In 1917, the Illinois National Guard Joined a White Mob Hunting Blacks
Scores died in the East St. Louis massacre
For the second time since 2014, protests have gripped the St. Louis area due to the death of a black man in an encounter with law enforcement. On this occasion, the catalyst was the Sept. 15, 2017 acquittal of officer Jason Stockley in the 2011 shooting of Anthony Smith following a car chase.
The prosecution’s case against Stockley rested on the presence in the car of revolver that only had Stockley’s DNA on it, and a statement recorded during the chase in which he seemed to announce the intention to kill Smith.
Earlier in 2014, the shooting of Michael Brown in the nearby city of Ferguson was a flashpoint for racial tensions, leading the governor of Missouri to call in the National Guard — and catalyzing the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Poor relations between police and local African Americans go back longer than many remember. In 1917 the St. Louis area was the site of one of the bloodiest race riots since the New York draft riots during the Civil War.
Local police and National Guardsmen mostly stood by, or even joined in, as a white mob from St. Louis crossed over the Mississippi River into East St. Louis and murdered or tortured dozens of African Americans and burned down their homes.
You can probably guess who got convicted afterward.
East St. Louis is technically a separate community across the Mississippi River in Illinois. At the turn of the 20th century, industrial barons began building factories and living quarters there to circumvent taxes and regulations pertaining to the Missouri city on the western side of the river.
The community was further transformed by an influx of African Americans, due to a larger trend known as the Great Migration, which accelerated with the U.S. entry into World War. As the military drafted millions of Americans, it caused labor shortages for a wartime economy hungry for factory workers.
Into that gap stepped African Americans, 90 percent of whom had lived in rural communities in the South. Promised better paying factory jobs, hundreds of thousands of black families traveled to Northern and Midwestern cities.
Many white labor unions, including most associated with the American Federation of Labor, refused to allow African Americans to join. So, when white workers at the Aluminum Ore Company in East St. Louis went on strike, factory owners brought in in black laborers to replace them for the same pay.
On May 23, 1917, a leader of the Central Trades & Labor Union issued a printed letter calling a meeting to organize “drastic action” to stop the “influx of undesirable Negroes.” Not only should action be taken to “retard the growing menace,” but they wished to demand measures be taken to “to get rid of a certain portion of those already there.”
In union meeting on May 28, the striking workers began exchanging rumors that black men had been seen in cars with white women. In the end, a thousand of the laborers marched into East St. Louis and went on a rampage, beating up locals and destroying several buildings.
The Illinois National Guard brought the violence under control relatively quickly, but daily attacks continued over the following weeks. East St. Louis blacks concluded from the incident that the authorities could not protect them from violence, so they began to form their own self-defense militia.
At top, a white mob hunts blacks in Chicago in 1919. Photo via Wikipedia
The situation didn’t boil over until a month late on July 1, 1917, when whites went “joyriding” in their cars into East St. Louis, taking potshots at black-owned houses, stores and churches. Eventually some of the locals assembled to protect themselves from the drive-by shootings.
Near midnight, the church bell rang in warning as a car raced down 10th Street and Bond in East St. Louis. A crowd of black men assembled to defend against further attacks opened fire with rifles, riddling the car.
In the vehicle were a journalist and two plainclothes police detectives, Samuel Coppedge and Frank Wadley, who had apparently been investigating the situation. Coppedge and Wadley died.
The following day a crowd gathered in St. Louis around the blood-stained car. Egged on by a lawyer calling for revenge, and receiving encouragement from local police, a mob formed and crossed into East St. Louis.
The orgy of violence which ensued played out like a sadistic carnival. “The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a manhunt, conducted on a sporting basis,” journalist Carlos Hurd, who had earlier interviewed survivors of the Titanic, wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “There was a horribly cool deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it.”
The mob poured in East St. Louis, shooting and beating every black person they encountered. Luella Cox, a white worker with Volunteers for America, witnessed a mob decapitate a black man with a butcher knife and toss his remains off a bridge. Then they stopped a trolley car crossing the bridge and pulled out all the African Americans they could find. When a black mother tried to protect her child from the beatings, she was shot in head.
Many accounts stressed that white women and children were eager participants in the carnage. Hurd described four young white women with pistols leading a mob gunning down blacks fleeing fires. Hugh L. Wood of the St. Louis Republic described a white women kicking wounded black men writhing on the street until “blood spurted onto her stockings.”
African Americans hid in any open building they could find. 1,500 took refuge in a municipal government office. Some sought refuge with white neighbors. In some instances, they received aid or protection. In other cases, whites refused to help and left them to the mercy of the mob. A woman denied shelter in her backyard to a fleeing family because “she kept chickens there.” An ambulance driver gave up on saving a black man when confronted by a mob.
Thousands of African Americans crossed to the relative safety of St. Louis via the Eads Bridge—until police shut down passage. One black family, after holding attackers at bay with a rifle, fled for the river under the cover of darkness. Building a raft out of driftwood and debris, they paddled across the Mississippi as they overheard the screams of those trapped on the eastern side.
Others swam across, sometimes while under rifle fire. In all more than 7,000 African Americans fled into St. Louis to escape the violence.
To kill those who were in hiding, members of the mob decided to set fire to their housing. Then they shot the residents as they came fleeing out of the buildings.
“The sheds in the rear of the Negroes’ houses … had been ignited to drive out the Negro occupants,” Hurd recalled. “It was stay in and be roasted or come out and be slaughtered. … One Negro had taken the desperate chance of coming out, and the rattle of revolved shots, which I heard as I approached the corner, was followed by the cry, ‘They’ve got him.’”
Another mob snatched a baby from a fleeing mother’s arms and threw it into the flames. Shortly afterward, they threw in the mother, as well.
