs firebombed homes and decimated a Black community in Illinois
How white mobs firebombed homes and decimated a Black community in Illinois – video
The racial violence in East St Louis, Illinois, on 2 July 1917 holds a special place in US history. It’s not the white brutality against Black people that sets the incident apart – official counts claim that 39 Black residents were killed, though estimates range to the hundreds, and 7,000 were forced to flee the city. It’s not the silent march on New York City’s Fifth Avenue weeks later in support of the victims.
East St Louis is notable because it was the first of a series of race riots that happened during and after the first world war, a period of peril and progress for Black Americans. The city, which sits across the Mississippi River from St Louis, Missouri, is a fitting place to end the Red Summers series, which began with the commemoration of the centennial of the Tulsa massacre of 1921.
The tensions that culminated in violence in East St Louis began months earlier with a strike by white workers for better wages and a union contract. They were replaced by Black workers. Before the strike, the city’s growing Black presence, the result of the Great Migration from the south to the north, had turned East St Louis, known for its political corruption and open vice, into a racial tinderbox. The local newspaper, the East St Louis Daily Journal, fanned the flames. In the weeks leading to the violence, a headline read: Police Watching Many Threatening Negroes.
Since the strike, white mobs had been attacking Black workers leaving the city’s meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses. On 2 July 1917, cars drove into the “Negro District”, opening fire on residents. The violence further escalated when Black residents shot and killed two police officers in an unmarked car. Earlier in the day, white people had driven into the community firing at will. Residents had organized to defend themselves against the attacks. When the car carrying the officers approached, residents assumed it was another mob attack and shot at the car. Two reporters were in another car with two other police officers. One of the journalists falsely reported that the officers had identified themselves yet were ruthlessly shot down, according to Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement by journalist Harper Barnes.
But not all the area newspapers spread misinformation. Carlos Hurd, a staff reporter at the St Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote on 3 July 1917: “For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless Negroes at Broadway and Fourth street, in downtown East St Louis, where a black skin was a death warrant.”
Within days of the violence, preeminent journalist Ida B Wells-Barnett arrived in East St Louis from Chicago to investigate what happened. The Illinois national guard had been dispatched to restore peace and protect Black residents. Wells-Barnett took aim at the portrayal of the guard’s role as she heard testimony from Black women who had returned to the city to reclaim their homes or collect what was left of their property. In her pamphlet, The East St Louis Massacre: The Greatest Outrage of the Century,she said the police and the state guard had turned the other way or aided the mob as Blacks were attacked. The pamphlet prompted a congressional investigation, but the US war ministry censored the pamphlet for fear that it would inflame racial conflict as the nation was at war.
But racial violence was already engulfing the nation. A few weeks after the massacre in East St Louis, on 23 August 1917 more than 100 Black soldiers, stationed at Camp Logan outside of Houston, marched on the city jail, fired on white residents and fought with the police. The soldiers were part of the Illinois national guard; by the time they had arrived in Texas, they were already aware of the violence in East St Louis.
The catalyst for their mutiny was the routine harassment and assaults against Black people in Houston. This time, it involved a fellow soldier. Black military police officers attempted to get Houston police to release a Black soldier who had been arrested for questioning police treatment of a local Black woman. Houston police responded by assaulting a military police officer and arresting him, though he was later released. When word spread at Camp Logan, the soldiers marched on the city. The incident resulted in the largest court martial in US history.
The violence in East St Louis and Houston highlighted a dilemma the US government grappled with throughout the first world war as racial violence erupted and the Black press sought to speak truth to power about racism in America. Less than a year later, the war department convened 41 Black leaders in Washington DC, most of them newspaper editors, to encourage them to support the war effort by tamping down stories about racial violence, according to historian Patrick Washburn. Behind the scenes, efforts were underway to investigate and censor the Black press, just as the government had censored Wells-Barnett’s pamphlet about East St Louis.
Red Summers is a 360 video project by the artist and film-maker Bayeté Ross Smith on the untold American history of racial terrorism from 1917 to 1921. The project is funded by Black Public Media, Eyebeam, Sundance Institute, Crux XR and the Open Society Foundations.
(c) 2021, The Guardian