It was around noon on a bright Monday in early July 1917, and Lena Cook was on her way home to St. Louis. Cook had just spent the morning fishing with her husband, son, and daughter at a lake near Alton, Illinois. Now the family was aboard a streetcar in downtown East St. Louis, their first time in the surging industrial city, heading west toward the Eads Bridge.
The city was crumbling around them. Throughout that morning, angry white citizens had been gathering on Main Street outside City Hall, rousing themselves into an enraged swarm. The Illinois National Guard had been called in, and troops were arriving at the train depot by the hour. The first shots had sounded little more than an hour prior. The first black man had been left dead in the street. Before the violence abated, at least 48 people would be killed in one of the worst race riots in U.S. history. More than 300 African-Americans’ homes and business would burn, the smoke visible from Missouri. Perhaps sensing what was to come, dozens of black East St. Louisans had begun their exodus by car, train, or foot, carrying what they could across the Eads Bridge to the west side of the river. Cook and her family were less than a mile from that crossing, at the corner of Collinsville and Illinois avenues, when they heard men shouting: “Stop the car!”
A mob had gathered around the streetcar and pulled its wheel trolley from the overhead wire. Cook felt a hand grabbing at her, tearing the shoulder of her dress.
“Come on out, you black bitch!” shouted a man. He and another man boarded the car. “All you white people get out!” he shouted, vowing to kill any blacks on the trolley.
The white people fled the car. Cook began to plead that she and her family did not live in East St. Louis and certainly hadn’t harmed anyone there. The mob’s leader grabbed her husband, Edward Cook, by the collar, pulled him to the car’s rear platform, and threw him from the vehicle. Then he shot Edward in the back of the head. Another white man grabbed Cook’s 14-year-old son, Lurizza, beat him with a revolver, and started to drag the young man away.
Cook grabbed the child. “You’ve killed my husband,” she cried. “Don’t kill my boy.”
The man jerked Lurizza away, but the lanky teen managed to break free. There was a gunshot. Cook lost track of Lurizza and her 13-year-old daughter, Bernice, when she was dragged into the street by the man who had killed her husband. The mob converged on her, beat her with clubs, kicked her, and pulled fistfuls of hair from her bleeding head. A white onlooker stepped in and begged the brutes to spare the women. The mob turned on him, allowing Cook to crawl away to a nearby storefront, where she was taken in but lost consciousness.
Cook came to inside an ambulance. Blinded by blood that coated her eyes, she groped about in the dark, feeling at least three other bodies around her, and finally found a man’s handkerchief. Wiping the blood away, she looked down to find that she had been thrown on top of the corpses of her husband and son, whose eyes were still open, staring through her. She still had no idea where her daughter was.
THE INTERSECTION OF Collinsville and Illinois avenues no longer exists. Illinois is now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, a four-lane artery that, once streaming with commerce, is now lined with darkened storefronts, empty warehouses, boarded-up apartments, and overgrown lots. The bell of the streetcar has long since been replaced by the hydraulic squeak of the city bus, which stops near the corner to drop passengers at the Crown Food Mart, where patrons cash checks and pick up a USA Today, a dollar scratch-off, and a bottle of Coke or Budweiser to drink as they walk, oblivious, mere feet from where Edward Cook was shot a century ago.
Follow Collinsville down to Broadway, into the heart of downtown, where citizens make deposits at the Vantage Credit Union or punch the clock at one of the squat angular government office buildings, with no idea they’re walking among ghosts. At Fourth Street, part of which is now Barack Obama Avenue, pedestrians unwittingly step over spectral black bodies laid on the blood-spattered intersection. Farther south, on the fenced-in courtyards of the housing projects and on the front porches of single-story shotguns that line Bond and Brady avenues in the historically black neighborhood known as the South End, many residents have no inkling that whites once set fire to African-Americans’ homes and then camped outside with guns, waiting.
On Monday, July 2, 1917, white men and women murdered and maimed innocent blacks in unimaginable ways as thousands of other whites, including police and National Guardsmen, cheered or stood silently by. Whites torched and razed black-owned homes and businesses and committed the remnants of their victims to the flames or the nearby rivers. At the time, the riot was a seismic event, drawing headline ink away from even America’s recent entrance into World War I and spurring protests as far as New York. Some historians believe that the tales of atrocity helped trigger the civil rights movement.
