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This Week In Illinois History: The East St. Louis Massacre (July 2 - 3, 1917)

In July 1917, East St. Louis prepared for a 4th of July celebration featuring long parades, a Civil War reenactment and the dedication of a new Civil War monument. Local newspapers joked about which poor horse would carry the city’s 300-pound mayor. But festivities were about to be interrupted by one of the country’s deadliest race riots, which would become ­known as the East St. Louis Massacre.

The United States had entered World War I a few months earlier. Factories in St. Louis and East St. Louis ramped up war production, which brought thousands of migrant workers into the area, many of them African Americans from the South. Between 1910 and 1917, the Black population of East St. Louis nearly doubled, angering white workers who blamed Blacks for taking their jobs. Tensions grew when 450 white workers went on strike at the Aluminum Ore Company, and the owners replaced them with Black workers.

In May, angry white workers demanded the city council take action to protect their jobs. When no action was taken – and rumors spread that Black men had been harassing white women – an angry mob took to the streets, randomly attacking any Black men it found. Governor Frank Lowden had to call in the National Guard to stop the violence.

On July 1st, a car with four white men drove into a Black neighborhood and fired randomly into a crowd. Later that night, a similar-looking car with four white men also drove into the neighborhood. Believing it was the same car returning for another attack, angry residents fired on it. The second car, however, had two police officers, both of whom were killed.

The next day, thousands of white people – including children – swarmed into the Black neighborhoods, attacking anyone they found, beating them with clubs and bricks, or just gunning them down indiscriminately. At least one man was lynched in the street.

When terrified residents fled into their homes and businesses, the mob set fire to everything, stood in wait, then shot anyone who tried to escape. Eyewitnesses reported white women and children beating Black women as they fled, their clothes in flames.

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat described it as a “blood orgy.” Some Black families escaped across the Eads Bridge into St. Louis, but hundreds fled straight into the river, where many of them drowned.

Police officers did little to stop the rioters, but those who tried were largely ignored because they had orders not to fire at any white citizens.

The riot left 6,000 African-Americans homeless. The official death toll stands at 39, but many believe the number to be well over a hundred, making it one of the deadliest riots in U.S. history. In the end, the state of Illinois brought charges against 35 men for their role in the riot; 25 of them were Black.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.