It was the summer of 1917, a Monday in July, and smoke billowed thick and charcoal dark above East St. Louis. The city was burning. Across the Mississippi River, refugees who had fled to St. Louis watched the flames overtake the horizon. The distant crackle of gunfire carried through the night.
What would enter the historical canon as the "East St. Louis race riot" amounted to a two-day nightmare for the city's black residents. Primed by months of racist fear-mongering from union leaders and newspapers, roving mobs of armed whites — men and women, young and old — took to the streets on the evening of July 2, 1917. They tore through the Illinois city, wrenching black men and women from streetcars and setting fire to black-owned homes.
Carnage wracked the city. Blacks were indiscriminately shot and beaten with paving stones; others were lynched from telephone poles or left to bleed out in the street. The butchery did not cease until a show of force by Illinois National Guardsmen on July 3. Even then, sporadic arsons and beatings continued into the coming weeks.
The attacks began with a case of mistaken identity — and a thirst for revenge. Interviews conducted by the St. Louis Argus (and echoed in a later congressional inquiry) spoke of a weeks-long wave of terror leading up to the deadly evening where mass violence ignited: "Negroes...waylaid and beaten by white thugs, without provocation, daily."
The match was struck the night of July 1. It was a day featuring multiple reports of beatings — one black man was said to have shot his attackers and escaped, but the evening would bring a drive-by shooting targeting black residents. The Argus reported: "An automobile traversed a portion of the Colored district, speeding at a rapid rate and its occupants shooting into the homes of the residents."
In response, armed blacks mobilized themselves into a defense force. But when they fired back, they struck the wrong target.
Around midnight, two plain-clothed detectives driving into a black neighborhood were mistaken for the shooters. In a moment of confusion, a crowd of armed black men, roused by the ringing of a church bell calling residents to defend their neighborhood, fired on the officers, killing both.
Less than 24 hours later, the East St. Louis police department turned a blind eye as white rioters called for a bloody solution to what one union leader had previously called "the influx of undesirable negroes."
See also: First-Hand Accounts Show the Horror of East Louis' 1917 Race Riot
Samuel Kennedy was barely seven years old when the mob came to his family's home on Piggot Avenue, near the south end of town. Night had already fallen on July 2.
The Kennedy home was little more than a shack, and as the rioters blasted bullets through the windows and set fire to the walls, little Samuel followed his mother and a handful of siblings out a side door.
The rioters had blocked a nearby bridge. (According to one witness, members of the mob had decapitated a woman and left her body and head lying on opposite sides of the bridge's entrance ramp — a warning to blacks seeking escape.) So Samuel Kennedy followed his mother across the railroad tracks. On the way, the remaining family members gathered driftwood and salvaged bits of the burned houses, anything wooden and somewhat stable. They carried the items to the river's edge.
The raft, when it was ready, was a shoddy but seaworthy vessel. It took them hours of paddling to finally wobble the improvised lifeboat across the Mississippi. Safe on the Missouri side, Samuel looked back at the glowing city. The screams of its residents drifted over the water. It was a sound he'd never forget.
Even in wartime (the U.S. had entered World War I in April), news of the massacre dominated every local paper, and what reporters described was nothing less than mass murder. The massacre's victims, wrote St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Carlos Hurd in one of the first published eyewitness accounts, had been issued a "death warrant" based only on the color of their skin.
"I saw man after man," Hurd recounted, "with hands raised, pleading for his life, surrounded by groups of men — men who had never seen him before and knew nothing about him except that he was black — and saw them administer the historic sentence of intolerance, death by stoning."
The mob-driven chaos raged until the afternoon of July 3. Later attempts to calculate the death toll were complicated by widespread dumping and burning of bodies, but most historians estimate that between 40 and 200 people perished and hundreds more were injured. The white mobs further destroyed hundreds of black homes, as well as businesses and industries perceived to have employed the "undesirable negroes." Around 7,000 black residents fled to St. Louis. Many stayed there permanently, choosing to forsake the city which had so viciously cast them out.
