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1917 East St. Louis Riots

Updated: May 1, 2021

The East St. Louis Massacre was a series of outbreaks of labor- and race-related violence by White Americans who murdered between 40 and 250 African-Americans in late May and early July 1917. Another 6,000 black people were left homeless[1] and the burning and vandalism cost approximately $400,000 ($7,982,000 in 2021) in property damage.[1] The events took place in and near East St. Louis, Illinois, an industrial city on the east bank of the Mississippi River, directly opposite the city of St. Louis, Missouri. The July 1917 episode in particular was marked by white-led violence throughout the city. The multi-day massacre has been described as the "worst case of labor-related violence in 20th-century American history",[2] and among the worst racial massacres in U.S. history.

In the aftermath, the East St. Louis Chamber of Commerce called for the resignation of the local police chief because officers were told not to shoot white citizens and were unable to suppress the violence and destruction. A number of black people left the city permanently; black enrollment in public schools in the area had dropped by 35% by the time schools opened in the fall.[3]

At the end of July, some 10,000 black citizens marched in silent protest in New York City in condemnation of the massacre.[4]


Location of East St. Louis in Illinois

In 1917, the United States had an active economy boosted by World War I. Many would-be workers were drafted or enlisted into military service, creating a shortage of labor for industrial employers in major cities, which had long been destinations for European immigrants. Concurrently African Americans began the Great Migration from the rural Southern United States to seek better work and education in the North, as well as to escape from lynchings and the discriminations of the Jim Crow era. Labor agencies recruited some workers for specific jobs, especially as strikebreakers, but labor demand was sufficient that migrants moved on their own, having heard about the new employment opportunities created by the wartime economy.[5] The neighboring communities of St. Louis, Missouri, and East St. Louis, Illinois, both became destinations for southern migrants. Blacks were arriving in St. Louis at the rate of 2,000 per week during the spring of 1917.[6]

Major industries in East St. Louis included Aluminum Ore Co., American Steel Foundry, Republic Iron & Steel, Obear Nester Glass and Elliot Frog & Switch (a frog was part of a railroad switch), with many facilities located just outside the city limits to escape paying taxes. Nearby National City had stockyards and meatpacking plants, attracting more workers. It was a rough industrial city where saloons outnumbered schools and churches.[5] Non-whites were initially a small minority: in 1910, approximately 6,000 African Americans lived in East St. Louis, out of a total population of 58,000; by 1917, the black population had increased to 10,000, or one-sixth of the total population of 60,000.[citation needed]

The period was one of frequent labor violence in industrial cities across the United States: employers used force to try to suppress organized labor and strikes, while workers struggled to gain increased wages and improved working conditions. Many workers were immigrants from Europe. When industries became embroiled in labor strikes, the traditionally white unions often sought to strengthen their bargaining positions by hindering or excluding black workers. Conversely, industry owners hired blacks as replacements or strikebreakers, deepening existing segregation and inter-racial hostility.[7] Ethnicities competed economically to survive. White workers often resented black newcomers due to competition for jobs and housing and fear they would be undercut by black workers who were willing to accept lower wages. In East St. Louis, local politicians, company foremen, and labor union officials fanned the resentment; the approval of the local police and National Guard were later considered important in helping to escalate the rioting.[8][5] The Springfield race riot of 1908 in nearby Springfield, Illinois, was an expression of the simmering tensions in the region during the nadir of race relations.

While in New Orleans on a lecture tour, Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who founded the UNIA in 1916, became aware that Louisiana planters and the city's Board of Trade were worried about losing their labor force, as he recounted in a speech the following year. He said that Mayor Mollman of East St. Louis was also visiting the city that week, and city leaders asked for his assistance to help discourage black migration to the North.[6]

In the summer of 1916, 2,500 white employees of the meatpacking industry near East St. Louis went on strike for higher wages, and the companies imported black workers to replace them. Ultimately the workers won a wage increase but the companies retained nearly 800 blacks, firing as many whites after the strike, according to the former president of the Central Trades and Labor Union of East St. Louis.[5] This result only exacerbated the growing racial tension.

