One hundred years ago, black American residents of a small industrial city in Illinois endured three days of violence and horror that have scarcely shown up in the pages of our history books.
The East St. Louis “Race Riots” of 1917 saw the indiscriminate massacre of men, women, and children in a one-sided spate of brutal burnings of people and buildings, lynchings, shootings, and beatings that left an official death toll of 39 black and nine white Americans dead, though historians estimate that more than 100 black people were actually killed.
The conflict started on July 1, 1917, when two white male plain-clothed officers were shot deadby armed black residents in East St. Louis, Illinois, the sister-city to St. Louis, Missouri, which falls just over the state line. The officers were driving in a Ford Model T, which many black residents mistakenly believed carried “white drive-by shooters” who had been terrorizing black people of the neighborhood.
Black residents armed themselves to defend their community from members being killed. But their intentions did not protect them, as whites in the town retaliated for the deaths of the two officers who were mistakenly killed in a racist massacre that took over the following two days.
On July 3, Carlos F. Hurd, a staff reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, published the earliest and gruesome reports out of the area. He reported that many white Americans, often dressed in suits and house clothes, roamed the streets looking for black residents to terrorize. He was even shocked by the calmness of their demeanor as they brutally killed black people. These weren’t drunken, dispassionate rabble-rousers; they were working people who were killing black people for fun. And they were doing so in the most sickening of ways.
Hurd noted that the term “mob” didn’t quite make sense with the scene at hand. “A mob is passionate. A mob follows one man or a few men blindly; a mob sometimes takes chances,” he wrote. “The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a man hunt, conducted on a sporting basis.”
“I saw one of these men, covered with blood and half conscious, raise himself on his elbow, and look feebly about, when a young man, standing directly behind him, lifted a flat stone in both hands and hurled it upon his neck,” Hurd wrote.
Philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois called the riots “The Massacre of East St. Louis” in the September 1917 edition of the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), The Crisis. He detailed accounts of babies that were snatched from their mother’s arms and thrown into flames, and shared that some black Americans were trapped in their homes and businesses as the buildings were set on fire. Other accounts tell of execution-style shootings as black people fled their homes in fear.