Today, though, many people in East St. Louis seem unaware that anything ever happened. “I first heard about it in history class when I was a senior in high school—and even then not in any detail,” says Milton S. Wharton, a 70-year-old retired judge who grew up in the South End. He says that even growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, less than a full generation removed from the riot, no one wanted to talk about it. “It was an event so terrible, blacks and whites engaged in a mutual conspiracy of silence that continues to today.”
The collective amnesia was only worsened by the passing years. One by one, the landmarks of the time—the old City Hall, the Labor Temple, the train depot—fell to the wrecking ball. The shantytowns where the riot festered were either cleaned up or trampled by the interstates. And during East St. Louis’ midcentury decline, white flight and deindustrialization left the city’s institutions under-resourced. Ineptitude and corruption drained the city further. There was no historical society or city museum. Police and courthouse clerks disposed of old legal files and boxes of evidence and records. Local newspapers closed and consolidated, scattering their archives. “The city and the area has not done a very good job of preserving its history,” says Andrew J. Theising, political science professor at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville, who encountered these problems firsthand while researching his 2003 book Made in USA: East St. Louis: The Rise and Fall of an Industrial River Town. “I think it may be because not everyone was proud of that history. Should we be surprised that City Hall isn’t trying to preserve these records?”
By the time veteran journalist Harper Barnes came to the story, around 2007, ignorance of the riots was institutionalized. Even the few firsthand witnesses whom Barnes was able to track down—children then, elderly now—were foggy on the facts. His research consisted of a few contemporary news clippings, the voluminous testimony from the subsequent congressional hearings, a chapter in Theising’s book, and a little-read 1964 academic tome by a former SIU professor, the late Elliott Rudwick. “The details of the riot haunted me,” says Barnes, whose book Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement was published in 2008. “But it haunted me more that people didn’t know about it.”
What bothers writers and academics is not so much that people are unaware of the events that occurred on July 2, 1917. It’s that the city, the region, and, it seems, the entire country are ignorant of the all-too-imaginable events that led up to the catastrophe. The roots of atrocity eerily resemble prominent issues of today: a nativist white community frightened by false and exaggerated news reports of black crime and massive organized vote fraud; a poor working class fearful that migrant laborers were moving in and undercutting wages and stealing jobs; and a largely peaceful, productive black community at odds with a corrupt police department. In fact, the entire riot was set off by a police shooting.
“It was all about blaming poor people for the problems of people who were less poor,” says Barnes. “Things haven’t changed.”
IN 1917, EAST ST. LOUIS WAS A BUSTLING industrial satellite of its namesake. Sometimes called the Pittsburgh of the West, it was the hub of 27 railroads, and that access, along with the cheap land, low taxes, and the availability of Southern Illinois coal, attracted big business. The “Meat Trust” of Swift, Armour, and Nelson Morris built vast stockyards, slaughterhouses, and meatpacking plants on the city’s outskirts, far enough away to avoid paying municipal taxes but too close to spare citizens the odor. Other significant employers (and polluters) included Republic Iron and Steel Works, the Missouri Malleable Iron Company, and the Aluminum Ore Company. Workers collected around these places in slums of wooden shacks. By 1910, the population had exploded from just 5,500 in 1870 to more than 52,000. Only one in 10 residents was African-American.
But that was changing. As East St. Louis factories ramped up production for World War I, a stream of immigrant workers was soaked up by the European war machine, with many returning home to fight. Northern manufacturers turned to Southern black laborers, who were increasingly fearful of violence and oppression in the Jim Crow South. Companies sent labor agents to Dixie to recruit black workers, to tell them about the better pay and kinder conditions up north; some even offered free train fare to get them there. Between 1915 and 1917, thousands of Southern blacks arrived at the East St. Louis train depot, looking for the Promised Land.
Whites in East St. Louis watched this Great Migration with uncertainty that was easily manipulated by opportunistic parties. Local Democrats decried the influx as full-scale colonization, a so-called black belt vote, created by Republican factory owners looking to stuff the ballot box in 1916. That fall, the East St. Louis Journal, a Democratic paper, published a fantastical story about a Republican plan to have 1,500 blacks vote in Southern Illinois in the morning and then catch the train to Chicago, where they would vote again, even stopping for lunch and another ballot-cast along the way. In the days leading up to the October election, the Democrats warned of systemic voter fraud in precincts filled with thousands of illegally colonized blacks. The Board of Election Commissioners investigated and found no such thing. The Democrats won East St. Louis and St. Clair County in 1916.
