“A Stain on the Name of America”: The Nation Reacts

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

The two ends of Illinois smoldered in uncertainty on July 3, 1917.

On the state’s southern end, East St. Louisans slowly ventured out of hiding, wandering the ruins of their city. Six blocks of downtown—including the East St. Louis Public Library and Opera House—had burned alongside 300 homes. There were few black faces among those inspecting the carnage.

Sepia-toned photo of East St. Louis refugees in St. LouisBlack East St. Louis refugees, newly arrived across the Mississippi, July 1917. Image courtesy of UMass Amherst Libraries.

On the state’s northern end, members of Chicago’s nationally influential Negro Fellowship League discussed who would travel to East St. Louis to investigate the shocking news the group was hearing. They picked journalist Ida B. Wells, famous for her ongoing exposure of lynching in America. She accepted the assignment, which was risky considering no one knew whether the riot was truly over, and invited the audience to sing "America" or "The Star-Spangled Banner" if they felt so moved—the room remained silent.

Accounts of the Immediate Aftermath

When Wells arrived in East St. Louis on July 4, she interviewed the few remaining African Americans she could find. While escorting some to the Red Cross in St. Louis, she was assumed to be another refugee and was taken to the Municipal Lodging House for smallpox vaccination. She found herself surrounded by “people who had suddenly been robbed of everything except what they stood in . . . dazed over the thing that had come to them and unable to tell what it was all about.”

Black-and-white photo of East St. Louis refugees attempting to report property lossesBlack citizens from East St. Louis lined up to report property losses. Most had no way to prove what they had lost. Missouri History Museum.

Four days later, NAACP founder W. E. B. Du Bois and social worker Martha Gruening arrived and assembled local investigators, interviewing both black and white witnesses. Du Bois’s account, which details the city’s labor issues and labels post-riot East St. Louis as “unrepentant,” stretched across 24 pages of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine in September 1917.

Beyond St. Louis

Wells and Du Bois were among few from outside the St. Louis region who saw the riot’s aftermath up close. Nonetheless, the violent event’s shockwave echoed nationwide. African Americans had been stripped of life and liberty en masse as authority watched, a brutality that fully exposed the plight of black men and women trying to build even the most basic of lives in this country.

Black-and-white photo of Marcus GarveyEssayist and orator Marcus Garvey believed the East St. Louis riot was a conspiracy—and proof American blacks should return to Africa. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On July 8 essayist and orator Marcus Garvey delivered a speech titled “The Conspiracy of the East St. Louis Riots.” Garvey considered the riot a coordinated conspiracy of East St. Louis city officials, its violence another supporting example for his movement calling American blacks to return to Africa. His words included this summation of the black American experience:

At one time it was slavery, at another time lynching and burning, and up to date it is wholesale butchering. This is a crime against humanity . . . through the system of enslavement, conquest and robbery.

Others weren’t so ready to place blame. Southern politicians and journalists claimed the East St. Louis riot was proof that the arrogant North was no different in its “race problem.” One Georgia state representative bleakly recommended Illinois “select their victims one at a time and be sure of their guilt before they act.” Former president Teddy Roosevelt nearly got into a fistfight with Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, when Gompers suggested that the blame lay not on the mobs but on “reactionary” employers who recruited Southern blacks northward. President Woodrow Wilson remained nearly silent, despite receiving the NAACP’s 15,000-signature petition calling for a federal investigation.

The Silent Parade and a Congressional Investigation

On July 28 the NAACP tried to force President Wilson’s response. As many as 10,000 black protesters participated in the Silent Parade in New York City, a demonstration of unprecedented size and boldness. A sea of black- and white-clad figures filled Fifth Avenue—America’s symbol of unending commercial wealth—stoically floating down 20 blocks to the boom of funerary drums.

Black-and-white photo of the Silent March in New York CityThe Silent Parade in New York City, where up to 10,000 protesters marched down Fifth Avenue. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

In a break with the president, the U.S. House of Representatives decided that enough interstate commerce between Illinois and Missouri had been disrupted to warrant a federal investigation. Five congressmen formed a special investigative committee and spent a month interviewing more than 100 witnesses. The committee’s resulting report condemned the greed, manipulation, and incompetence of East St. Louis’s political and industrial environment. It bleakly stated that “no terms of condemnation applied to the men who were responsible for these appalling conditions . . . can be too severe.”

Black-and-white scan of newspaper photo showing the five congressional committee membersOn November 3, 1917, The St. Louis Star and Times published this image of the five congressional delegates at the East St. Louis riot hearings. Missouri History Museum.

Conclusion

Once heralded as the All-America City by the National Civic League, today East St. Louis is routinely branded “America’s most dangerous city.” Its population stands at half the size it was in 1917 (just 27,000 now, compared to around 60,000 then) and hovers around 99 percent African American. The city's built landscape has suffered decades of disinvestment, deindustrialization, and lost hopes.

Many assume East St. Louis is a place that offers nothing and expresses nothing about them. After all, the city's problems run contrary to the longstanding message of life in America, one that says wealth abounds, liberty is guaranteed, and things only get better if you work hard. But struggles over race and labor—issues that brought East St. Louis to explosive violence 100 years ago—have been central to the United States since this country’s birth. The division and inequality that culminated in the 1917 race riot endure in all of America’s far-flung corners, as omnipresent as the freedom and justice America prides itself on.

It's time we recognize that East St. Louis is America too—and that its past, present, and future are all closer than we realize.

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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