Dawn broke humid and airless in East St. Louis on July 2, 1917.
Far removed from the energy-sapping languor of most summer mornings, this day shook with tension.
Across the city, people were still coming to terms with what had happened the night before.
In the middle of Main Street sat the destroyed hulk of a Ford Model T. While some gathered around, wondering what had happened, most African-American East St. Louisans knew already. They knew because it had happened where they lived.
July 1st had seen a black man attacked near the Municipal Bridge (today called the Mac Arthur Bridge). With this attack, rumors began to spread throughout the black community that there was to be a violent white uprising during the July 4th holiday.
Around midnight, the still, humid air was cut through with gunfire. Dr. Thomas Hunter saw a black Model T speeding down Trendley. Dr. Hunter said that the car was filled with white men who were shooting indiscriminately into houses in the predominantly black neighborhood. Nearby, N.W. Parden, an attorney, was awoken by the commotion, ran into his front yard, and witnessed a similar scene.
At the police station downtown, calls poured in reporting these incidents. Detectives Samuel Coppedge and Frank Wooley were dispatched to investigate, accompanied by a driver, two uniformed officers, and a reporter.
As fate would have it, they drove to the scene in a car that was nearly identical to the one that had carried the shooters.
Detectives Coppedge and Wooley arrived at the intersection of 10th and Bond Avenue to find a large crowd of armed black men in the street. They had gathered to protect their homes and families from harm.
Tense words were exchanged between the police and the crowd. The crowd doubtless figured that the men in the car were the same men who had shot up the neighborhood a short time earlier.
The driver pushed the gas pedal, the car lurched forward and backfired. In the nerve-wracking confrontation, this sound was mistaken for gunfire. The crowd unleashed a volley of gunfire at the car. The police sped away in a hail of bullets.
When they stopped a few blocks away, they discovered that Detective Coppedge was dead and Detective Wooley was injured and dying.
The car was abandoned. At city hall, Mayor Fred Mollman called Springfield to summon the National Guard.
The dawn would come soon. Tension ran high. Nothing was for certain. No one knew what might happen next.
(Author’s note: A version of this story appeared on the Facebook page of the St. Clair County Historical Society, http://www.facebook.com/stcchs)