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Centennial commemoration of deadly 1917 East St. Louis race riots will memorialize victims

A mob stops a street car during the East St. Louis race riots, which started on July 2, 1917.
University of Massachusetts-Amherst Libraries
A mob stops a street car during the East St. Louis race riots, which started on July 2, 1917. An estimated 500 people were killed over the course of two days.

One hundred years after the 1917 East St. Louis race riots a permanent monument to victims will be dedicated, and educational programs, musical and theatrical presentation, and other events will be held.

The East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission and Cultural Initiative announced its plans Wednesday. Commission vice chairman Edmond Brown, president of ELB Enterprises, said the monument will “commemorate those lost during that time, to act as a point of education as well as for healing of the community.” Commission chairman, the Rev. Joseph Brown, a professor of Africana studies at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, said there will also be “rituals taking place around East St. Louis to respect the places where we know people were murdered.”

The riots are “one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in the history of the United States,” according to Joseph Brown, in which “men, women and children were massacred by white citizens of the city of East St. Louis” starting on July 2, 1917.

“Some were hanged from light posts, some were shot, some were stabbed, some were pulled off of public transportation and assaulted,” he said. “We don't know, but we think the best estimate was 4- or 500 people were murdered over that two-day period.”

He also said as many as 6,000 people left the city “as quickly as they possibly could in order to survive” and moved to St. Louis and St. Louis County, settling in places like Ferguson and Kinloch.

A family flees violence in East St. Louis following the 1917 race riots.
Credit East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission and Cultural Initiative
A family flees violence in East St. Louis following the 1917 race riots.

Edmond Brown said tension had begun earlier in 1917 as African-Americans from the south moved into East St. Louis to work in the aluminum ore industry and stockyards. He said the company owners "were using the African-Americans to replace" white workers. 

Edmond Brown said the growing tension fueled an escalation of violence: accusations of a robbery and a beating of a white man led to attacks against black residents, which led to the killing of two white undercover police officers who black residents mistakenly suspected of committing violence.
The exploitation, by white company owners, of black people to move from the south, at the expense of white poor laborers, has lessons for St. Louis-area residents today, said Joseph Brown.
“You had people who were being brought in to break union negotiations and to work for less than the prevailing wage," he said. "European immigrants were angry with southern immigrants – white and black, but neither one of them were the cause of the problems, so now we have to understand when we are distracted by making the other the enemy, somebody else profits from it.

"The more we can talk about it cleanly and clearly, the better chance we have of coming up with strategies to make sure we don't have to go through this again."

That's why the centennial events will aim to promote “healing, so we can honor our past so we can really have a more respectful future for our community and the region," said the commission's Marla Byrd.

But she said that starts with acknowledging the extent of the “pogrom” against black residents, which she says has been relegated to the “margins of history.” Curricula will be developed for local grade and high schools, and local colleges and universities will host academic conferences and programming. 

“It’s very important to ensure that the proper light is shed on the event, because throughout the history you read, the newspaper articles of that time so many interpretations don’t adequately, we feel, reflect the magnitude of what occurred,” Byrd said.

Edmond Brown said it is important to stop minimizing racial conflict, but also “to create a dialogue that we have common self-interest and we shouldn’t be pitted against each other."

"That is the biggest cry by a lot of people of color is that it tends to be ignored and never acknowledged that this tragedy happened," he said. "And therein lies a huge problem that we cannot get past it until it's acknowledged." 

He added: “We would like to say, ‘Oh, that’s the past, let’s put a Band-Aid on it and move forward.’ I refer to this in the same way that you would if you just put a Band-Aid on someone who has cancer – give them an aspirin and say, ‘Just move on, it’s not that serious.’ Until you aggressively address that illness, you cannot move forward, you cannot heal that individual.”

Organizers have released a tentative schedule of events planned for the next year on the commission’s website

Follow Stephanie on Twitter: @stephlecci

See also, an installment of St. Louis in Black and White