The East St. Louis Riot (May and July 1917)
The East St. Louis Riot (May and July 1917) was an outbreak of labor- and race-related violence that caused between 40 and 200 deaths and extensive property damage. The incident took place in East St. Louis, Illinois, an industrial city on the east bank of the Mississippi River across from St. Louis, Missouri. It was the worst incidence of labor-related violence in 20th-century American history, and one of the worst race riots in U.S. history. The local Chamber of Commerce called for the resignation of the police chief. At the end of the month, ten thousand people marched in silent protest in New York City in condemnation of the riots.
In 1917 the United States had an active economy boosted by World War I. With many would-be workers absent for active service in the war, industries were in need of labor. Seeking better work and living opportunities, as well as an escape from harsh conditions, the Great Migration out of the South toward industrial centers across the northern and midwestern United States was well underway. For example, blacks were arriving in St. Louis during Spring 1917 at the rate of 2,000 per week. When industries became embroiled in labor strikes, traditionally white unions sought to strengthen their bargaining position by hindering or excluding black workers, while industry owners utilizing blacks as replacements or strikebreakers added to the deep existing societal divisions.
While in New Orleans on lecture tour, Marcus Garvey became aware that Louisiana farmers and the Board of Trade, worried about losing their labor force, had requested East St. Louis Mayor Mollman’s assistance during his New Orleans visit that same week to help discourage black migration.
With many African Americans finding work at the Aluminum Ore Company and the American Steel Company in East St. Louis, some whites feared job and wage security due to this new competition; they further resented newcomers arriving from a rural and very different culture. Tensions between the groups escalated, including rumors of black men and white women fraternizing at a labor meeting on May 28.
In May, three thousand white men gathered in downtown East St. Louis and attacks on blacks began. With mobs destroying buildings and beating people, the Illinois governor called in National Guard to prevent further rioting. Although rumors circulated about organized retribution attacks from African Americans, conditions eased somewhat for a few weeks.
On July 2, a car occupied by white males drove through a black area of the city and fired several shots into a standing group. An hour later, a car containing four people, including a journalist and two police officers, Detective Sergeant Samuel Coppedge and Detective Frank Wadley, was passing through the same area. Black residents, possibly assuming they were the original suspects, opened fire on their car, killing one officer instantly and mortally wounding another. Later that day, thousands of white spectators who assembled to view the detectives’ bloodstained automobile marched into the black section of town and started rioting. After cutting the hoses of the fire department, the rioters burned entire sections of the city and shot inhabitants as they escaped the flames. Claiming that “Southern negros deserve[d] a genuine lynching,” they lynched several blacks. Guardsmen were called in but accounts exist that they joined in the rioting rather than stopping it. More joined in, including allegedly “ten or fifteen young girls about 18 years old, [who] chased a negro woman at the Relay Depot at about 5 o’clock. The girls were brandishing clubs and calling upon the men to kill the woman
After the riot, varying estimates of the death toll circulated. The police chief estimated that 100 blacks had been killed. The renowned journalist Ida B. Wells reported in The Chicago Defender that 40-150 black people were killed during July in the rioting in East St. Louis. The N.A.A.C.P. estimated deaths at 100-200. Six thousand blacks were left homeless after their neighborhood was burned. A Congressional Investigating Committee concluded that no precise death toll could be determined, but reported that at least 8 whites and 39 blacks died. While the coroner specified 9 white deaths, the deaths of black victims were less clearly recorded. Activists who disputed the Committee’s conclusion, argued that the true number of deaths would never be known because many corpses were not recovered, or did not pass through the hands of undertakers