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Racial memory: Clear as black and white

Photo by Olivr Nurock

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 27, 2008 - In the past four years, since I began work on my new book on the terrible 1917 East St. Louis race riot, my wife and I have told hundreds of people from the St. Louis area about the project, and have discovered a fact that is both remarkable and thoroughly understandable.

In general, white people, even those who have lived in this area for most or all of their lives, have never heard of the riot - a riot that arguably was the deadliest of the 20th century.

On the other hand, black people, almost without exception, not only have heard of the riot but remember, at a minimum, that it was a massacre of blacks by the white citizens of East St. Louis, aroused to murderous anger by blacks moving into white neighborhoods and taking some jobs once held by whites. As Eugene Redmond, the black East St. Louis poet and academic, told me, "There has never been a time when the riot was not alive in the black oral tradition." (Without knowing it, Redmond was also providing the title for my book: "Never Been a Time.")

The striking difference between the races in relation to the riot illustrates an undeniable fact - well into the 20th century, perhaps even into the 21st, blacks and whites have experienced a different America. This came to mind once again in March, when angry words about white Americans from his 66-year-old former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, led Barack Obama to speak in an address of rare eloquence and subtlety of "the reality in which Rev. Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up." Obama said, "They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted."

They also grew up in a time when older blacks had not forgotten the racial massacres that took place in the World War I era, beginning in 1917 in East St. Louis. By the so-called Red Summer of 1919, riots and serious racial disturbances had struck dozens of cities and towns across the country, including Chicago and Washington, D.C. In every one of these riots, almost all of them in the North, whites murdered blacks for seeking the freedom that had been promised them more than half a century before with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution.

One of the reasons I decided the East St. Louis race riot would be worth a book was that, in writing the obituary of Miles Davis for the Post-Dispatch in 1991, I was reminded once again that Davis had said in his autobiography that childhood stories of the riot, when "those crazy, sick white people killed all those black people" in East St. Louis, may well have influenced him to be suspicious of whites for the rest of his life.

Miles Davis was born nine years after the riot, but the massacre was still alive in the stories passed down from generation to generation when Davis was growing up in East St. Louis in the 1930s. And it was still alive when novelist Toni Morrison was growing up in Ohio in the 1940s. Morrison makes the riot a central tragedy that hovers like a dark cloud over her novel, "Jazz."

And it was still alive in the 1950s, when expatriate entertainer Josephine Baker, who had grown up in St. Louis and witnessed the riot as an 11-year-old child, spoke at the old Kiel Auditorium downtown and said:

"I can still see myself standing on the west bank of the Mississippi looking over into East St. Louis and watching the glow of the burning of Negro homes lighting the sky. We children stood huddled together in bewilderment . . . frightened to death with the screams of the Negro families running across this bridge with nothing but what they had on their backs as their worldly belongings . . . So with this vision I ran and ran and ran. . ."

Josephine Baker was only 13 years old two years later when she left St. Louis, first for New York, then for Paris, where she remained, a continent away from the tragedy that haunted her for the rest of her life, as the riots and lynching committed by whites against blacks haunted countless other members of her race.

As Obama said, "For the men and women of Rev. Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and bitterness of those years. . .The anger is real; it is powerful, and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."

To read an excert from the book, click here.

Harper Barnes is the author of, in addition to "Never Been a Time," "Blue Monday"  and "Standing on a Volcano: The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis." He is a regular contributor to the St. Louis Beacon, Was a longtime critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and has contributed to many national publications.