Poor and working-class whites of both political parties were more worried about losing their jobs. Not long after the move north began, it became clear that neither the number of jobs nor the pay was what migrants had been promised. Many white workers suspected that the surplus of migrants was part of management’s plot to saturate the labor market, drive down wages, and deter the workforce from unionizing—and there was some evidence of this. Several strikes around the time were undermined by the hiring of black replacement laborers. But because blacks were typically barred from white labor unions, they could hardly be blamed for not respecting an organized stoppage. Besides, in most cases these things didn’t separate strictly by race—blacks and whites worked, walked the picket line, and even crossed it side by side.
They lived together, too. Not long after they began arriving en masse, the migrant blacks began moving into previously segregated white neighborhoods. Culture shock was inevitable. As trains crossed into Illinois and other Northern states, Barnes writes, blacks would leave their segregated cars and move throughout the train; they seemed to have lost their “Southern inhibitions.” Reports circulated of black men sitting too close to white women on streetcars, even rubbing against them. “Southern Illinois whites,” Barnes writes, “even those whose instincts were not implacably racist, were not used to being treated in a ‘familiar’ manner by blacks.”
The overall crime rate in East St. Louis spiked with the sudden population explosion, as did reports of violence, prostitution, gambling, and other vices. But although just as many (if not more) whites were committing these crimes, Barnes says, African-Americans were the ones who were often sensationalized in newspapers. On February 15, 1917, the Journal printed the headline “NEGRO BRUTE SEIZES WHITE GIRL OF 19,” even though the story revealed that the woman was unharmed and the alleged “brute” never found. On May 25, the headline was “‘LEFTY’ NEVILLE SHOT BY NEGRO HIGHWAYMAN.” It turned out to be a white policeman whose arm was grazed by the bullet of a white pimp in an argument over prostitution kickbacks. Then an advertisement encouraging concerned citizens to attend the City Council meeting on May 28: “NEGRO AND CHEAP FOREIGN LABOR [is being imported] TO TEAR DOWN THE STANDARD OF LIVING OF OUR CITIZENS. IMPORTED GUNMEN, DETECTIVES, AND FEDERAL INJUNCTIONS ARE BEING USED TO CRUSH OUR PEOPLE. COME AND HEAR THE TRUTH THAT THE PRESS WILL NOT PUBLISH.”
At that May 28 meeting, City Hall’s auditorium was packed with more than 1,200 people, including women from the waitresses and laundry workers’ union, dressed in their finest—a stunt that organizers later confessed was intended to underscore the fragility of white women, who had to be defended against the lawless black horde. Aluminum Ore strikers were there as well, yelling, “East St. Louis must remain a white man’s town!” A small-town lawyer and politician named Alexander Flannigan fanned the flames. “As far as I know,” he said from the podium, “there is no law against mob violence.” The crowd erupted into applause and cheers.
The meeting adjourned, and the frenzied crowd flooded out onto the street, where they quickly heard about a black holdup man who had been arrested for killing a white man. (He’d actually only grazed him with a bullet). “Get a rope,” came the calls. “Lynch him!” Now there was another rumor, this one about two white women and a young girl who’d been killed by a black assailant. A few ringleaders took off down Collinsville in search of victims. The mob set homes and businesses on fire. Several bystanders were accosted and beaten as the night wore on. The next morning, whites continued the vandalism, hurling rocks and bricks and lighting fires. Mayor Fred Mollman ordered police to disarm any black people found carrying guns and to outlaw the sale of firearms to blacks in the city; otherwise, the police did almost nothing. But Mollman also called in the Illinois National Guard, under a Colonel E.P. Clayton, who quickly took control.
All told, two African-Americans were shot and nine others beaten or otherwise wounded. Property damage was minimal. Five blacks were arrested for carrying concealed weapons; one white man was taken in for throwing a brick. No one died.
Several media outlets and officials referred to the events as a race riot. No one could have imagined what was coming.
ISOLATED ATTACKS ON AFRICAN-AMERICANS in East St. Louis continued into June. A 66-year-old black man was beaten senseless by whites for allegedly refusing to give up his streetcar seat to an elderly white woman. Three black Aluminum Ore workers were attacked by strikers—then taken into custody for carrying concealed weapons. White gangs repeatedly mobbed black men. No white person was ever arrested. With the National Guard remaining to monitor labor strife at the factories, crime went down, but newspapers continued to spin lurid tales of black robbers and gunmen. And even though police continued to enforce the firearm ban—even stationing agents at the bridges to catch smugglers from St. Louis—rumors were starting to spread that African-Americans were amassing an armed force for a July 4 retaliation.
