The East St. Louis Race Riot(s) of 1917 is remembered as one of the most tragic instances of labor-related violence and one of the most devastating racial riots in the history of the United States. During these riots, between 39 and 150 African Americans lost their lives, and an additional 6,000 black people were left homeless. The destruction caused during the riots resulted in property damage amounting to approximately $400,000 (equivalent to $9.98 million in 2023).
During the time of the East St. Louis Race Riots, the United States was experiencing a vibrant economy driven by World War I. With many workers being drafted or enlisting in the military, industrial employers in major cities faced a labor shortage. Simultaneously, African Americans embarked on the Great Migration, leaving the racial discrimination of the Jim Crow era behind in search of better job opportunities and education in the urban centers.
Cities like St. Louis, Missouri, and East St. Louis, Illinois, became destinations for these migrants, with black workers arriving at an astonishing rate of 2,000 per week in St. Louis during the spring of 1917.
The Racial and Labor Tensions:
The early 20th century was marked by frequent labor violence in industrial cities across America. Employers sought to suppress organized labor and strikes using force, while workers fought for higher wages and improved working conditions. Many of these workers were European immigrants. Racial tensions escalated as white unions excluded or hindered black workers to strengthen their bargaining positions, leading to economic competition between ethnicities.
The tensions escalated in the summer of 1916 when 2,500 white employees of the meatpacking industry near East St. Louis went on strike for higher wages. In response, the companies hired black workers as strikebreakers to replace them. Ultimately the workers won a wage increase but the companies retained nearly 800 blacks, firing as many whites after the strike. This exacerbated the growing racial tension.
The May 1917 Outbreak:
On May 28, 1917, tensions reached a boiling point when rumors circulated about black men fraternizing with white women at a labor meeting held in City Hall. Subsequently, a mob of white men attacked African Americans on the streets and in streetcars, resulting in violence, arson, and destruction.
The July 1917 Massacre:
The riots flared again on July 1, 1917, after a rumor spread about a white man being killed by a black man. The following day, thousands of angry white mobs took to the streets, indiscriminately attacking black residents and their properties. African American homes were burned, looted, and destroyed, leaving countless families without shelter. The violence was indiscriminate, as whites attacked both men and women, often subjecting them to brutal beatings and lynchings. In a shocking act of wickedness, they also cut the water hoses of the fire department, ensuring that the flames engulfed entire sections of the city, leaving black residents with no escape from the inferno.
The carnage was particularly shocking as it took place shortly after America’s entry into World War I. Historian Winston James pointed out the jarring contrast: “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.”
During the riots, the police made no organized effort to protect the hunted-down blacks or disperse the murderous groups. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the police were either indifferent or even encouraged the barbaric acts.
“For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless negroes at Broadway and Fourth Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where black skin was death warrant.”
In the aftermath of the riots, Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican leader of the UNIA and a prominent black nationalist, described the violence as “one of the bloodiest outrages against mankind.” Estimates of the death toll varied, with some sources suggesting that up to 200 African Americans tragically lost their lives. Moreover, the destruction of their neighborhoods left approximately 6,000 black residents homeless, highlighting the severe impact of the riots on their communities.
The riots sparked outrage across the country, prompting a Silent Parade organized by the NAACP in New York City on July 28. Ten thousand black people marched down Fifth Avenue, protesting the East St. Louis Race Riots and calling attention to the ongoing racial injustice.
Following the violence, hearings were held in the House of Representatives, and trials ensued. A significantly larger number of blacks were convicted compared to whites for their roles in the riots, raising questions about the fairness of the legal proceedings.
The East St. Louis Race Riot left an indelible mark on the African American community, a number of black people left the city permanently; black enrollment in public schools in the area had dropped by 35% by the time schools opened in the fall, and the impact of the riots continued to shape racial relations in the United States for years to come.