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Legacy of 1917 East St. Louis race riot is etched in family trees

Historian Anne Walker is surrounded by family photos in the living room of her home in East St. Louis. June 2017
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Historian Anne Walker is surrounded by family photos in the living room of her home in East St. Louis.

Residents of East St. Louis will gather on Sunday to remember the victims of the bloody 1917 race riot with a solemn processional to the Eads Bridge.

On July 2-3, 1917, mobs of white people, angered over labor issues, roved through the city, assaulting African-Americans and burning their homes and businesses.

Although the official death toll was 48 — 39 blacks and 9 whites — historians believe more than 100 people died and hundreds were injured, including women and children.

An estimated 7,000 African-Americans fled the city and found refuge in St. Louis and surrounding communities. The St. Louis Urban League formed to address racial issues and to provide relief for African-Americans left homeless by the rioting.

The riot was one of the deadliest in U.S. history — and shocking because of the viciousness of the mob. Victims were shot as they tried to flee their burning homes, and several African-American men were hung from lampposts. The mob included women and children.

The legacy of the race riot has been forever etched into the family trees of its victims. We talked to three descendants of families touched by the violence. Here are their stories, in their own words:

The Rev. Joseph A. Brown, 72, chairman of the East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission. Brown, a Catholic priest, is a professor and former chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

The Rev. Joseph A. Brown learned the history of the race riot from his father.
Credit SIU Carbondale
The Rev. Joseph A. Brown learned the history of the race riot from his father.

I was born in East St. Louis, and I lived there until my family moved. That was about 1956, when so many of the industries — which is also part of the story of the riots because the industries that brought people up by the busload and trainload to help break unions — those same companies started disbanding and leaving East St. Louis. And my father wanted to build houses and we had relatives in Wisconsin so he went up there to see if he could make that work.

My father was my first teacher of black history, and in some ways he was the most important one I've ever had.

The story in my family was that his parents and he and his sister and brothers were living in the area where the riots took place. For some reason, their house was spared. But they hid people under their porch and in their basement. So I'm hearing this when I'm 5 or 6 years old. And what I know for a fact is that even then, when I would be going to school — and our first school was St. Augustine’s up around 14th and Broadway, where [during the riot] there were people hanged from poles. I would remember my father telling me this is what happened. So I have carried that kind of voice memory in me forever.

I was always being taught the real history — the context, the background, the things that people weren't going to be talking about. And he was real clear and very simple. 

One of the reasons that we're doing the centennial commission events is to have the city of East St. Louis deal with the story, so that it's not a burden of consciousness but a story that can be somewhat therapeutic.

'When we hear the word riot, we always imagine black people going on a rampage and burning down businesses, but that's never been the story.'

We have done such an incredibly bad job of education in the United States of America, in order to privilege one story and to corrupt the stories and histories of so many other people by race, gender, class. And that has to stop.

We've got a major job to do if we're going to make sure that there is a future that actually looks like what America pretends to be. We've got to teach it. Teach the story in such a way that I'm not ashamed or embarrassed or crucified by the truth.

It starts with the very notion of the race riot. When we hear the word riot, we always imagine black people going on a rampage and burning down businesses, but that's never been the story. There's no way in the world you can justify saying 49 or 50 people were killed after you read the testimonies and realize that there were mass graves. And did they count the numbers of people who were thrown back into burning houses? Did they count the people who got out alive but died somewhere else?

No, it has to be in the hundreds — during a 48-hour period.

When I felt a calling to try to get people together to do something to commemorate the 1917 riots,  I knew that our city had been so terribly hurt by economic forces. How the city was designed so that there would be no tax base and the only money coming in was from the laborers who kept those industries going — the stockyards, the railroads, the Aluminum Ore plant or the glass factory — all of those industries. And they all disappeared. And nobody came back.

There is a promissory note for East St. Louis that has still not been paid.

Anne Walker, 67, historian and founder of the nonprofit Freedom Trails and Legacy of Hope, which has documented African-American history in Southern Illinois, including the Underground Railroad. She is a member of the centennial commission and is organizing Sunday’s processional.

Charles Billups, with his father and sister Irene. His train arrived in East St. Louis during the race riot on July 2, 1917.
Credit Provided by Anne Walker
Charles Billups, with his father and sister Irene. His train arrived in East St. Louis during the race riot on July 2, 1917.

My mother's family came here from Arkansas, and my father's family started coming here from Mississippi in 1910. By 1917, the men were established, homes were bought and they were prepared to bring the women and the children up.

