Most of America spent the weekend at cookouts, watching fireworks and celebrating the birth of our nation.
The fact that people from across the region paid their respects as black people of East St. Louis mourned ancestors who experienced one of the bloodiest incidents of racially motivated terrorism in U.S. history 100 years ago speaks to the irony of the African-American experience.
The event is commonly referred to as the East St. Louis Race Riots of 1917, though none of the speakers at a host of events over the course of three days that took place on both sides of the river to commemorate the centennial of the tragedy seemed to want to call it that.
“I call it a ‘race war’ because that’s what our father, uncles and Aunt Dot referred to it as – race war,” said Dhati M. Kennedy at a panel discussion Saturday afternoon at Better Family Life. “People didn’t just didn’t lay down. They actually fought back.”
The banner at the front of Sunday’s silent march had the words “race riot” scratched out and “Pogrom” next to it instead. The term – which is used to describe the attacks on Jewish people during the days of the Russian Empire – is defined as a violent riot aimed at the massacre or persecution of an ethnic or religious group.
“This was an act of terrorism,” one woman yelled out during Saturday’s “Day of Remembrance” panel discussion and trailer premiere for a documentary on the tragedy by Bryan Sparkman.
The black people who traveled to East St. Louis during the early wave of the Great Migration thought they were escaping overt racial terror imposed upon them in the South. They came with the understanding that systemic racism was the American way, but had no grounds to anticipate the horror that would be imposed upon them on July 2, 1917 – after they had made it to the promised land of the North.
Racial tensions had simmered in East St. Louis for more than a month. An unfounded rumor that black men and white women were mingling at a labor meeting on May 28 compelled an estimated 3,000 white men to march into downtown and begin attacking black residents and rioting. The National Guard had to be deployed to quell the situation.
Even under the present threat of white rage, nothing could have prepared them for what was to come two days before Independence Day 100 years ago. An all-out assault was launched on black East St. Louisans. Homes were burned to the ground. Those who tried to escape the fire were shot and killed instantly. All roads leading to safety were blocked.
“Everything just exploded,” Kennedy said. “My father Samuel Kennedy, who at that time was about seven years old, said he saw neighbors’ houses go into flames. He said he saw people being chased out of their homes and shot down in the street – and could still hear the screams and see the homes aglow with fire.”
Report of the death toll ranged from two dozen to several hundred, depending on the outlet. More than 6,000 black East St. Louisans were displaced.
“The truth of the matter is nobody will ever really know the true number of lives that were lost, because charred bodies don’t float to the top,” Kennedy said.
Their family home was set on fire with them inside. Katherine Kennedy rounded up her children and hid in the woods for hours. When the coast was clear, Katherine and her family built a raft out of burnt wood and sticks and paddled for four hours across the Mississippi River to safety in St. Louis.
Katherine contracted pneumonia from paddling across the river in the night as she was determined to get her children to safety. The young mother died several days later.
The Kennedy family consider themselves to be among the lucky ones. Every July 2 they put flowers on the river as a token of gratitude to those who made sure that they survived.
“I thank God that our grandmother, my father and my uncles were able to get to this side of the river or we would not be here now,” Kennedy said. “My children would not be here now. My grandchildren would not be here now.”
As the commemorative weekend ended, nearly 300 marched from the SIUE East St. Louis Higher Learning Center to the Eads Bridge as a final homage. Most were dressed to the nines in white dresses for the ladies and black suits for the men. They seemed unaffected by the heat and the sun that beat down the entire way. The sun didn’t relent until after they made it to the bridge. The only noise for the entire route was the beating of African drums. Those unable to walk followed behind by car.
Sunday’s march was fashioned after the Silent Parade that paid homage to East St. Louis on July 28, 1917 in New York City. Organized by Dr. W.E.B. DuBois and The NAACP, an estimated 10,000 marched through the streets primarily to protest what happened in East St. Louis along with lynchings and other racially motivated acts of violence.
“The history of East St. Louis speaks to many issues that we still struggle with today,” East St. Louis Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks said as a wreath was laid in memory those who died – and those whose lives were forever changed because of the pogrom.
“Racial inequalities, systemic racism engrained in the fiber of this society, and social, political and economic injustices that we still face today speak to the work that we must continue. African Americans are still judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their character, and unfortunately many black men and women are dying every day just because they are black.”
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson also participated in Sunday’s march.
Jackson-Hicks was humbled by the support the centennial commemoration events received from across the region. Most moving for her were the first-person accounts that put a human voice to the tragedy. She said this weekend’s events a step towards reconciliation and rebuilding.
“It promotes a sense of pride that we really care about what happened in 1917,” Jackson-Hicks said. “In order for us to really be restored as a city, we had to take the time out and look at what happened back then – and allow ourselves to reflect on it so that certain things are not repeated.”