Prior to World War 1, workers had unionized. During the war, workers were scarce, so companies, like those in East St. Louis, recruited rural blacks to come and work in the factories and join a thriving and growing black community. Once soldiers returned to their jobs after the war, there was some resentment between white union workers, and the black workers who were seen as, and used as, scabs or strike breakers. During a union strike at the Aluminum Ore company in the spring on 1917, thousands of blacks were hired to break the strike, just as they had in other situations before.
In late May of 1917, a union meeting of 3,000 people devolved into a mob, destroying buildings and assaulting black people. One report said it was sparked by a report of a robbery of a white man by an armed black man. In any case, the response was violent. The National Guard was called in to quell the destruction, but so little was done that the black people – some of them recently returned from war as well – resolved to protect themselves.
On July 1, some white men in a Ford drove through a black neighborhood, shooting into buildings. The black men organized, then fired on a Ford with a couple of white men that drove into the neighborhood and stopped. But these white men were not the same men who had fired guns; in fact, they were detectives, some plain clothed, coming to calm the situation and investigate the shooting.
The death of the two detectives sparked a horrible massacre beginning the next day. After seeing the two dead officers, a white mob began destroying everything they could, hunting down and killing black people, burning homes and buildings, and causing incredible destruction. As the black neighborhoods were burning, the residents fled across the bridge to St. Louis. But the police closed the bridge, leaving many trapped between burning buildings and a river.
Many still crossed the river. 6,000 black people fled to St. Louis, displaced by the destruction of their neighborhoods, and 39 black people and 9 whites were killed. That’s the official count, anyway. Many believe that the death count was much higher, because the real number of deaths was obscured by those who tossed victims into rivers or mass graves. Some of the black residents may have hidden in basements of buildings that were burned and died there. Some estimate that the death toll was actually between 100-200 black people. There was also approximately $400,000 worth of damage done to buildings and homes as well.
The stories are brutal. Hanging on streetlamps. Buildings burned with people in them, and people with guns waiting for them to be forced out. People pulled from street cars and beaten to death. Holes in heads. Blood spattering on stockings. Women and even children took part in the brutality.
Just a few days after their neighborhoods were burned, East St. Louis officials told the former residents that it was safe to return and tried to recruit workers. Strangely – or not so strangely – the vast majority did not believe them and very few went to work for them.
A silent march was held late in July (28th) in New York City to commemorate this atrocity.
For more information:
https://www.stltoday.com/news/archives/read-the-post-dispatch-coverage-of-the-east-st-louis-riot/collection_c7ae442a-988d-53b8-85f8-b4977e6badbd.html (This is a collection of news articles about the massacre)
https://edan.si.edu/transcription/pdf_files/22609.pdf (Note: These are files transcribing the publication “The Crisis” – and African American magazine. The coverage of the massacre is vivid and chilling.)
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/east-st-louis-race-riot-left-dozens-dead-devastating-community-on-the-rise-180963885/ An article from the Smithsonian Institute.