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Excerpt: Fires force blacks to flee during East St. Louis race riot of 1917

Newspaper photo from "made in USA: East St. Louis" (Virginia Publishing), by Andrew Theising 300 pixels  2008
St. Louis Beacon archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 27, 2008 - Note from the author:

July 2, 2008, is the 91st anniversary of the East St. Louis race riot, the first and officially the deadliest of a series of devastating racial battles that swept through American cities in the World War I era.

In the years leading up to the summer of 1917, blacks by the thousands had moved north to East St. Louis. They were competing with whites for jobs. Employers used strikebreakers, some of them black, to destroy white unions and continued to lure blacks north with promises of employment long past the time when the job market was saturated. Many blacks ended up homeless or crowded into shanties near downtown, and sensationalist stories in some local newspapers led many whites to believe blacks were on a rampage of crime.

Blacks were attacked by white mobs in the street throughout the spring and early summer of 1917. On July 1, armed whites drove through black neighborhoods, firing into homes. Blacks finally fought back, and on a dark street two white plainclothes policemen in an unmarked car were killed, almost certainly because they were mistaken for the vigilantes terrorizing black neighborhoods. In retaliation, on the morning of July 2 whites began attacking blacks on the streets, and a full-scale riot broke out. By the end of the long summer day, hundreds of black men, women and children had been brutally assaulted, with at least 39 of them killed, thousands had fled the city and more than 300 homes and places of business had been destroyed by fire.

Chapter 9

"This was the Apocalypse"

About 2 p.m. July 2, rioters began torching flimsy railroad shacks on the Mississippi River bottomland south of downtown East St. Louis, near the Free Bridge. The scattered fires, fanned by a light wind from the west, slowly licked eastward into rickety, overcrowded rows of flats and small industrial buildings and warehouses.

Charles Roger looked to the west from the chemical plant he ran at Sixth Street and Walnut Avenue and he could hardly believe his eyes. The fires were about two blocks away, and the smoke was dark with creosote from railroad ties. As he looked down Walnut toward the railroad yards and sandy bottomland along the river he saw half a dozen white men emerge through the smoke. The men were jeering and throwing bottles and stones at the blacks who ran out of the buildings to escape the fires. For the moment, the whites seemed content to see the homes destroyed and let the blacks escape with their lives, and he saw no guns, although he could hear sporadic gunfire from other parts of the city. An hour or two later, he saw the first soldiers, not that their arrival did anything to stop the rioters.

Roger had been born and raised in Scotland but he had spent half of his 49 years in the United States, the past seven managing a chemical plant and freight company in East St. Louis. He thought he knew the place well, but he had never expected to see anything like this, and it shocked and frightened him.

In front of his building, three or four black men huddled on the sidewalk along Walnut and watched the jeering whites. Suddenly, another black man came running toward them from the east, gripping a pistol in his right hand. He yelled something as he approached and waved with the pistol toward a small gang of white men who were chasing him. They were less than a block behind him, shouting racial curses.

The black men all began running south towards the Free Bridge (now the MacArthur Bridge). Roger figured they could escape across the river, if they could fight their way through the whites who, Roger had heard, were massed at the bridge, beating blacks and forcing them at gunpoint to jump into the deep, churning Mississippi. It was a plunge few could expect to survive,

Roger turned away for a moment, horrified at what he had seen that day, fearful of what would happen to the businesses he had been put in charge of -- $300,000 worth of plant and warehouses -- and worried about the lives and homes of the people who worked for him. The plant had its own hauling company that delivered freight by horse-drawn wagons, and one of his teamsters was black. Understandably, that man had not reported to work that morning and Roger could only hope that he was safe.

An old African American pensioner who did odd jobs around the company's horse yards and stables had come in early, as usual, but as soon as Roger learned that blacks were being yanked off of streetcars, beaten and shot just a few blocks to the north and west, he managed to get a cab to come to the plant and take the terrified old man to St. Louis. Then the taxis stopped running.

Most of his other employees had gone home, or never came in. A half dozen remained. They had blankets and fire extinguishers and hoses and their main task was to protect the plant, the wooden sheds, outbuildings and equipment. Roger was thankful that he had gotten the horses out of the stable and headed across the river with the teamsters first thing that morning, after he had driven to work from his house north of downtown and seen the angry men in the streets. He had expected trouble, but the chaos in East St. Louis was worse than anything he could have imagined. It was like war.

A few blocks north, in the heart of downtown, Colonel Stephen O. Tripp, commander of Illinois National Guard troops in East St. Louis, received a report that blacks, some of them armed, had holed up in a nearby two-story brick house after a black man had been shot in the street. The house was surrounded by a small mob of whites, who were gearing up for an assault. Tripp turned to Thomas Fekete, the young assistant city attorney, and said "The thing to do is to go to that building and get the colored people out." Tripp and half a dozen troops walked down to the brick house. The soldiers held the whites at rifle point until they surrendered their guns. The blacks were finally coaxed out of the building and Tripp confiscated their revolvers. There were no policemen in sight.