And on July 2, 1917, a group of those women and children were on the train coming in to East St. Louis. Charles Billups was the oldest, and he's the one who I have an oral history of. He talks about being on the train, looking out the window, and seeing this billow of smoke. The city looked like it was on fire. Being a child, he did not have the same perspective as an adult, but he could say that he saw the smoke and heard the gunshots and he knew that something was not right.

I heard family members talking about the race riots through the years. They were living off of 12th and Colas Street during the riot, and ground zero happened in the bottoms area, where the East St. Louis college campus is now. The area where they lived was just off of the rim of where this was happening.

Apparently, there was never any talk about my family moving out of East St. Louis.

They talked about helping Green mortuary and the Nash family and the Buchanan family [during the riot]. They were a close-knit group of people. The Rev. William Billups was assisting with getting victims on hearses and going across the river [to St. Louis]. They were helping to get those people who wanted to leave out and bringing guns and resources back to the other side. The bridge played a very vital role during that time in 1917.

Because my family was from Columbus, Miss., a railroad town, they had that experience to offer. Black folks were not allowed to have the top echelon jobs. The women in the family became domestic workers. The dirtiest, lowest jobs on the totem poles were the jobs that were available, but sometimes those jobs were liked whipped cream on top of a dessert compared to what was going on down South. They did not take anybody’s job. There were plenty of jobs for domestic workers, ironers, washers, women to cook, and the men did the railroad.

In 1917, you might say that it was a perfect storm of things that were going on socially and in the political and business world that caused things to escalate to the point where we ended up with a race riot.

No matter which side of the color line you were on, you were a victim and let's get away from the victim mentality and become winners. We can do it. So that's what the commemoration is about.

We have some young people who are coming back into the city and who are giving us injections of hope and plans. Not that there haven't been that before but not to this extent has the energy been there and the wherewithal of these people who are professionals who’ve made successful lives for themselves who have decided to come back and dedicate themselves to turning East St. Louis around.

We have a nation that still needs to be healed. We need to take steps toward healing. This commemoration is a step ahead, focusing on healing this country — helping us to understand that violence is not the answer. That everybody is a stakeholder.

Stephen Keyser with photos of his great-grandfather who was killed during the 1917 East St. Louis race riot. June 2017
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Stephen Keyser with photos of his great-grandfather who was killed during the 1917 East St. Louis race riot.

Stephen Keyser, 66, of St. Louis is the great-grandson of William Keyser, a white hardware store owner who was killed during the rioting. Although some accounts describe Keyser as a bystander who was accidentally shot, Stephen Keyser believes his great-grandfather was a hero.

I was born in Jewish Hospital in St. Louis but lived in East St. Louis and went to school there through the ninth grade. My father and uncle had a hardware store and they were the third generation in the family business I worked there after school and during the summers from the time I was 12 years old. I also went to the Jewish synagogue in East St. Louis.

I do know that our hardware store was not always at 505 Collinsville Avenue. It was west of that, going toward the river.

My great-grandfather’s name was William. He was the one who started the hardware store in East St. Louis. I don't really know much about his background.

They didn't really talk about it. What prompted me to ask one time was a picture that I saw and I didn't know who he was. So I asked my father about it. He said, ‘Well, you know, that is your great-grandfather.’ He didn't really talk all that much about him because at the time William was murdered in the race riots, my dad would have only been about 2 1/2.

According to the story he told me, the race riots occurred pretty much right in front of where the hardware store was at that time. The streetcar stopped in front of the hardware store, and there were white men who were attacking African-Americans. And there was a family from St. Louis who had taken the streetcar over. He said they were fishing. The white men shot and killed the father and shot and killed the son.

And at that point the wife was being attacked by the white men, and my great-grandfather got in between. What my father told me that my great-grandfather said was, ‘You've already killed the husband and the son, spare the woman.’ And at that point, they killed my great-grandfather.

Since then, having read the accounts in books, those accounts tend to say that the testimony of the black woman seems to be pretty consistent with the way my father told me the story. The part that seems to be different is that in some of the accounts they'll say that the bullet that killed my great-grandfather was actually intended for her son and at least one account says that it actually killed her son but then continued on and killed my great-grandfather.

As I read the accounts, I picked up that a certain level of chaos was going on. I can't imagine what was going through his head. To some extent, I think that that being an immigrant — and whatever he had experienced before he came to the United States — may have colored his approach and motivated him.

Sunday's commemoration

The program begins at 4:30 p.m. at the SIUE East St. Louis Education Center, 601 James R. Thompson Blvd., which was ground zero for the worst of the rioting.

The commemoration is sponsored by the East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission.  Participants are encouraged to wear white, as did the demonstrators who marched in the NAACP parade in New York to protest the riot a century ago. The procession will begin at 6:30 p.m.

Starting from the beginning




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Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.