There were no terms for this sort of catastrophe. What does it mean when a mother and child are shot, one after the other, and then thrown into a burning house to die, owing only to the color of their skin? The words for "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" were decades from invention. Some historians would eventually borrow the word "pogrom," used for the wave of ethnic killings that targeted Jews in Russia in the 1880s.
There is another word to describe what happened in East St. Louis in 1917, and it is the term Samuel Kennedy used when he finally told his own sons what he had witnessed that terrible summer.
"The story that was passed to us by our father, by our uncle, by our aunts and cousins who were all survivors — they called it 'the race war,'" recalls Terry Kennedy, a St. Louis city alderman like his father. Samuel Kennedy represented the city's 18th ward from 1967 until his death in 1988.
Terry Kennedy pointedly avoids referring to a "race riot."
"It wasn't a riot for them," he says of survivors like his father. "It was a fight for their very life and existence."
There are streets in East St. Louis that lead nowhere but the past. Next to a college campus parking lot, a curb seems to open into a thoroughfare. The pavement runs about a foot and abruptly ends, as if swallowed into an otherwise well-maintained field of grass.
There are other ghost roads like this one, some still showing century-old red brick poking through the ground. When those bricks were first laid, the land where Southern Illinois University's East St. Louis Center currently sits held a neighborhood of black and white families, segregated by mere blocks and crammed up against a railway line.
There are no known living survivors of the East St. Louis race war, but many people still want to mark its 100th anniversary. Six weeks before the actual date, on the last Friday in May, the East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission kicks off a two-day conference in one of the college's multipurpose rooms, aiming to commemorate the deadly events and to remember those who were lost.
The keynote speaker is historian Dr. Charles Lumpkins. Through first-hand survivor interviews and years of research, Lumpkins came to the conclusion that there was more to the destruction than just some random or inevitable explosion of racial hatred. The violence, he argued in his 2008 book American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics, had been fomented not only by union leaders wishing to rid the city of strikebreakers, but also corrupt white businessmen who sought to end black political influence.
"It's been painted as a race riot, white against black, black against white, white folks shooting at black folks and black folks shooting at white folks," Lumpkins says, addressing a crowd of about 60. But that wasn't the case, he says.
Urging them to preserve and study East St. Louis' bloody past, Lumpkins notes the horrific events of July 2 and 3 played a significant role in the country's broader history of anti-black atrocities. In the race war's shadow, early civil rights icons like NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois and anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells rose to even greater influence, as their work documented the atrocities and shamed complicit East St. Louis city officials. The attention on East St. Louis inspired the "Silent Parade" on July 28, 1917, that drew 10,000 blacks in New York City to protest lynchings and call for a federal investigation into the "race riot." It is considered among the first examples of public protest for black civil rights.
For Lumpkins, though, the broader historical importance cannot eclipse the incomprehensible human suffering.
"As a historian, I try to choke back the tears," he continues. "These are human beings, and that's what we have to remember. Some of you have roots in this city, and that hurt, that trauma, might be passed on down from one generation to the next."
For many years, the appalling stories were passed generation to generation, and the official records were largely forgotten. The transcripts of survivor interviews, which were conducted in the following year by congressional investigators, spent nearly 50 years collecting dust before SIU-Carbondale sociology professor Elliott Rudwick stumbled upon them while researching his groundbreaking 1964 book Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917.
Still, it took 80 years to have a major commemoration acknowledging what East St. Louis' black community lived through in 1917.
It was Samuel Kennedy's twin sons who organized the 1997 event, nine years after their father's death. Two decades later, on the second day of the 2017 centennial conference, Terry and Dhati Kennedy enter the SIUE auditorium dressed in white dashikis and accompanied by a line of drummers.
For the Kennedy brothers, the events of 1917 are not subjects of academic curiosity. The stories are an essential piece of their family bloodline, passed father to son. Today those stories are preserved by a dwindling number of storytellers.
"My father told me," says Dhati, taking the microphone from his brother, "he saw people burned to death. How they'd run out of their houses like human torches, and white people just shooting them down. How people were dragged off the street car and beat and hanged."