Many of the dead and dying were lynched and their bodies mutilated with gunfire. Others were stoned to death or beaten with heavy rocks. Members of the mob collected souvenirs of clothing torn from the dead, and swaggered about the city in subsequent days bragging about their participation in the murders.
Some African Americans fought back against the mob. Hurd describes how two black men, cornered in a barbershop on 7th Street, wounded two white attackers with gunfire. The mob pulled back and set the barbershop on fire. The occupants killed one of their attackers and wounded a teenager boy in the mob, then were shot down as they fled the spreading flames.
More successfully, Leroy Bundy, a prominent black dentist, organized an armed self-defense force, estimated by some to be several hundred strong. Their guns prevented the advance of the mob deeper into East St. Louis. They received aid from a black mortician, who after smuggling refugees into St. Louis in his hearse, returned to East St. Louis with a load of guns.
The police and National Guard respond
The governor declared a state of emergency and dispatched the Illinois National Guard. At best, the troops were described as occasionally stepping in to prevent some victims of the mob from being beaten entirely to death.
But even white observers agreed that the police and Guardsmen mostly did little to prevent the violence happening right in front of them, and in some instances, even participated in the burning and murders.
Their most forceful actions invariably targeted the black population. They arrested Bundy’s self-defense force, after which the white mob burned down homes they had been guarding. “Instead of being guardians of peace, they became part of the mob,” a Congressional investigation later concluded.
Rena Cook’s story is typical of many recorded after the incident. “While returning from a fishing trip, we were met by a mob at Colinsville and Broadway who stopped the car and had the white people get out,” she recalled. “They came in and dragged my husband and son out, beating them at the same time. … They shot both my husband and son, killing them instantly. Two policemen stood by, but did not interfere. The mob came back in the car and ran me out and beat me into insensibility.”
A group of National Guard and police shot the arm off Mineola McGee, a 20-year old chambermaid, while she was on her way to work.
After a night of horrific bloodshed, additional units of the Illinois National Guard arrived from Springfield. The troops stopped a lynching in progress and, unlike the first units to respond, began arresting dozens of the white assailants, eventually restoring order.
The incident created a shock across the nation. Even white-owned newspapers such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did not hesitate to hold whites responsible for the slaughter, and the local security forces culpable for failing to act until far too late.
W.E.B. DuBois, the legendary civil rights leader, and Martha Gruening, a young journalist and activist of German-Jewish descent, arrived just a few days later to begin collecting testimony from witnesses of the massacre.
In their report, Gruening recounted that two militiamen from L Troop bragged to her that they had aided the mob in drowning seven black men in Cahokia Creek. They further mentioned that they had orders to shoot anyone starting fires, but that all they saw were “niggers flying.” Instead, they took away the weapons of all African Americans they encountered.
When Gruening reported this to a military board of inquiry, she received a response that should sound eerily familiar. “Yes, such jesting was in bad taste, but boys will be boy,” an official stated. “At any rate identification [of the perpetrators] was impossible because the Olney troops [from Olney, Illinois] had been withdrawn.”
Gruening offered to go to Olney to identify the two Guardsmen. But the military board said the offer was too late … and “unnecessary.”
As she was about to leave, the board laid on her a solemn charge. “Young lady, as a writer, you have a heavy responsibility. If you go away and give the world the impression that the boys of the Illinois militia or their officers failed in their duty, you will be doing a serious injustice. We have gone exhaustively into the evidence. We have followed up every accusation made against Illinois Guardsmen and we find not a single instance in which they misconducted themselves.”
Mineola McGee after being shot by the Illinois National Guard. Photo by The Crisis
Punishing the victims
An official government report concluded that eight whites and 39 African Americans were killed in East St. Louis. The true death toll for the latter is generally thought to be around 100 or more. Three hundred buildings had burned down, including entire city blocks that remain barren to this day.
During a ceremony at Carnegie Hall, AFL leader Samuel Gompers blamed the violence on the factory owners for bringing black workers. A furious former president Theodore Roosevelt, also present, snapped that “there was no excuse.”
“In the past I have listened to the same form of excuse advanced on behalf of the Russian autocracy for pogroms of Jews,” Roosevelt said. “Not for a moment shall I acquiesce in any apology for the murder of women and children in our own country.”
The NAACP published an investigation in The Crisis detailing the savagery of the assault and the failure of the authorities to bring a stop to it. On July 28 it organized a Silent March in New York that involved 10,000 participants.
Unfortunately, sitting U.S. president Woodrew Wilson was notorious for his racists views, and the first team sent from Washington to investigate the matter concluded there were “no grounds for an investigation.” But Congress held hearings on the violence in August 1917 and eventually compelled the Wilson administration to hold an investigation, anyway. It took a year before Wilson made a statement condemning the riots.
The investigation led to the indictment of 100 individuals. Trials were held and 35 people were convicted for inciting rioting. Twenty-five of them were black, including the leader of the self-defense force, Leroy Bundy.
Seven policemen were indicted for arson and murder. In the end, only three pleaded guilty and had to pay a $150 fine. A colonel in the Illinois National Guard was forced to resign.
The East St. Louis riots were only the beginning of the trend. In 1919 and 1920, as white soldiers returned from World War I and competed with African Americans for employment, race riots killed hundreds in big cities including Chicago, Knoxville and Washington, D.C., as well as in smaller towns such as Ocoee, Florida and Elaine, Arkansas.
One hundred years later, the East St. Louis riots have been forgotten by many natives of the area. But that incident, and countless other episodes of mass violence and terrorism such as the more than 4,000 public lynchings of African Americans that occurred between 1870 and 1950, both reflected and helped propagate a long lasting feeling that public security institutions did not serve to protect black communities.