The soldiers escorted the blacks to city hall. A few said they would not stay in East St. Louis for any amount of money, and Fekete drove a carload of them across the river to St. Louis, which, at the request of the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP, had opened its Municipal Lodging House, a shelter for the poor and homeless, to refugees from East St. Louis. Hundreds of NAACP members and other volunteers took refugees into their homes.

By mid-afternoon, more than 100 soldiers had arrived in East St. Louis, and Tripp had spread most of them across downtown with vague orders to "maintain order." Despite the smoke rising from the South End, there seemed to be a lull in the rioting downtown and Tripp and Fekete had reason to believe, at least for a while, that their limited show of force and the mere presence of scattered troops had begun to calm the riot down without any further killing. It turned out they were merely in the eye of the storm. The colonel went to another meeting with city officials and businessmen at the downtown offices of the chamber of commerce. The meeting lasted for almost three hours as Colonel Tripp and Mayor Fred Mollman once again went back and forth about the wisdom of declaring martial law. As the arguments rolled on, fires set by men carrying torches made from oily rags spread to the south and east of downtown, and the beatings at the streetcar stops along Collinsville Avenue resumed after rioters saw that the soldiers who had recently arrived were standing around with their rifles slung on their backs doing nothing. A block from city hall, a black man who had been yanked off a streetcar tried to run away and a mob of about 500 whites surrounded him and fought each other to get close enough to beat and kick the man and hit him with cobblestones and pipes and anything they could get their hands on. He was knocked to the ground and was unable to get up. The crowd closed in, and he was kicked unconscious, and then kicked some more, even after it appeared that he was dead.

Reporter G. E. Popkess couldn't find anyone preaching tolerance and sanity - at this point, the peacemakers and the fearful had gone home.

About 3 o'clock, a white mob downtown began chanting, "Get the mayor! Get the mayor!" The chant would rise and then die down and then rise again, sometimes with a variation: "March to city hall! March to city hall." Several thousand men were now surging through the downtown streets, some of them haranguing the others, urging them to take the city back from politicians like the mayor who had courted the black vote. Many just watched. Reporter G. E. Popkess couldn't find anyone preaching tolerance and sanity - at this point, the peacemakers and the fearful had gone home. Popkess heard a rumor that someone had been beheaded. He was not able to confirm that, but he knew that at least a dozen blacks were dead by late afternoon, including at least one woman.

Young reporter Paul Y. Anderson called the Post-Dispatch office around 3 p.m. and told veteran rewrite man Carlos Hurd what he had seen. When he had finished with the horrifying details, he left the drugstore where he had used the phone and waded back into the riot. He saw a pawnshop with a broken window and a kicked-in door. Inside, white men were grabbing guns off the shelves and running out with them. One man had a satchel full of cheap pistols and he was handing them out. Anderson heard a National Guardsman cheering on a white rioter who was holding a revolver. He didn't like black people either, the Guardsman said.

Across the river in downtown St. Louis, in the creaky old Post-Dispatch building on North Broadway, Carlos Hurd hung up the phone and looked out the window to the east in dismay. The Free Bridge was jammed with people fleeing East St. Louis on foot and by car, and clouds of black smoke rose above the city.

Hurd, who was the top rewrite man on the evening shift, had been in the office for a couple of hours. He had seen the smoke above the river from his house 40-odd blocks to the west in the comfortable residential area called the Central West End. Hurd's wife was out of town, and he was eager to get the news, so he came in early. Already one of the best known reporters in America at a time when print journalists could be stars on a national level, Hurd had scooped them all five years earlier when his first interviews from sea with the survivors of the Titanic ship wreck appeared in Joseph Pulitzer's two major dailies - the New York World and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The survivors had terrible tales to tell, and Hurd interviewed them in secret aboard the rescue ship, the Carpathia, defying the ban on interviews by the Cunard steamship company. His wife hid the notes in her corset, and he wrote the story in his cabin, wrapped it in oilcloth and, in New York harbor, as the Carpathia was hooking up to tow boats, he tossed it to Pulitzer employees in a speedboat.