Samuel Kennedy had tried to suppress the horrific memories of his youth. But his sons were perceptive. They heard snippets from their uncles and cousins. When Dhati was fourteen, he found himself alone with his father on a drive. Dhati worked up the courage and asked him the question that dogged his childhood: "What happened to our family in East St. Louis?"
The elder Kennedy pulled the car over, and the story spilled out. He told Dhati about the beatings, the fires, and, in methodical detail, the raft and the nighttime journey over the Mississippi.
During an interview at St. Louis City Hall one week after the centennial conference, Terry breaks in at this part of his brother's story.
"When we learned about the raft as children, it of course seemed kind of loony," he says. But he notes with relish that when he contacted his grandmother's side of the family, which had moved years ago to Washington, D.C., he was surprised to hear that they too had grown up hearing about the makeshift raft and daring river journey.
"There had to be some validity to it," concludes Terry. "They had the exact same story."
The Kennedy brothers' desire to honor the sacrifices of their father and other survivors spurred them to action in 1997. At the 80th anniversary commemoration, hundreds marched through downtown East St. Louis as a memorial to those who died on its streets.
By 1997, the survivors who were able to attend were already into their 70s and 80s. One woman, Scotia Calhoun, was 100 years old. She had lived on Piggot Avenue in the south part of town, and she herself had watched the Kennedy house collapse in flames.
Dhati remembers the moment he told her his name. She said, "Baby, your people all died."
Dhati smiles at the memory.
"But they didn't," he told her. "They didn't all die."
To anyone paying attention, the weeks and months preceding July 2, 1917, contained plenty of evidence that a disaster was on the horizon for East St. Louis.
In the 20th century's first two decades, waves of Southern blacks followed reports of jobs in Northern industrial towns. The positions, they were told, were high-paying, affording the prospect for families to escape the lynchings and servitude that remained in place in the South.
Thousands arrived in East St. Louis, but the hopeful working men found themselves pitted as strikebreakers against the unions, whose lengthy battles with the area's smelting plants and stockyards had resulted in hundreds of white workers walking off the job in protest.
The bitterness of these white workers was further abetted by a city notorious for crime and almost completely given to vice and corruption.
Then a community of about 60,000, East St. Louis sat just over the river from its bigger, boomtown cousin. St. Louis boasted a population of 600,000 and growing. Just 5 percent of its residents were black. East St. Louis' black occupancy, meanwhile, would roughly double in the seven years leading up to 1917 — swelling to about one-sixth of the Illinois city's total residents.
One year prior, the residents of St. Louis passed a ballot measure putting segregation laws on the books. While Illinois had outlawed such formal discrimination, racism and separatism persisted in East St. Louis all the same.
And while factories, smelting plants and railway lines provided employment, East St. Louis was less a city than a collection of lawless fiefdoms stitched together into a bad caricature of a civil government and law enforcement. Factories were intentionally built outside city limits to stiff the city on tax revenue. The mayor was barely a figurehead; the actual power brokers were businessmen and industrialists whose bribes animated their pick of corrupt politicians.
Into this environment entered thousands of black workers; they made their homes just blocks from whites, shopped in the same downtown stores and, crucially, were seen as competition for the same jobs.
The tension of this relatively sudden integration was later described in a congressional investigation, whose final report was delivered one year after the riots.
"White women were afraid to walk the streets at night," the report claimed, characterizing the concerns of East St. Louis' white residents and business leaders. "Negros sat in their laps on street cars; black women crowded them from their seats; they were openly insulted by drunken Negroes. The low saloons and gambling houses were crowded with idle vagabonds; the dance halls in the Negro sections were filled with prostitutes, half clad, in some instances naked, performing lewd dances."
By 1917, tensions between white workers and black strikebreakers intensified. Prominent members of the black community began to see the coming storm all too clearly. That summer, blacks began drilling in secret, gathering arms and preparing for the worst.
On May 28, 1917, a local man named Alexander Flannigan took control of a city council meeting. Flannigan, described in the congressional report as "an attorney of some ability and no character," advised the crowd that blacks couldn't move into the neighborhood if they never reached the front door. "As far as I know," he told the people assembled, "there is no law against mob violence."