Perhaps it was this phantom attack that prompted whites to invade the black neighborhood near the intersection of 10th Street and Bond Avenue on July 1. That night, a black man was assaulted by a
group of white people. There were reports of drunk whites pulling black people from automobiles. Later, a frantic woman in a torn dress told a crowd of other African-Americans that she and several others had been beaten by whites a block away, on 11th Street. Then, between 10:30 p.m. and midnight, residents reported that one, possibly two Model T cars driven by whites had sped down Market Street and opened fire on black homes near 17th Street. On the second pass, the black residents returned fire. Police dispatched a squad car to investigate…the armed black vigilantes.
Around midnight, two plainclothes detectives were called to the scene in an unmarked Model T. They sat in front with the driver; two uniformed cops sat crammed in back. The top was up. A young reporter hung off the driver’s side running board as the car sped east through the warm, humid July night. Street lamps grew scarce as they approached the residential neighborhood. The driver turned south onto 10th Street and, on reaching Bond, hit the brakes to avoid hitting a group of more than 100 black men gathered in the street. The Model T’s headlamps were dim, and the nearest street light was at least 50 feet away. Still, the officers could see that these young men were armed with pistols, rifles, shotguns, and clubs.
Witnesses would later tell a local paper that no words were exchanged by the mob and the officers. But the police later testified in court that one of the detectives had yelled out the window and identified himself as a policeman: “What’s doing here, boys?”
“None of your damn business,” replied someone in the crowd.
“Well, we’re down here to protect you fellows as well as the whites. We are police officers.”
“We don’t need any of your damn protection.”
Laughter rippled across the crowd. The reporter leaned down to the driver and said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” The driver put the car in gear.
Suddenly there was a loud pop! Whether it was a tire blowing out or someone firing a shot was never ascertained. But the firefight that ensued was never in doubt. Bullets tore through the Model T’s tires, the windshield, the metal body, the doors. The driver plowed what was left of the car through the mob, standing on the gas until the contraption limped clear of the fray. When it was safe to stop, the driver looked down to find that he, the reporter, and one of the patrolmen were somehow unscathed. The other uniformed officer had been hit in the arm. But in the front seat, one of the detectives had been shot in the gut and was bleeding out onto his summer suit. His partner, having been hit in the jugular vein, was already dead.
THE NEXT MORNING, MONDAY, JULY 2, the shot-up Model T was sitting across from the police station for all downtown workers to see. The tires were flat. The headlights were crushed. Bloodstains marred the upholstery. The car, according to one passerby, “looked like a flour sieve, all punctured full of holes.” To many, it looked like proof positive of a black insurgence.
Swirling around the car was reaction to the early-edition account of the ambush penned by the reporter who had clung to the running board. Beneath the headline—“POLICEMAN KILLED, 5 SHOT IN E. ST. LOUIS RIOT”—the first-person tale was rife with errors, including a claim that the detective had flashed his badge (which the reporter later recanted), and there was no mention of the white drive-by shooters who had put the neighborhood on edge. “What caused this latest break on the part of the blacks cannot be told now,” the story read. “There was no trouble of a serious nature in the black belt today.”
Near the wreck, a dapper lawyer announced that he’d defend any avenger of the police murders pro bono, an offer that was met with cheers. Stories circulated of African-Americans celebrating a battle victory with singing and dancing. Cops in the area mingled with the throngs and let it be known that they wouldn’t go out of their way to stop a counterstrike. Many people attended an impromptu morning protest at the Labor Temple, where speakers urged white citizens to go home and get their guns.
Meanwhile, Mayor Mollman was hiding in City Hall, afraid to face laborers and unable to make a decision. He had called in more National Guard, but as of 9 a.m., fewer than 100 troops had arrived, many still wearing overalls and carrying their own rifles. Their commander, a 56-year-old Reserve colonel named Stephen Orville Tripp, arrived in a suit and proceeded to hole up with the mayor.
The Labor Temple rally let out around 10 a.m. when one the ringleaders, a burly streetcar company claims agent named Richard Brockway, shouted, “We’re going to get some [racial slur] today.” Though many of the attendees dispersed, a pack of a dozen or more followed Brockway. An African-American man stumbled into their path. Without a word, Brockway pulled out a pistol and shot the man
By late morning, many African-Americans had resolved to flee East St. Louis and begun braving downtown en route to the Eads and MacArthur bridges. They packed onto the streetcars, which soon became an easy target for the mob. Collinsville Avenue between Broadway and Illinois Avenue became particularly grisly as whites attacked stopped streetcars, sometimes forcing their way onboard to toss out African-American passengers, other times surrounding the car and asking for a show of hands so they could pick out those with darker skin. Black men, women, and children were thrown into the street and beaten with fists, stones, or sticks. Others were simply shot.