Hurd had covered natural disasters, murders, major fires and bitter labor battles, but had never seen anything like the horror that reporters were breathlessly describing to him over the telephone from East St. Louis. Every hour or so, Anderson or one of his legmen would call in with reports of the latest atrocity, and Hurd would incorporate the news into the expanding story that would dominate the front page of the next day's paper. Hurd, an Iowa Congregationalist minister's son had what a friend described as "a tidy mind," and finally he decided he needed to see the riot for himself to fully comprehend it. When Hurd had begun work at the Post-Dispatch in 1900, he had sped to assignments on a bicycle and once, in his early years, he had been arrested in East St. Louis for "scorching" - speeding - on his bike. Now 40 years old, he was still in a hurry, but he rode the streetcar. After telling managing editor O.K. Bovard what he was doing, and getting Bovard's approval, he left the office about 6:15 p.m. By then, about 160 National Guard troops had arrived in East St. Louis.

About 5 p.m., in a spectacular conflagration, four rickety old houses where blacks lived in an area of warehouses and stores near the downtown East St. Louis railroad yards seemed to burst into flames simultaneously, as if from the co-coordinated actions of several men. The houses were at Main Street and Brady Avenue, about three blocks south of city hall. Half a dozen black men tried to run out of the torched houses. Armed rioters fired at them, hitting several. The wounded men were picked up by their arms and legs and thrown back into the burning buildings. A half dozen soldiers were leaning against a wall across the street, watching. They held rifles, and had full cartridge belts, but the men did nothing--they were leaderless and seemed "overwhelmed," observed reporter Roy Albertson. Even if they had wanted to stop the riot - and nothing in their posture suggested they did -- without leaders they were "like lost babes in the woods," decided Albertson.

By then, the mob had broken up into amoeba-like clusters that were moving through the streets of downtown, with the center of the riot in the heart of the city at Fourth and Broadway, about two blocks south of City Hall. At 5:40, another fire alarm sounded, this time signaling a new fire on Walnut Avenue, a block south of Broadway, and the siren kept blowing and was echoed from other parts of town. There were many more fires than East St. Louis had firemen or trucks or water pressure to fight them, and sirens sounded unheeded into the night.

Credit Rudolf Suroch | St. Louis Beacon archive
Watching East St. Louis burn as an 11 year old was one of the factors that pushed Josephine Baker to flee St. Louis.

As the smoke from the flames rose into the air above East St. Louis, and thousands of blacks fled across the Mississippi River to Missouri, large crowds of St. Louisans, black and white, came down to the levee to watch the exodus. Among them, barely able to believe her eyes, was an 11-year-old girl named Freda Josephine McDonald. Many years later, after she had become internationally famous as Josephine Baker, she wrote down what she had seen and heard that horrible day.

She and her family lived in a tiny shack near downtown St. Louis. Her father was on relief, and she often woke up hungry, as she did on Monday, July 2. That afternoon, she wrote, "An ominous humming sound filled the air. It seemed to be drawing nearer.":

"Is there a storm coming, Mama?" my brother Richard asked.

"No, not a storm, child, it's the whites."

"Wait, Mama, I have to get my babies."

Two tiny black-and-white puppies shared the bed in which we children huddled together for warmth. I had discovered them half dead in a trash can while I was sorting through garbage. They barely had the strength to whine. . . . Gathering my babies up, I hurried along behind Mama, who had picked up little Willie May and was pushing Richard and my sister Margaret out the door.

What I saw before me as I stepped outside had been described at church that Sunday by the Reverend in dark, spine-chilling tones. This was the Apocalypse. Clouds, glowing from the incandescent light of huge flames leaping upward from the riverbank, raced across the sky . . . but not as quickly as the breathless figures that dashed in all directions. The entire black community appeared to be fleeing. . . .

A precocious child budding into womanhood, Josephine had already been planning on leaving St. Louis and heading for Broadway, and the riot made St. Louis even less bearable, as mistrust increased between the races and the color line became even more rigid. Two years later, the 13-year-old stepped onto a train at Union Station, just a few blocks from the ghetto where she lived, and headed east. Before Josephine Baker was out of her teens, her singing and dancing, her wit and her beauty, her powerful ambition and the unstoppable desire never again to live anywhere remotely close to racist East St. Louis - even, it would seem, in the same nation -- had made her a star in New York and then in Paris, where she remained.

All afternoon and evening in East St. Louis, huge crowds of black men, women and children, some of them carrying battered suitcases or large shopping bags filled with clothes and other belongings, some of them with little more than the clothes they wore, were also fleeing to the east out Illinois and Cahokia Avenues, away from the Mississippi River. Dr. Thomas Hunter, the black surgeon who had left downtown when the rioting had intensified, was standing with his wife and others at 19th Street in his mostly black middle-class neighborhood well east of downtown watching the mass exodus. He recognized a patient and asked what was going on downtown. "Oh, doctor," the man said, "they are killing and beating our people. And they are burning everything down there at Fifth and Broadway."

"My god," said Hunter. "What about my office?"

"It's gone," the man replied. "Burned down."

