If you happen to live in the St. Louis bi-state area you’ve probably read or seen extensive media coverage of the horrific events that took place in East St. Louis on July 2, 1917.
Most commonly and inaccurately described as a “race riot,” the events of that dreadful day were more akin to being a massacre of black ESL residents by mobs of white racist thugs and terrorists who cowardly beat, stoned and killed countless numbers of African Americans, torching over 300 homes and making target practice of blacks who emerged from the flames. Many were fortunate enough to flee ESL by way of the McArthur and Eads bridges, while some were intercepted and slaughtered.
Penn State professor and author Charles Lumpkins, even referred to it as a pogrom: “an assault, condoned by officials, to destroy a community defined by ethnicity, race or some other social identity.”
The powder keg was created when the Aluminum Ore Company recruited and hired 470 black workers to replace white workers who had gone on strike. The combination of racism and the fear of black migration, displacement and disruption of their democratic political structure (blacks were largely Republican at that time) is what finally lit the fuse.
I know the story all too well. In 1998, I appeared in the groundbreaking documentary “BloodyIsland: The Race Riots of East St. Louis.” The producer was ESL native Thomas Gibson, who has gone on to do great things in Hollywood and now works for BET. The documentary also included St. Louis American columnist Bernie Hayes, as well as survivor of the massacre, the late Scotia Calhoun, an ESL entrepreneur.
The documentary never got much national attention, nor did it get the exposure that it should have in St. Louis or East Boogie, which is inexcusable. I’ve read media accounts and talked to elderly residents who largely were apprehensive about sharing that history until now.
We could take a lesson from Jews whose mantra of “Never Again,” relative to the remembrance of the Nazi Holocaust and extermination of 6 million Jews, is not allowed to be forgotten, irrespective of who wants to hear it.
To that extent, there is no reason that The 1917 ESL race massacre shouldn’t be incorporated into every history class in ESL public schools. It is a travesty that, in 12 years of an ESL public school education, I never once heard these atrocities mentioned, not even tangentially.
Those who organized the commemorative activities are to be commended, but as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked in his final book, where do we go from here: chaos or community? I’d suggest that there needs to be a permanent memorial or museum dedicated to the preservation of all of the documentaries, intellectual research and other history that has been compiled to date.
Perhaps if our ESL youth knew this history, they would be less prone to turn on each other in acts of violence and murder. For it has been said that “they who fail to know their history are destined to repeat it.”
I attended the kickoff commemoration at the Belleville Courthouse, along with elected officials, judges, Freemasons and citizens. Chief Judge Andrew Gleeson, whose home was directly across from mine in ESL, gave me a shout-out in reflection upon our being oblivious to that shameful history as we “innocently” played together, as children, and noting that we should learn to co-exist in a similar manner today.
Retired judge Milton Wharton reflected on the 1903 lynching of black man that took place in proximity to the very place that the ceremony was being held. Ironically, St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern was conveniently absent from the ceremony. It was Kern’s great grandfather Mayor Fred J. Kern who allowed the lynching to take place a century ago. Wouldn’t it have been appropriate and healing for Kern to offer an apology or acknowledgement of that tragedy on behalf of the Kern family? I hope that ESL politicians are paying attention.
History is an incredible teacher, and commemorations make us feel good and empowered momentarily. However, if we continue to have a political master-slave relationship, relative to Belleville and St. Clair County, then all of the pageantry, ceremonies and commemorations are all just feel-good exercises in futility.