In the spring of 1917, the mostly white workers of the Aluminum Ore Company in East St. Louis voted to strike. The company recruited hundreds of black workers to replace them.[9] Tensions between the groups escalated. At a labor meeting held in City Hall on May 28 and made up mostly of white workers, rumors circulated of black men fraternizing with white women.[10][11]

Following the May 28 meeting, some 1,000–3,000 white men marched into downtown East St. Louis and began attacking African Americans on the street and in streetcars and burning some buildings. Illinois Governor Frank Orren Lowden called in the National Guard to suppress the violence. Although rumors circulated that blacks were planning retaliatory attacks,[10] conditions eased somewhat for a few weeks.[citation needed]

Following the May disorder, the East St. Louis Central Labor Council requested an investigation by the State Council of Defense. Its report said that "southern negroes were misled by false advertisements and unscrupulous employment agents to come to East St. Louis in such numbers under false pretenses of secure jobs and decent living quarters".[12] The tensions between black workers and white workers quickly formed again as no solutions to their economic challenges were agreed upon.[citation needed]

The massacre was precipitated by fatal errors. On July 1, a black Ford Model T[13] occupied by white males drove through a black area of the city; passengers fired several shots into a group on the street. An hour later, a Ford containing four people, including a journalist and two police officers (Detective Sergeant Samuel Coppedge and Detective Frank Wadley), passed through the same area. Black residents, possibly assuming this car held the original attackers, opened fire on the car, killing one officer instantly and mortally wounding another.[10][14]

The next day, thousands of white spectators gathered to view the detectives' bloodstained automobile.[15] From there they rushed into the black sections of town, south and west of the city, and began rioting.[15] The mob beat and shot blacks on the street indiscriminately, including women and children. After cutting the water hoses of the fire department, white rioters burned entire sections of the city and shot black residents as they escaped the flames.[10] Claiming that "Southern negros deserve[d] a genuine lynching", some whites hanged several blacks.[16]

The following day on July 3, 1917, a reporter from Post-Dispatch of St. Louis wrote: "For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless negroes at Broadway and Fourth Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where black skin was death warrant." [17]

Police response

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

All the impartial witnesses agree that the police were either indifferent or encouraged the barbarities, and that the major part of the National Guard was indifferent or inactive. No organized effort was made to protect the Negroes or disperse the murdering groups. The lack of frenzy and of a large infuriated mob made the task easy. Ten determined officers could have prevented most of the outrages. One hundred men acting with authority and vigor might have prevented any outrage.[18]

Hundreds of blacks fled across the Eads Bridge over the Mississippi River to St. Louis to escape the violence, while 1,500 sought refuge in city buildings.[19] St. Louis institutions worked to assist the refugees, including the St. Louis chapter of the Red Cross, the Provident Association, and the Jewish Education and Charitable Association, as well as related charities. The Red Cross Emergency Committee met daily with Acting Mayor Aloe, members of his administration, and representatives of the charities to discuss how to aid the refugees.[5]

Governor Lowden ordered in the Illinois National Guard, who arrived on July 3. Numerous witnesses said that the Guard initially joined in the attacks on blacks rather than stopping the riot.[20][page needed][21] More whites joined in. The New York Times reported that "ten or fifteen young girls about 18 years old, chased a negro woman at the Relay Depot at about 5 o'clock. The girls were brandishing clubs and calling upon the men to kill the woman."[22][10]

Few photographs exist of the events, as rioters attacked photographers and destroyed their cameras, and city police harassed journalists.[19] After the massacre, the St. Louis Argus said, "The entire country has been aroused to a sense of shame and pity by the magnitude of the national disgrace enacted by the blood-thirsty rioters in East St. Louis Monday, July 2."[23]


