“This Was the Apocalypse”: East St. Louis, July 2, 1917

Welcome to our three-part series about the 1917 East St. Louis race riot. This post covers events during the riot. To find out what happened before it and its aftermath, click here.

In the evening of July 2, 1917, 11-year-old Freda McDonald was laying on the bed she shared with her siblings, studying the peculiar humming sound growing outside her family’s small shack on Gratiot Street, near downtown St. Louis. Her brother, Richard, finally spoke up, curious whether he was hearing a coming thunderstorm. Their mother, Carrie, replied, “No, not a storm, child, it’s the whites.”

Carrie McDonald gathered her children and opened the front door, just blocks from the Municipal (Free) Bridge’s entrance ramp. Freda—better known to the world as Josephine Baker—wasn’t prepared for the sight.

“This was the Apocalypse. Clouds, glowing from the incandescent light of huge flames leaping up from the riverbank, raced across the sky . . . but not as quickly as the breathless figures that dashed in all directions. The entire black community appeared to be fleeing.”

Black-and-white photo of Municipal Bridge ramp in winter 1917The Municipal Bridge ramp in winter 1917. Just months later, hundreds of East St. Louis refugees would pass beneath this Welcome to St. Louis sign. Missouri History Museum.

Masses of scared refugees flooded across the Municipal Bridge. Some carried battered suitcases; others carried children and elderly relatives. Under plumes of billowing black smoke, they all reported the same story: White mobs were murdering dozens of black bystanders and burning East St. Louis—and no one was stopping them.

Police Officers Down

In the humid dawn hours of July 2, 1917, East St. Louis awoke to a bloodied, trashed Model T police car sitting in the middle of Main Street. As the sun climbed, onlookers and journalists swarmed around the vehicle, fashioning guesses about what had occurred. Black East St. Louisans knew though, because the scene had transpired in their front yards.

The day before had been a tense one in southern East St. Louis. A black man had been attacked by whites near the Municipal Bridge that afternoon. Shortly afterward, rumors of a white uprising planned for the upcoming July 4 holiday spread throughout the African American community. (In the white community, rummors of a black uprising were also spreading.) A few neighbors were still chatting on their sidewalks and front porches around midnight when the still night air suddenly crackled with gunfire.

Doctor Thomas Hunter witnessed a black Model T “loaded with white men” whipping down Trendley Street, guns blasting into nearby homes. A block away on Market Street, lawyer N. W. Parden jumped awake, running into his yard and coming face to face with the same sight. The Model T sped away. At East St. Louis Police Headquarters, calls began pouring in. Plainclothes detectives Samuel Coppedge and Frank Wodley were dispatched to investigate, accompanied by a chauffeur, two officers, and a news reporter. Their car—an unmarked, black Model T—looked exactly like the white shooters’ car.

The group arrived at the intersection of 10th and Bond to find 150 armed black men gathered in the street, wielding “everything except a cannon on wheels." The detectives exchanged words with the nervous crowd, who assumed them to be the same “trigger-happy joy riders” returned in disguise. The police chauffeur pushed the gas, the car jumped forward with a loud pop, and the crowd erupted with gunfire. The police car and its passengers drove off through a hail of bullets, stopping a few blocks away to check the damage. There it was discovered that Detective Coppedge was dead and Detective Wodley was dying. Moments later, East St. Louis mayor Fred Mollman was on the phone with Springfield to summon the Illinois National Guard.

“We Have No Orders”

By 10am on July 2, the crowd encircling the police car had become an aggressive mob. St. Louis Times reporter G. E. Popkess overheard a prominent attorney offering free defense for “any man that avenged the murders of the two police men." St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Paul Anderson listened as wild-eyed whites called for Negroes to be “wiped out.” Black doctor Lyman Bluitt, on his way to work at the city hall clinic, muttered to himself, “How foolish that is. . . . You may as well have put a red blanket before a bull.”

Within 15 minutes, the first black East St. Louisan had been killed.

Sepia-toned photo of white mob surrounding streetcar during East St. Louis riotA white mob surrounds a Collinsville Avenue streetcar during the East St. Louis riot, attacking black passengers. National Guard soldiers can be seen on the street corner. Image courtesy of UMass Amherst Libraries.

As the city descended into mob violence, the only two men capable of curbing it locked themselves away in a city hall meeting room. Mayor Mollman and National Guard colonel Stephen Tripp debated declaring martial law (Mollman was for it, Tripp was against it) before finally deciding that doing so would only produce more violence. The mayor emerged but went straight to his office; Colonel Tripp went to lunch. Blocks away, the violence raged under the noses of dozens of apathetic National Guard troops. “We have no orders,” they shrugged. 

Rioters swarmed any African American caught on the streets. On Collinsville Avenue they smashed into streetcars, ripping out black passengers headed for the Eads Bridge. Along the so-called Whiskey Chute, near the National Stockyards, white prostitutes joined in attacks on black women. By midafternoon buildings and homes were being looted and burned throughout downtown and southern East St. Louis. Colonel Tripp estimated his still-immobile National Guard soldiers were outnumbered “20 or 30 to 1.”

The Burning City

By evening a stream of African American families flowed out of the city, taking Illinois and Cahokia avenues to hide in the countryside. Black policeman Otto Nelson and his wife were forced to leap from the second story of their burning Broadway home, disappearing into the tall weeds of an overgrown lot half a block away where they lay motionless for hours, listening to East St. Louis destroy itself.

Photo of the East St. Louis Public Library burning during the 1917 riotFires burning around the East St. Louis Public Library at Broadway and Eighth streets, July 2, 1917. Missouri History Museum.

As night fell, two people, backlit by a scorched city, crossed the Mississippi River. Reporter Carlos Hurd took the Eads Bridge to get back to his office at the Post-Dispatch. He wrote into the morning hours, crafting a scathing firsthand account of the “drama of death” he had witnessed. In defiance of the dispassionate professional journalism standards of the time, Hurd’s 3,000-word piece fumed with anger. He ripped into indifferent police and militia who were “not supposed to bother themselves about dead negroes” and demanded to know how the killing of Detective Coppedge by a small group of armed men was grounds to “excuse or palliate a massacre.” That article became the foremost source of riot news available to anyone beyond St. Louis.

A mile down the river, Katherine Kennedy, her brother, and her six children snuck toward the water. Using strips of ripped cloth and loose boards gathered by the light of numerous fires, the family lashed together a makeshift raft and then paddled more than 500 yards across the dark, churning water, landing deep in south St. Louis. Seven-year-old Samuel Kennedy, a future St. Louis alderman, looked back from the Mississippi’s west bank to see a curtain of flames dancing across his city—his home was gone.

"To Break the Back of the Riot"

Late in the evening on July 2—after certainly dozens and probably hundreds of black deaths— the National Guard troops finally received orders to take action. Nearly 200 rioters attempting to hang a black bystander at Fourth and Broadway were rounded up, marched to city hall, and held in the basement. Others nearby shouted and jeered but slowly dispersed.

From that point forward, the large mobs broke down. Just this one small display of authority was enough, in the words of Post-Dispatch reporter Paul Anderson, “to break the back of the riot.” But it had come more than 12 hours too late. <<Click here to read Part 3 of our three-part series.>>

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

Membership appeal