Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Logo
Apply to SIUE
Insitutue of Urban Research Header

Student Essay--The Foundation of the 1917 East St. Louis Race Riots

Cassandra Baltzell
Dr. Patterson Dr. Collins Eng 112H
Essay 1

The Foundation of the 1917 East St. Louis Race Riots

Following the collapse of Reconstruction in the South in the 1870s southern African Americans traveled to the north in great numbers get out of the increasingly oppressive and racist South to the "promise lands" of the North. The huge movement of African Americans towards the North came to be known as the Great Migration and continued well into the 1900s. East St. Louis alone saw an eight fold increase in the African American population between 1890 and 1910 (McLaughlin 10). With the increase in population came an increase in racial tension, and African Americans would soon find out that Northern cities like East St. Louis were far from the "Promise lands" they expected. The May and July race riots of 1917 can be seen as rational events that stemmed from many overlying factors such as competition for jobs, overcrowding downtown, sensationalist new reports, and politics. It can be said that the riot was "rational" meaning it was not just a mass of violence erupting from anger; the white people of East St. Louis had a particular goal in mind while committing these atrocities, a goal that formed from fear, anger, and paranoia.

From the early 1870s to 1907 East St. Louis had developed into an industrial powerhouse with the promise of more jobs than ever before. The promise, however, proved to be an empty one. Large industries in East St. Louis lured more African Americans into the city with the promise of higher wages and better treatment. African Americans arrived by the trainloads, some with no more than the clothes on their backs only to find the job market saturated with workers, horrible living conditions, and much lower pay than promised (Barnes 68). Industrialists wanted to build up a surplus of potential African American workers to use as strikebreakers rather than hire African Americans for skilled or permanent positions. In his novel about the East St. Louis race riots Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot that Sparked the Civil Rights Movement, Harper Barnes writes, "Management had intimidated most workers into avoiding the Union by openly firing strikers and then…replacing them with a black man" (Barnes 86). This intimidation dramatically increased social tension between white and black workers competing for scare jobs. Competition over jobs became one of the major causes of the May and July riots. White people found themselves sick with fear over loosing their jobs and thus loosing their income and not being able to provide for their families, plus they were angry that industrialist chose African Americans, who many whites still thought to be of a lower class than white people to work in the factories over white people. This fear and anger led to the ultimate goal of the riots: to drive all of the African Americans out of town forever.

The masses of African Americans arriving in East St. Louis with no job and no money lived in overcrowded and disease ridden slums or on the streets which caused even more problems. The unsanitary living conditions which poor African Americans and whites were forced to endure often led to the outbreak of disease. When disease did strike downtown (where many homeless people lived on the streets) African Americans received the blame for the outbreak even though the diseases struck all poor people without discrimination between races (Barnes 89). The blame caused white resentment towards black people heightening the racial tension. The close quarters and poverty downtown also led to an increase in crime. African Americans and white people with no other way to make a living resorted to thievery and other petty offences. Even though white people as well as African Americans committed crimes African Americans carried the blame for the bulk of the offences. White owned newspapers such as the Journal printed outrageously exaggerated stories about black on white crime while ignoring or downplaying crimes involving white people (Barnes 96). Disease and crime angered many white people who lived in the area and saw homeless African Americans on a day to day basis. African Americans living on the streets angered whites. They became fearful of the changes African Americans might cause which pushed the white people of East St. Louis closer to their breaking point.

Sensationalist news reports in East St. Louis only aggravated the existing problems and racial tension. News stories about African Americans attacking white people, plotting revenge for maltreatment and slavery, sexually assaulting white women, and shooting policemen sent the public into a state of fear, panic, and anger. Regular news reports also claimed that thousands more African Americans arrived in the city than actually did. People in the city feared African Americans overrunning the city when in reality they only compromised a very small percentage of the total population of the city (Barnes 95). What made the situation worse was that stories printed in the newspapers were generally accepted as true by the East St. Louis population. People, already angry and frightened, wanted to take action against the atrocities they read about rather than research the truthfulness of the printed stories. Many of the news reports involving African Americans were exaggerated, twisted, or outright lies, but the public did not care. The news stories gave white people the ammunition they needed to take action (drive all the African Americans out of town) and release the pressure building up inside them in response to the dramatic changes taking place. Sensationalist reports made white people feel like they had a duty to get rid of the African Americans in the town to protect themselves and their families.