Death toll

After the massacre, varying estimates of the death toll circulated. The police chief estimated that 100 African Americans had been killed.[6] The renowned journalist Ida B. Wells reported in The Chicago Defender that 40–150 African-American people were killed during the July massacre.[21][24] The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) estimated deaths at 100–200. Some 6,000 African Americans were left homeless after their neighborhoods were burned. A Congressional Investigating Committee, which met in the fall of that year, concluded that no precise death toll could be determined, but reported that at least 8 whites and 39 African Americans died.[25] While the local coroner had documented nine white deaths, the deaths of African-American victims were less clearly recorded. Activists who disputed the committee's conclusions about deaths argued that the true number of deaths would never be known because many black corpses were not recovered or did not pass through the hands of undertakers, who reported to the coroner.[26]

Black community reaction

Photo of the Silent Parade protest march in New York City (July 28, 1917)

The ferocious brutality of the attacks and the failure of authorities to protect innocent lives contributed to the radicalization of many blacks in St. Louis and the nation.[27] Marcus Garvey, black nationalist leader of the UNIA from Jamaica, declared in a July 8 speech that the riot proved that the United States' claim to be a "dispenser of democracy" and its criticism of the Empire of Germany for human rights abuses in the Great War was hypocritical. Garvey called the massacre "one of the bloodiest outrages against mankind" and a "wholesale massacre of our people," insisting that "This is no time for fine words, but a time to lift one's voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy."[6][28]

In New York City on July 28, ten thousand black people marched down Fifth Avenue in a Silent Parade, protesting the East St. Louis Massacre. They carried signs that highlighted protests about the massacre. The march was organized by the NAACP (then based in New York), leader W. E. B. Du Bois, and groups in Harlem. Women and children were dressed in white; the men were dressed in black.[27] The NAACP had arranged for journalists to photograph the destruction in East St. Louis left behind after the massacre: houses, stores, churches, and brick warehouses were all left in ruins. These photographs were published in the September 1917 issue of The Crisis, the organization's magazine.[29]

Business community reaction

On July 6, representatives of the East St. Louis Chamber of Commerce met with the mayor to demand the resignation of the Police Chief and Night Police Chief, or radical reform. They were outraged about the rioting and accused the mayor of having allowed a "reign of lawlessness." In addition to the high death toll, the massacre had caused extensive property damage to city businesses and houses. The Southern Railway Company's warehouse was burned, with the loss of more than 100 car loads of merchandise, worth more than $525,000 to the company; some 44 freight cars, and 312 houses were also burned.[30] A white-owned theatre, valued at more than $100,000, was also destroyed.[6] Total property damage was estimated at $400,000[1] (nearly $8.5 million, in 2018 US Dollars).[31]

Government reaction

In a mass meeting in Carnegie Hall on July 12 in New York City, Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor, tried to diminish the role in the massacre attributed to trade unions. He said that an investigation was needed in order to place blame. Theodore Roosevelt, former president of the United States, responded, "Mr. Gompers, why don't I accuse afterwards? I'll answer now, when murder is to be answered." Roosevelt also was reported to say, "I will go to the extreme to bring justice to the laboring man, but when there is murder I will put him down."[32]

Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer (R-Mo.), a representative from a St. Louis urban district, asked for a federal investigation. President Woodrow Wilson wrote to him on July 28, saying that special agents of the Department of Justice could not find enough evidence to justify federal action in the matter. He said: "I am informed that the attorney general of the State of Illinois has gone to East St. Louis to add his efforts to those of the officials of the county and city in pressing prosecutions under the State laws. The representatives of the Department of Justice are so far as possible lending aid to the State authorities in their efforts to restore tranquility and guard against further outbreaks."[citation needed]

Hearings on the massacre before the Committee on Rules and the House of Representatives began on August 3, 1917. A federal investigation was eventually opened.[citation needed]

In October the state tried 25 blacks and 10 whites on charges related to the massacre, including homicide and incitement to riot. Lena Cook survived an attack to testify against two white men, who had killed her husband, Ed Cook, and son, 14-year-old Lurizza Beard; they were convicted of murder. Included among the defendants was Dr. LeRoy Bundy, a black dentist and prominent leader in the East St. Louis black community. He was formally charged with inciting a riot. The trial was held in the county court of St. Clair County, Illinois. Bundy, along with 34 other defendants, of whom 10 were white, was convicted and sentenced to prison in connection with the riot.[33] Another source said that a total of nine whites and twelve blacks were convicted of serious crimes and sent to prison.[19]


  1. ^ Jump up to:a b c d "The NEGRO SILENT PROTEST PARADE organized by the NAACP Fifth Ave., New York City July 28, 1917"(PDF). National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, NC. National Humanities Center. 2014. Retrieved July 28, 2017.

