The city of East St. Louis, Ill. was the site of a violent race riot on this day in 1917, just as tensions between white and Black residents were at their highest. The riot, which lasted for days, has been considered the worst labor-related riot of the 20th Century and one of the worst race riots in history.
East St. Louis was one of the emerging industrial cities of the South, and the Great Migration led many Black workers seeking greater opportunities to the predominately white town. In February 1917, 470 Black workers took over jobs vacated by striking white union laborers. The resentment that Blacks were earning money coupled with the scarcity of jobs led to a smaller, racially-motivated skirmish in May of that year.
On July 1, 1917, rumors spread throughout town that a white man was killed by a Black man. The news set off a flurry of angry white mobs ravaging Black homes unleashing unspeakable violence against men, women, and children. Drive-by shootings, arson, lynching and beatings took the lives of hundreds of Blacks, according to varying reports.
The riots ended around July 8, the same day Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) leader Marcus Garvey spoke out against the riots that authorities did nothing to help Blacks under attack. Some historians say that Garvey’s response to the riots put him on the national map and shifted his focus away from his work in the West Indies and onto African-American concerns.
The NAACP sent W.E.B. Du Bois to investigate the riots, which led to the publication of his report, “The East St. Louis Massacre” featured in The Crisis magazine.
The NAACP also staged a silent march (pictured) on July 28 of that year in support of the Black citizens of East St. Louis. It was the first silent march by the civil rights organization, a tradition that continues today.
(Photo: NAACP archives, Public Domain)