Numbering over 1,000, the white mob fanned into the streets, beating several black bystanders and burning a handful of homes and business. On this occasion, however, soldiers from Illinois National Guard were able to halt the violent tide before people started dying.
Pressure built over the next month. As the Argus indicated, unprovoked beatings happened daily, and the violent attacks increased in frequency and severity. At this point, it would only take a spark to set the whole town ablaze.
One hundred years later, on a recent afternoon, SIUE professor and East St. Louis historian Andrew Theising angles his red Nissan SUV out of the college parking lot and hangs a right onto 8th Street. There are no street signs, however, so Theising counts the blocks until he gets to Bond Avenue.
In 1917, "all this used to be houses," he says, gesturing as he drives to barren stretches of gravel crowded by vegetation and overhanging trees. He pulls up to 10th Street and Bond. It was here, on the evening of July 1, that two plainclothes police officers drove through the intersection in a black Model T Ford.
"There had been some shooting in the neighborhood, over at 17th and Market," Theising recounts. A crowd of several hundred armed blacks, drawn by the ringing of the church bell, arrived to defend the neighborhood from additional drive-by attacks.
"So this unmarked police car came," says Theising, "and it would have been totally dark, no street lights down this way. Right about here is where the officers were shot."
The next day, the blood-spattered and bullet-riddled vehicle sat parked across the street from the police station, and the grim sight attracted a hostile crowd of white men. In his 2008 book Never Been a Time, St. Louis journalist Harper Barnes cites the accounts of newspapermen on the scene who witnessed a sharply dressed lawyer named John Seymour approach the mob.
"[Seymour] said he would be happy to defend anyone who could 'avenge the murders of the two policemen,'" Barnes writes. "The crowd cheered. Policemen standing nearby bantered with the angry white men, and it became apparent to bystanders that they were making it clear, intentionally or not, that they would do nothing that day to stop white men from killing blacks."
Police officers and soldiers would later be implicated for much worse than offering tacit approval to the violence. Two policemen and three soldiers were accused of shooting the arm off a twenty-year-old woman. "Instead of being guardians of the peace," the congressional report noted, "they became part of the mob."
Additional reinforcements from the Illinois National Guard marched into town in the early hours of July 3. The divisions deployed immediately, quelling the most intense violence by placing hundreds of white rioters under arrest.
By then, thousands had fled across bridges to Missouri. Some 1,500 blacks sheltered in East St. Louis municipal buildings; when they finally emerged, the city that greeted them must have looked like a hellscape.
More than 300 buildings had been burned, leaving entire neighborhoods decimated. The official death total came to nine white men and 39 black men, women and children. It was an absurdly low estimation. Other accounts placed the black death toll as high as 500. Contemporary historians like Theising believe the number is closer to 100.
"Illinois had a reparation law, and here's where the inability to count bodies really hurt people financially," he notes. "We've tried to find coroner records, and so much of them have been destroyed, if they were even accurate to begin with."
An unknown number of victims were burned inside houses, though it's debatable whether the flames could have completely obliterated the bodies. It's more likely that Cahokia Creek hid many atrocities. In 1917, the waterway ran through the sunken city, coursing under bridges and streets before washing out into the Mississippi.
Theising stops the car at an unassuming intersection that faces an old railway bridge. Piles of grain dropped by passing semis swirl on the pavement. Theising consults a printed map, a list of "sacred sites" he's compiled to help visitors taking self-guided tours.
"I think it was in this very spot," he says, tracing dotted red lines on the paper, which show where the creek once ran. "Either the bodies would have floated underneath us right now, if they were dumped at Broadway, or they were just dumped here. I think they were just dumped from here. This was closer to where people died."
In the fall of 1917, more than 100 people, white and black, were indicted on crimes including murder, rioting and arson. Thirteen people, all black, stood trial for the murder of the two plain-clothed detectives on July 1. Ten were ultimately jailed with fourteen-year sentences. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the convictions.
But in the end, only a handful of the white mob's ringleaders faced jail time, and police officers and soldiers who were found to have participated in the massacre largely escaped punishment.
That was not true of one black resident who tried to defend his community from the attackers.
