On This Day: The East St. Louis Riot

On July 2, 1917—95 years ago today—East St. Louis, Illinois, erupted into bloody violence, as one of the worst race riots in U.S. history began.

Racial tension was already high in East St. Louis, which had attracted roughly 10,000 new African Americans in the past year. Established trade unions resented the newcomers as “unfair” competition, and a mob assaulted African Americans at the end of May, necessitating National Guard protection in the city. After a rumor spread that a black man had killed a white man, the city on July 2nd erupted into a full-scale riot characterized by drive-by shootings, beatings, and arson.

Military rule was eventually established—followed by hundreds of arrests—but not in time to save the many innocent African Americans who fell victim to the angry mob.

No one is sure exactly how many African Americans died in the riot; estimates range from 40 to 200 individuals. Nine whites were killed. Property damage was of course extensive, and thousands of African Americans also left the city altogether, fearing for their safety.

National public opinion immediately surged against law enforcement officers, who did little to stop the violence. The event also sparked mobilization within the NAACP, which on July 28th held a silent parade down Fifth Avenue in New York, protesting racial violence.

Federal investigations began almost immediately, and a grand jury formed in the wake of the attacks eventually indicted St. Louis’s mayor, as well as dozens of other individuals. Ultimately, though, only a handful of whites were sent to prison—and on light sentences.

A year later, President Woodrow Wilson denounced lynching.

For more information, click here, here, or here.

To read the New York Times article published July 3rd, click here. To read an article published in the Crisis, click here. This page from St. Louis Public Radio also provides substantial material.

To see digitized documents relating to the riot, click here.

To view the grand jury testimony from August 1917, click here.

To read Marcus Garvey’s speech about the violence, click here.

To learn more, check out Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s The East St. Louis Massacre: The Greatest Outrage of the Century (The Negro Fellowship Herald Press, 1917); Elliott Rudwick’s Race Riot of East St. Louis, July 2, 1917 (University of Illinois Press, 1982); Charles Lumpkins’ American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics (Ohio University Press, 2008); and Harper Barnes’ Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot that Sparked the Civil Rights Movement (Walker & Company, 2008).