On July 3, 1917, the people of East St. Louis awoke to assess the aftermath of the previous day’s riots.
Six blocks of downtown had been burned. 300 homes had been destroyed, displacing hundreds of people in the span of a few hours.
By later estimates, nearly 200 people were killed during the riots of July 2nd. There were vast numbers of casualties, people injured by rioters and the destruction that they visited upon their own city.
It was also on July 3rd that the world began to learn of what happened in East St. Louis. The reportage was damning, vivid, and raw.
Carlos Hurd, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, filed a 3,000-word story that ran on the front page on July 3rd. Hurd concluded his story by writing:
“In recording this, I do not forget that a policeman — by all accounts a fine and capable policeman — was, killed by negroes the night before. I have not forgotten it in writing about the acts of the men in the street. Whether this crime excuses or palliates a massacre, which probably included none of the offenders, is something I will leave to apologists for last evening’s occurrences, if there are any such, to explain.”
The national reaction was equally as ardent. NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois came to East St. Louis on July 4th to interview survivors. His first-hand account of the aftermath, an important historical source, was published in The Crisis in September of 1917.
Journalist Ida B. Wells also came to the city to interview survivors, producing another key historical source. Marcus Garvey, in a speech on July 8th, decried the corruption of East St. Louis’s city government in allowing the riots to happen.
On July 28th, in an attempt to force President Woodrow Wilson to respond, a silent march was held along Fifth Avenue in New York. Nearly 10,000 mostly black demonstrators marched down the street in complete silence, accompanied only by the beat of funeral drums.
In the halls of Congress, five U.S. Representatives decided to launch an investigation into the causes and events of the riots. They interviewed over 100 people and produced a report that condemned the city government and industrial leaders. It concluded that, “no terms of condemnation applied to the men who were responsible for these appalling conditions . . . can be too severe.”
July 2, 1917 is a date that should be known and studied not only by we who live in St. Clair County, but by all Americans. It stands as a bloody chapter in our nation’s history. A direct line can be traced from the 1917 riots through the Civil Rights movement that began in the 1950s down to us today.
May we always remember, commemorate, and learn from what happened in our midst 100 years ago.