The riot spread from downtown north toward the stockyards. There, reporters saw men and women, including white prostitutes in silk stockings and kimonos, “with last night’s paint still unwashed on their cheeks,” chasing African-American women, some literally dragging their children behind. The fires began in the afternoon. Shacks were torched with families still cowering inside. Whites camped outside with guns, and the unfortunate black man or woman who tried to escape one of these infernos was shot down.
African-Americans held their hands high and begged for mercy. None was shown. Any white witness who spoke up or tried to step in was silenced, shamed, or physically removed. Police and soldiers turned their heads, leaned on their guns, or joined in. Many onlookers cheered and joked (“You get yours yet?”). But the vast majority just stood by, watching events unfold, silent in what was understood to be a passive, collective approval.
Average citizens who’d never committed a crime watched as prostitutes beat a young African-American woman, huddled over her baby, then punched the baby as the mother begged them to stop. Average citizens watched as a 1-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl were shot. Average citizens watched as white men tied a length of clothesline around an African-American man’s neck and hanged him from a telephone pole. When the rope broke, a new length was found and the victim strung up once more. The lynchers held the rope until the man stopped kicking; then they tied it off and walked on, leaving the fresh corpse to swing. Average citizens watched as an African-American woman and 4-year-old boy were chased from a library, swarmed by a white gang, and beaten to the ground. Two men then picked up the child by his arms and legs and tossed him into a burning building.
Average citizens watched as blood ran in the streets and darkness fell and flames engulfed the city, setting the night sky ablaze, a beacon of anger and hate that the entire world would see.
AROUND 7 P.M., WITH DOZENS dead and the city burning around him, Colonel Clayton, the same officer who had quelled the May uprising, took command of the National Guard, now some 200 men strong, and began to restore peace. They marched through the streets, breaking up large groups and arresting nearly 200 people. With the jail cells full, rioters were detained in City Hall’s basement. Ambulances finally picked up bodies left in the street, some having lain there for hours.
When the sun rose on July 3, nearly 20 square blocks still smoldered. Stray bodies were found in weeds, ditches, alleys, a shallow creek nearby. The air reeked of smoke and charred flesh. Small skirmishes continued to erupt, but by day’s end more than 1,000 troops were in the city to keep the peace. The riot was over.
Over the coming days, newspapers would try to assess the total damage. Official reports counted 48 dead—39 of them African-Americans. But many reporters and officials considered that total dramatically low. With the Great Migration having brought so many undocumented African-American families northward, there was no effective way to count who might be missing or who might have fled the city, never to return. There were also numerous reports of bodies’ having been flung into creeks and waterways and into fires from which they might never be recovered.
Today, death toll estimates range from 48 to well over 100. Reports of structural damage and destruction range from 244 to 312 buildings, mainly African-American homes and businesses, totaling anywhere from $373,000 to $3 million in damage.
The goriness of the details made the race riot something of a watershed event for the nascent civil rights movement. Prominent African-American activists, such as journalist Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois, visited the city in the aftermath and wrote extensively about the lead-up, the fallout, and the riot itself. Former President Theodore Roosevelt mentioned the pogrom during a debate at Carnegie Hall. On July 28, between 8,000 and 10,000 people walked silently down New York’s Fifth Avenue to the muffled beat of a funeral dirge in quiet protest of the events in East St. Louis. Barnes writes that the “Silent Parade” was the very first civil rights march.
It finally came time to adjudicate the matter. That August, more than 100 people—including 80 white men, eight police officers, two white women, and 23 black men—were indicted. Thirty-two of them were charged with murder. Several weeks later, 39 more indictments were issued, including one for the mayor: a charge of malfeasance. Among the accused were a 49-year-old man and a pair of 14-year-old boys. The counts ranged from arson to assault to “malicious mischief.” Twenty-one African-Americans were indicted for murdering the two police detectives.
Brockway was convicted of conspiracy for his incendiary role in the riot. An African-American dentist named Leroy Bundy was convicted by an all-white jury for organizing the black mob and went to prison, but the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the ruling a year later.
