Honors English 112
"The truth is there is no damn town big enough for the two races" (Barnes 154). This brief statement, from a police officer during the East St. Louis race riot of 1917, sums up the racial tensions surrounding East St. Louis, which finally culminated in one of the bloodiest race riots in the country. According to the official death tally of the riot, thirty-nine blacks and whites (mostly blacks) died, but some witnesses suggested that up to 500 perished during the violence. At least 7,000 more terrified blacks fled to St. Louis (Lumpkins 126). Tragic as these figures are, it is no surprise that the atrocities took place. Numerous factors contributed to the riot, although longstanding tensions between the races encompassed the most significant issues: the use of blacks as strikebreakers in factories and stockyards, sensationalist accounts of black crime, corruption in East St. Louis public leaders, and deep poverty in both races. At the time of the riot, the tension, which had steadily mounted, finally reached a head. Blacks and whites could not coexist without whites asserting their authority. Therefore, these whites worked to exterminate blacks, making the riot an unfortunately rational and probable event.
After the Civil War, and especially between the years of 1910 and 1920, southern blacks had been steadily moving north in search of jobs. This phenomenon was known as the Great Migration, and throughout this time period, 500,000 or more blacks headed to booming industrial cities, including East St. Louis (Barnes 65). Whites were, for the first time, having to deal with large numbers of black people moving into their neighborhoods and working alongside them in factories and stockyards. Despite the uneasiness whites felt about integration, the use of blacks as strikebreakers feared and enraged whites the most, for they were left out of work when replaced by black strikebreakers. According to Harper Barnes, "Employers in Northern cities continued to stoke racial antagonism during strikes by replacing white workers with low-paid blacks. Sometimes just the threat of bringing in black strikebreakers was enough to break union militancy, and such tactic fed into the bitterness many white workers felt toward blacks." (Barnes 25). The tactic of using blacks as strikebreakers especially enraged whites living in southern Union cities, like East St. Louis, for strong cultural racism had long established whites' superiority. Blacks stepping into white jobs during strikes intensified whites' ideas of their own authority, and eventually played a role in the July 1917 East St. Louis race riot.
The anger and bitterness that whites felt because of the use of blacks as strikebreakers was compounded by reports that blacks were frightening, rapacious criminals. Sensationalist journalism on the part of several local newspapers increased the already present psychological racism of whites in East St. Louis. An example of sensationalist news coverage, although not from East St. Louis, encompasses the general treatment of blacks, especially black men by the newspapers, "On the afternoon of Saturday, September 22, Atlanta newspapers put out multiple extra editions chronicling a series of four alleged assaults by black men on white women….It turned out that none of the four cases involved rape… But that didn't seem to matter" (Barnes 47-48). This quote reflects the fact that most black on white crime was exaggerated, if not entirely imagined, especially when concerning black male violence to white women. Many whites feared that black men had a penchant for raping and physically abusing innocent white women. In reality, almost any contact between black men and white women could be considered "assault," and black men routinely faced such accusations. Examples of assault that the press misconstrued as rape included a black man acting as a peeping tom and a black man brushing against a white woman in public. Sometimes no contact had to be made between a white woman and a black man for the woman in question to report her assault to the press, where the reporters hardily exaggerated the story. Although black crime did increase around 1917, crime was up among both races because of a lack of work, but rarely involved rape (Barnes 45). Whites focused their attention solely on black crime and the sensational stories of rape and assault constantly in print. With every lurid newspaper article chronicling black male assault on a white woman, the tension that led to the riot deepened.
Corruption in East St. Louis leaders played an important role in increasing the longstanding tension between blacks and whites. Both political leaders and police officers took part in negligent, crooked, and partial behavior that did nothing to ease whites' fear and bitterness toward blacks. To advance selfish agendas, prominent city leaders like Locke Tarlton performed acts such as paying blacks to vote to swing elections (Barnes 92). This common manner of leadership infuriated whites, causing them to resent black peers even more. Even the mayor of East St. Louis, Mayor Mollman, worked his own two-faced agenda for reelection by shutting down saloons, only to have them reopened the next week, depending on whose vote he aimed to capture at the time. Police officers joined in the corrupt management of East St. Louis. "(It was the) general feeling that the police were among the last people in East St. Louis you would trust to enforce the law." (Barnes 76). Police officers, like political leaders, worked to help whomever it was in their own best interest to assist. For example, police bribes supplemented officers' meager salary by arresting and releasing criminals such as prostitutes and unlicensed saloon owners, regardless of their race. The corruption of the city, due to political leaders' and police officers' actions, intensified white anger, as whites saw that blacks often benefited from this problem, by earning money to swing elections or by performing illegal acts freely by paying bribes. Moreover, while the city's leaders addressed corrupt, personal agendas, nothing was done to ease the longstanding tension between the races.
Deep poverty among both blacks and whites existed in East St. Louis, significantly worsening racial tension that ultimately led to the race riot. Reasons for the poverty of the city included congested slums and city neglect. The slums of Goose Hill, located close to the stockyards, provided pitiable housing to white meatpackers. Areas like Goose Hill existed "in practically all (working class) neighborhoods," adding to poor whites' anger that blacks were living in almost identical conditions, if not in the same neighborhood (McLaughlin 21). Because company owners placed factories and stockyards just outside the city limits, these companies were not required to pay taxes to East St. Louis. This absentee ownership meant that the only real source of income for the city came from vice entertainment saloons, gambling establishments, and brothels. East St. Louis' dysfunctional economy led to undeniable poverty for both races, although blacks lived in more impoverished conditions than whites. Still, the fact that the circumstances of blacks and whites in East St. Louis became closely aligned aroused rage in whites that eventually led to the riot.
Longstanding tensions in East St. Louis included the most major issues that led to the riot: the use of blacks as strikebreakers in factories and stockyards, sensationalist accounts of black crime, corruption in East St. Louis public leaders, and deep poverty in both races. Although these longstanding tensions primarily caused the riot, events immediately prior to the riot did exist and sparked serious racial conflict, resulting in immediate violence. The deep-rooted tensions that existed in East St. Louis and ultimately led to the riot still exist in communities in the United States and beyond. Studying the factors that led to the easily explained, or rational, riot can help prevent future racial violence, for similar situations do exist. By and large, the East St. Louis race riot of 1917 can serve as a lesson in racial toleration, hopefully sparing comparable violence from arising again.
Barnes, Harper. Never Been a Time. First. New York:
Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.
Lumpkins, Charles, L. . American Progrom: The East St. Louis Race
Riot and Black Politics. First. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008
McLaughlin, Malcolm. Power, Community, and Racial Killing in East St. Louis.
First. New York: Polgrave Publishing, 2005.