  2. ^ Fitch, Solidarity for Sale, 2006, p. 120.

  3. ^ Post-Dispatch, Tim O’Neil St Louis. "Race hatred, workforce tensions explode in East St. Louis in 1917". Retrieved January 19, 2021.

  4. ^ "NAACP | Silent Protest Parade Centennial". NAACP. Retrieved January 19, 2021.

  5. ^ Jump up to:a b c d e Oscar Leonard, "The East St. Louis Pogrom", The Survey, Volume 38, Chicago: Survey Associates, 1917, pp. 331- 333

  6. ^ Jump up to:a b c d e "Speech by Marcus Garvey, July 8, 1917". Excerpts from Robert A. Hill, ed. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Volume I, 1826 – August 1919. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983, accessed 1 February 2009, PBS, American Experience.

  7. ^ Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, New York: Verso, 1998, p. 95.

  8. ^ Malcolm McLaughlin, "Reconsidering the East St Louis Race Riot of 1917." International Review of Social History 47.2 (2002): 187–212.

  9. ^ "The East St. Louis Race Riot Left Dozens Dead, Devastating a Community on the Rise". Smithsonian Institution. June 30, 2017. Retrieved July 28, 2017.

  10. ^ Jump up to:a b c d e Rudwick, Race Riot at East St. Louis, 1964.

  11. ^ Leonard, "E. St. Louis Riot", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 13, 2004.

  12. ^ Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 6, 1917.

  13. ^ Danny Wicentowski, "Remember the East St. Louis Race War", Riverfront Times, 28 June 2017; accessed 17 September 2018

  14. ^ "Detective Sergeant Samuel Coppedge", Officer Down Memorial Page.

  15. ^ Jump up to:a b Buescher, John. "East St. Louis Massacre." Accessed July 11, 2011.

  16. ^ Heaps, "Target of Prejudice: The Negro", in Riots, USA 1765–1970, p. 114.

  17. ^ Debotch, Roman. "The Silent Parade of 1917: Why the Forgotten March Matters". Black Excellence.

  18. ^ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 5, 1917.

  19. ^ Jump up to:a b c Tim O'Neil, "Look Back 250: Worker struggles, racial hatred in East St. Louis explodes in white rioting", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 1, 2012. Accessed 16 September 2018.

  20. ^ Gibson, The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1880–1950, 1979.

  21. ^ Jump up to:a b Patrick, "The Horror of the East St. Louis Massacre", Exodus, February 22, 2000.

  22. ^ "Race Rioters Fire East St. Louis and Shoot or Hang Many Negroes", The New York Times, July 3, 1917.

  23. ^ "Negroes Did Not Start Trouble". The St. Louis Argus. July 6, 1917. Retrieved August 23, 2016.

  24. ^ Wells, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, rev. ed., 1991.

  25. ^ Congressional Edition, Volume 7444, House of Representatives 65th Congress 2nd Session document # 1231, 1918.

  26. ^ Elliott M. Rudwick, Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, p. 50.

  27. ^ Jump up to:a b James, Winston. (1998), Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-century America, p. 96.

  28. ^ Herbert Shapiro, White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery, University of Massachusetts Press, 1988, p. 163.

  29. ^ "The Massacre of East St. Louis" (PDF). The Crisis. 14 (5): 219–238. September 1917 – via Marxists Internet Archive.

  30. ^ Congressional Edition, Volume 7444, House of Representatives 65th Congress 2nd Session document # 1231, 1918, pp. 1, 6.

  31. ^ "Calculate the value of $400,000 in 1917".

  32. ^ Cresco Plain Dealer. (Cresco, Howard County, Iowa), July 13, 1917. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

  33. ^ The Chicago Daily Tribune, March 29, 1918.

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