The East St. Louis Race War of 1917

The East St. Louis race riots of 1917 were a shocking and devastating period of civil unrest, sparked by a rumor that a white man had been killed by a black man. Learn more about this event and its long-reaching

INTRODUCTION: While the American post-Reconstruction era was a time fraught with racial tension and cultural strife; emancipated Africans struggled to define themselves and re-determine their place in U.S. society. However, NONE OF THESE THINGS WOULD HAVE BEEN POSSIBLE without the transformative
events which took place right here in River City back in 1917. This story reveals the impact of the following described events on early Black protests, up to and including the modern Civil Rights era.

Drawn by employment opportunities in wartime industries, between 10,000 and 12,000 African
American people left the south for East St. Louis, Illinois in 1916 and 1917 as part of the Great
Migration. Many white citizens of East St. Louis, which had previously been largely white, were
disturbed by this movement, and by the increase in employment of black people in the city’s
industrial plants.

On July 1, 1917, a rumor spread claiming that a white man had been killed by a black man, and
tensions boiled over. The next day, the city of East St. Louis exploded in the worst racial rioting
the country had ever seen. Most of the violence — drive-by shootings, beatings, and arson —
targeted the African American community. The riots raged for nearly a week, leaving nine whites
and hundreds of African Americans dead, and property damage estimated at close to $400,000.
More than six thousand black citizens, fearing for their lives, fled the city.

The carnage was all the more shocking because it occurred only shortly after American’s entry
into World War I. According to historian Winston James, “You have black troops going off to fight
to make the world safe for democracy in April and in July you have black people being murdered
in the most wanton and barbaric manner in East St. Louis; children being thrown back into
flaming houses, people being boarded up in their houses before they’re torched so that they
couldn’t escape. So even by American standards, East St. Louis was a horror.”

At the end of a July 8 meeting in Harlem to discuss the violence, Marcus Garvey, recently
returned from a year-long speaking tour of the country, asked to say a few words. The crowd
stood breathless as Garvey thundered condemnation. “Millions of our people in slavery gave
their lives that America might live,” he said. “From the labors of these people the country grew in
power, until her wealth today is computed above that of any two nations.
With all the service that the Negro gave he is still a despised creature in the eyes of white
people, for if he were not to them despised, the whites of this country would never allow such
outrages as the East St. Louis massacre. …This is a massacre that will go down in history as
one of the bloodiest outrages against mankind for which any class of people could be held
guilty.” Garvey’s speech, and a reprint entitled “The Conspiracy of the East St. Louis Riots,”
would propel Garvey onto the national stage.

It was also a key moment in Garvey’s life. According to historian Robert Hill, “It is that speech
that marks the turning point of Garvey away from Jamaica, away from a preoccupation with
matters related to the West Indies and now he’s not looking for support for what he is hoping to
accomplish in the West Indies, but, rather, he is now sucked into the vortex of American race
relations.” Similar race riots occurred across the country during this period, due principally to
racialized competition for housing and employment. In some cities, clashes were sparked by the
sight of black troops in uniform.

In September 1917, for instance, black soldiers clashed with white civilians in Houston, Texas,
and in 1919, during a prolonged period of civil unrest now known as the “Red Summer,” 26 race
riots occurred in cities across the United States.


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