History matters: Race hatred, workforce tensions explode in East St. Louis in 1917

Once a quiet ferry landing on the east bank of the Mississippi River, this town burst with growth in the late 19th Century.

Originally published in 2022 for St. Louis Post Dispatch

EAST ST. LOUIS • Land was flat and plentiful. Cheap coal was just up the hill. Low-wage workers were easy to find.

Once a quiet ferry landing on the east bank of the Mississippi River, this town burst with growth in the late 19th Century. Industrialists built sprawling factories across the formerly swampy expanse of the American Bottom. Workers lived in drab houses nearby. It was a gritty town, but there was plenty of work.

East St. Louis, briefly called Illinoistown after its incorporation in 1859, was home to only 5,600 people in 1870. Then came the National Stockyard in 1873 and the Eads Bridge one year later. The city became a tangle of 22 railroads connecting St. Louis to the north, east and south.

By 1910, with 58,000 residents, the city and environs were home to many industries that burned mountains of sooty coal from nearby Illinois mines. The big payrolls included Aluminum Ore Co., American Steel Foundry, Republic Iron & Steel, Obear Nester Glass and Elliot Frog & Switch (a frog was part of a railroad switch).

Many of the factories were built just beyond the city limit to avoid municipal taxes, which helped keep city services shoddy and corrupt.

The adjoining town of National City was home to the stockyards and packing houses, including Armour and Swift. It handled nearly 5 million pigs annually and was the nation’s biggest market for horses and mules.

World War I created a bonanza for the draft-animal trade. It made American industry hum. And it aggravated social conflict that exploded in shocking violence in summer 1917.

Thousands of black people from the South moved north to work in war factories. East St. Louis’ black population, 6,000 strong in 1910, nearly doubled by 1917.

That spring, the largely white workforce at Aluminum Ore, 32nd and Missouri avenues, went on strike. Management hired strikebreakers, both black and white. Embittered union leaders remembered black faces, and they demanded that City Hall “get rid” of the newcomers.

Tension already was raw when white men in a Ford shot into black homes on the night of July 1. Armed black men gathered at Bond Avenue and 10th Street and fired onto an oncoming Ford, killing two people who turned out to be police officers arriving to investigate.

The next morning, whites poured from a tense meeting in the Labor Temple downtown and began beating and killing blacks.

Rampaging white men used guns, rocks, pipes and nooses. White women egged them on, sometimes taking part. Rioters set fires in black neighborhoods and torched the Broadway Opera House on the false tale that blacks were hiding there.

Many fled to St. Louis across the Eads and Municipal (MacArthur) bridges. East St. Louis police stood by or joined the carnage. Illinois National Guard soldiers who were hustled to town did little to protect people until late in the day.

On July 3, the Post-Dispatch ran a harrowing account by Carlos F. Hurd, the reporter who scooped the world with interviews of Titanic survivors five years before. Hurd wrote that he witnessed the “massacre of helpless negroes” on streets where “a black skin was a death warrant.”

More than 300 homes and businesses were burned. The local investigation was inept, so it’s hard to know the full scope of the carnage. The official death count was 39 blacks and nine whites, but the toll probably was closer to 100.

Factories begged black workers to return, but many didn’t. When schools reopened, black enrollment was down by more than half. A lengthy congressional investigation, reporting one year later, described the riot as “savagery.”

Read more


On Key

Related Posts