A black dentist named Leroy Bundy had organized the self-defense forces that repulsed the white mob from attacking deeper into black neighborhoods. He was accused of causing the riots, and after a sham trial he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Bundy's conviction was overturned in 1920 by the Illinois Supreme Court.
In the end, despite a congressional investigation and widespread outrage at inhumane crimes committed against innocent blacks, there was little justice for the victims. The colonel behind the bungled first response of the Illinois National Guard avoided a court martial and was allowed to resign, an offer similarly extended to city's police chief. East St. Louis mayor Fred Mollman was indicted for "malfeasance in office," but the charge was later dropped. Mollman served out the rest of his two-year term and then retired from politics.
Although a grand jury indicted seven police officers for murder, rioting and conspiracy, state prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges, and instead allowed three officers to plead guilty to rioting and pay a $150 fine. No city or police official faced further punishment for their inaction on July 2 and 3. The mob spirit seemed to melt back into the fabric of East St. Louis. The city moved on.
There are still those who remember the race war.
At first, the task of keeping the stories of East St. Louis' bloodiest summer alive fell to journalists and historians. Although the last decade saw a spike in scholarship on the subject, the strongest contemporary push for preserving the race war's legacy has come from descendants like Ann Walker, whose family arrived in East St. Louis in 1910.
In the early 2000s, Walker won a grant to develop programming that would highlight the African American experience in Illinois. That experience, naturally, included the state's three major race riots of the twentieth century.
Crisscrossing the state, Walker had found groups of interested community members and amateur historians — at least that was the case in Springfield, where in 1908 a white mob murdered a half-dozen blacks and burned businesses and homes. It was also the case in Chicago, where a massive 1919 race riot was sparked when a white beachgoer struck a swimming black youth in the head with a rock, causing him to drown.
But in East St. Louis, there were blank stares. The city's residents did not know the stories behind the intersections they passed each day, the blood that had been spilled there.
"East St. Louis was a weakest link on the chain, in terms of cultural memory," says Walker. "I'd get these kind of responses: 'I've never heard of that,' or 'Can you tell me more?'"
Walker organized commemorations in East St. Louis, events that ran from 2004 to 2006. But even with her efforts, the Kennedys' work in 1997 and this year's conference, the atrocities remain under the radar for many locals. Even today, East St. Louis still lacks a permanent monument to the events of 1917. Aside from history books, museums and courses in African American studies, few learn of its horrors.
The passage of time has taken much from East St. Louis. Its population dwindled from a peak of more than 80,000 in the 1950s to less than 30,000 today. The city, suggests Walker, is an example of how the horrors of trauma can suppress its transmission.
"My people don't want to talk about it," she says. "They don't want to talk about the race riots, and a lot of that is because the history has been whitewashed. It casts us in a weak light, instead of understanding that having survived all of that is a demonstration of strength, not weakness."
Marvin Teer grew up knowing the difference. His father had been a toddler when his family fled East St. Louis in 1917, but he made sure to pass the stories of resistance and bravery to his own children.
It wasn't just men and women butchered like sheep. There were heroes, like the mortician who delivered refugees to safety in St. Louis — and then returned to Illinois with a hearse full of guns to arm the black defenders.
"Whites came into the black neighborhood after a church was set afire, and they were met with sincere resistance, unexpected resistance," Teer says, recalling one of his father's stories. "It was empowerment. It was saying, 'You will not kill us indiscriminately.'''
Teer doesn't maintain rosy illusions about the events of 1917. The horror that shocked a nation faded quickly, and the succeeding decades brought with them segregation and Jim Crow. Teer's father, Marvin Sr., spent years working in white country clubs that would not accept him or his children.
Still, Teer's father would later become a schoolteacher at Vashon High School and go on to found a transportation company serving seniors. His son is now a state judge who presides over workers' compensation cases.
Marvin O. Teer Sr. died in 2010, at age 97. He may have been the last living survivor of the race war.
"I don't think of it as something epic," explains Teer. The stories of destruction and survival are part of a path, one traced from slavery to the present day. He mentions Santayana's oft-cited quotation — that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
"It's one thing to remember something," he points out. "It's another to talk about it."