Despite the racially driven crimes being committed in the city as well as other crimes like prostitution and gun control violations, the police did little to maintain order which caused African Americans to arm themselves illegally for protection. Barnes reports that "Policemen and national guardsmen stationed at the bridges from St. Louis would regularly stop blacks coming into East St. Louis and confiscate any weapons they found. Whites were waved on through…" (Barnes 108). If white people were found attacking African Americans on the streets the police did little to stop the assault and rarely arrested any white men or women for such crimes (Barnes 107). Many times police would just stand by without offering help to African Americans while whites beat and/robbed them. The racist attitudes and inattention of the police force made African Americans realize that they had to protect themselves. Even though the law forbade African Americans from owning weapons, most managed to obtain them anyway in the crooked streets of East St. Louis. If the white people had not been harassing African Americans while the police force stood idly by, African Americans would not have felt the need to arm. African Americans armed themselves out of fear of what angry white people were going to do to them and their family. The white people became alarmed when they saw African Americans buying weapons to defend themselves and harassed them even more which caused more African Americans to arm starting a vicious circle fueled by fear and paranoia that would help lead to the race riots.

The North, being on the side of the Union during the Civil War, was thought to be less racist than the Confederate South, but after African Americans started settling in the North they found the people in the North could be just as racist as the people in the South which affected all the events that contributed to the May and July riots. Charles Lumpkins, author of American Pogrom; The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics, writes that "many white northerners…sought to maintain a rigid racial hierarchy, if necessary through violence" (Lumpkins 109). White people built their identity around being better than African Americans. That helped define the white identity in the United States, so when white people were supposed to treat African Americans as equals they lost their conceptions of their identities. Some white people resented the possibility of falling into a lower class than an African American and fought to maintain the racial hierarchy. Many white people in East St. Louis felt this way and when African Americans started gaining some meager financial success, moved into middle class neighborhoods, and found their political voice it caused white people to become enraged. To them, African Americans acting and needed to be put back in line or the white people of East St. Louis would lose everything they had.

One of the major fears white people had about African Americans was the development of a black political machine that would take control of the politics of the city. Lumpkins clarifies, "The July massacre is more accurately understood as a profoundly political event that occurred because the black East St. Louisans had cracked a rigid racial hierarchy. The dynamics of black politics forced certain white elements either to accept the possibility of equality for African Americans or to respond with violence against them to maintain racial domination" (Lumpkins 110). White people, unwilling to accept equality for African Americans because they might lose their status and their identity, responded with violence. Politics in East St. Louis became notorious for being startlingly corrupt at the time; politicians mingled with criminals and prostitutes, stole money from the city, and put their interests over the interests of the city. When their selfish interests were put into jeopardy by an African American rise in political power, they took drastic action to crush this rise and maintain their domination over the city. Politicians such as Fred Mollman, George Tarlton, and Thomas Canavan along with others wanted to make sure that African Americans knew that they would pay a price "for refusing to accept their status as social inferiors" because they were fearful of loosing control and their positions of power that enabled them to be wealthy, influential, and powerful individuals (Lumpkins 112).

Fearful and angry people saw African Americans as the enemy (an idea easily accepted because of racism) and acted violently to try and protect themselves and maintain the status quo of the time. Everyday life was changing rapidly for white people in East St. Louis because of the Great Migration. Places, politics, jobs, and laws that had been the same for many years suddenly changed with the presence of African Americans. The "racial hierarchy" was cracking and African Americans began to slowly gain a place of equality in the world after hundreds of years of slavery. In East St. Louis the white people revolted against the changes they had to make for African Americans; they did not like change, and reacted as any frightened or oppressed group of humans would and formed a plan. The white people in East St. Louis tried to drive out what they thought was the source of their recent problems. That source was the African Americans, and because the white people had a specific goal in mind instead of rioting as a mindless mass of angry people is why the riot can be called a rational event. Rationality does not, however, condone these horrible acts of violence against African Americans.

Although the race riots in East St. Louis occurred almost a hundred years ago, they can still be found in the scars on the hearts of the people who witnessed them. The fight for equality has been a long and arduous battle, but a battle worth the fight. Even though people tried to hide the riots and forget the past, African Americans kept the legacy of the race riots alive through oral tradition. They never forgot the past which kept African Americans hoping for a better future; they never stopped fighting. White people repeatedly beat African Americans back literally and figuratively but they never gave up and that kind of strength is something that everyone can learn from. A strength that comes from a legacy of oppression and fueled by hope for the future is a strength that can, will, and did promote change for the better.

Works Cited

Barnes, Harper. Never Been a Time; The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Walker & Company, 2008.
Lumpkins, Charles. American Pogrom; The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008.
McLaughlin, Malcolm. Power, Community, and Racial Killing in East St. Louis. New York: Palgrave, 2005.
facebookoff twitteroff vineoff linkedinoff flickeroff instagramoff googleplusoff tumblroff foursquareoff socialoff