The trial of three white men, including a teenage ice wagon driver named John Dow and a young tire repair truck driver named Charles Hanna, both charged with the murders of three people, was marked by a dramatic moment when Lena Cook took the stand. Unlike her husband and son, she’d survived the streetcar assault and escaped to her home, across the river. Sitting in the witness stand, Cook still bore a scar, running the length of her head, where her assailants had ripped out her hair. She pointed at Hanna.
“That man took my husband by the collar and pulled him to the back of the platform and threw him off and shot him,” she said. “I saw that.”
Then she pointed out Dow.
“That man took my boy and started to drag him out. I took hold of him. He jerked him away, beating him over the head with his revolver, and that was the last time I saw my son alive.”
Here, she paused and dropped her head. She wiped the tears from her eyes, just as she had wiped away the blood that day, as she told the jury of her own beating and her terrible awakening in the ambulance. Dow and Hanna were eventually found guilty and each sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Though the record doesn’t list everyone who was in the courtroom that day, it’s possible that one of the people in the gallery was 13-year-old Bernice Cook, Lena and Edward’s daughter, who had managed to escape the streetcar and make it across the river. She was reunited with her mother the day after the riot.
NATIONAL ATTENTION SOON MOVED ON. World War I raged for another year and a half. An influenza epidemic killed as many as 675,000 Americans in 1918. Meanwhile, racial tensions flared in Tulsa, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. In 1919, according to Barnes’ book, there were as many as 38 race riots and 83 lynchings.
East St. Louis was eager to forget. For the whites, there no doubt was a certain measure of guilt and shame—not just among the handful who were actually convicted of wrongdoing by a jury but also on the part of the thousands of onlookers who participated by cheering, goading, or simply refusing to act. But there was also a sense that the riot had accomplished what many whites, particularly the wealthy and powerful, had wanted all along. More than 7,000 blacks fled the city, never to return. Those who remained saw their community strictly segregated, their housing redlined. As Penn State professor Charles L. Lumpkins asserted in his 2008 book American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics, any political clout that African-Americans had built was quickly marginalized and suppressed by the corrupt political machine, not to be regained until the city became majority black in the 1970s. “But between white flight and the industries leaving, too, what was left?” says Lumpkins. “Just a hollowed-out shell.”
The black families who stayed had to deal daily with the post-traumatic stress that follows this type of catastrophe. Some, like Judge Wharton’s family, never spoke of it. Many were probably not sorry to see the landmarks disappear with time. “They would rather not trigger it, because they would be overwhelmed by it,” says Joseph A. Brown, a professor of Africana studies at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale who was born in East St. Louis and grew up with stories of how his father hid friends and neighbors under his porch during the riot. “We have a long example of people suppressing the collective abuse in order to survive. They need to keep going.”
Brown notes that this PTSD seems to have abated in the past decade or so as Americans begin to articulate historical oppression in the U.S. People are reevaluating the presence of Confederate memorials, discussing long-hidden photographs of lynchings, and exploring the arguments for reparations. In that spirit, Brown, Wharton, and others with connections to the community have formed the East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission and Cultural Initiative. The group has been hosting service days, discussions, and other events and has organized a “Great Reunion” to mark the riot’s 100th anniversary. Perhaps most important, the commission will oversee the installation of several monuments. There will be a small granite obelisk at the MetroLink stop just below the Eads Bridge, across which so many fled to safety and from which others were thrown to their doom. A larger bronze sculpture will be erected on what is now the East St. Louis Higher Education Campus, two blocks from Broadway, the heart of the violence. “The ground that holds the blood of the old ones is sacred,” says Brown. “By facing our true history, we learn what work must be done to honor our ancestors and find the strength to give hope to our children.”
A series of 24 street signs will be put up at “sacred sites,” each with a photo of what that area looked like in 1917 and a brief description of what occurred. One at the corner of Broadway and Collinsville, two blocks from where Lena Cook and her family were accosted, will bear a grainy picture of a streetcar stopped in the middle of the street. There, outside the Dew Drop Inn, between two American flags, a horde of maybe 100 men—some wearing the summer straw hats of the turn-of-the-century businessman, others in broad-brimmed military campaign hats—do nothing as men, women, and children are pulled from the car.
Now future generations will be able to look upon that sign, imagine themselves at the scene, and decide whether or not they would act.
This article was compiled from a variety of sources, including contemporary news reports, interviews, and congressional hearing testimony, as well as American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics, by Charles L. Lumpkins; Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot that Sparked the Civil Rights Movement, by Harper Barnes; and Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917, by Elliott Rudwick.