Hunter was unnerved by the news. He had heard rumors that "business Negroes" - Bundy and other influential men in the black community - were going to be targeted by rioters, and he feared that his house would be attacked as well. "I think we had better get in the machine and take to the tall weeds," he said, but then he had second thoughts. There were too many people, including a druggist and his family and two female schoolteachers, to fit in his car, and he didn't want to abandon anyone to the riot. He decided they would be safer staying where they were as long as they kept away from his own home. They found shelter at a neighbor's house. "I guess it will be just about as safe there as any other place," Hunter said, "and we will all be together." Fortunately, the riot did not reach 19th street.

Mayor Mollman and Colonel Tripp stayed at the meeting at the chamber of commerce into the late afternoon, arguing with each other and chamber members, seemingly at a loss as to how to stop the destruction and murder going on around them. Lawyer Dan McGlynn told the mayor that "two or three determined men" could stop the riot in its tracks. He said later, "I remember there were four or five of us there that said if we didn't get proper assurance from the Mayor that we would do something. . . .We could go over to a hardware store and get some shotguns and rifles and get out and undertake to save the town from being burned up. [But] the mayor assured us that Colonel Tripp was here and that everything would be all right in just a little while."

Late that afternoon, black policeman John Eubanks got a call at his home northeast of downtown from the chief of detectives asking him to come down to the police station. Eubanks kissed his wife goodbye and told her to stay away from the windows and head east at the first sound of gunfire. He walked downtown by Missouri Avenue, staying well clear of now-embattled Broadway, and went up to the detective bureau on the second floor. The chief of detectives said, "John, I tell you things are in an awful condition. They've been rioting all over town. It seems like there's a dozen mobs working in the city. I've got to leave the office, and I want you to stay here and take charge and answer any calls that come in." Eubanks remained on duty in the police station until the next morning, and then was sent to city hall to help with the hundreds of refugees from the riot being sheltered there.

Newspaper photo from "made in USA: East St. Louis" (Virginia Publishing), by Andrew Theising 300 pixels
Credit St. Louis Beacon archives
Newspaper photo from "made in USA: East St. Louis" (Virginia Publishing), by Andrew Theising

Nearby, at Broadway and Collinsville, members of the Illinois National Guard leaned on their rifles as blacks were beaten and kicked. One older black man on his way home from work ran from the mob, his lunch pail swinging in his right hand, and tried to protect himself by heading for a line of National Guardsmen. Several of the militiamen held the man off with bared bayonets, and forced him back into the arms of the mob. He was beaten until he fell down, and then kicked in the head. He tried to shield his face, but soon was unconscious, and the kicks continued. An ambulance pulled up, but a white man standing over the body threatened to kill the driver if he picked up the black man. The ambulance driver, an agonized look on his smoke-streaked face, stood silent for a moment, staring at the white man, and then turned and drove away. The next day, the old black man lay dead in a black funeral parlor that was crowded with bodies. His arm, stiffened from rigor, still shielded his face.

The ambulance driver drove off towards the downtown railroad station, where another black man had been reported lying in blood, badly injured or dead. Behind him, siren blaring, was a fire engine heading in the same direction. New fires were springing up all around downtown.

Standing on Broadway, Baptist preacher Charles W. Allison heard the sirens scream past him, rising and falling in pitch. He could see the fires nearby in the Black Valley and a mob of white men, as he later put it, "hunting for negroes [who] were not armed or could not defend themselves." The whites carefully stayed away from the most dangerous section of the Valley, the so-called "Bad Lands" along Walnut, until fires had spread into that area and sent blacks scattering, and the whites could shoot them down and then advance like foot soldiers entering enemy territory after an artillery barrage.

On Sixth Street, in the midst of all the chaos, Charles Roger was standing outside of his chemical plant when a man in a passing mob of whites gestured with his thumb at the building and said, "There's a place that would make a good fire." But another man looked over at Roger and grinned. "Leave that place alone," the man said, saying that Roger had no black employees. Roger employed two blacks, but was immensely relieved that the men did not know that. The man who had spared his plant looked only vaguely familiar, and Roger was struck with how few of the rioters he recognized, even though he had spent so many years and so much time in the midst of the working men of East St. Louis. He had even seen a couple of strangers wearing what looked like brand new blue cotton work shirts and pants, as if they had bought them to blend in with working men. He wondered where they came from.

The men walked on by, heading east, and the fires spread in that direction until Roger's plant and warehouses were covered in dense smoke. Although small fires sprang up from time to time on the building, Roger and the few employees who stayed with him were able to extinguish them. By the next morning, his plant was the only building standing in four square blocks.

Later, Roger was asked if there were any soldiers around when the men were torching buildings.

"One," Roger replied.

"What was he doing?"

Roger replied that the soldier had been shooting at blacks.

Copyright c 2008 Harper Barnes. Reprinted by permission of Walker & Co.