Ida B. Wells-Barnett, in a contemporary account, called it “the greatest scandal of the century”. WEB Du Bois devoted an entire chapter of his 1920 memoir, “Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil”, to the riot, which he described in almost apocalyptic terms:
White men even chased black union members from their unions, and when the black men, beaten at night and assaulted, took up arms and fought back at the marauders, five thousand rioters arose and rolled in like a crested storm surge, from noon to midnight; they killed, beat and murdered; they broke the brains of children and stripped the clothes of women; they pushed the victims into the flames and hung the helpless from the light poles. Fathers were killed in front of mothers’ faces; the children were burned; heads were chopped off with axes; pregnant women crawled and spawned in dark, damp fields; the thieves passed through the houses and the firebrands followed; bodies were thrown from bridges; and stones and bricks flew through the air.
The context of the riot is generally simple. St. Louis at the time was one of the largest cities in the United States, with a population of nearly 700,000. St. Louis and East St. Louis, a neighboring community across the river in Illinois, were home to a number of major industries that during the World War I years attracted black migrants from South and white migrants from all over the country, as well as immigrants from Europe.
For Du Bois, there were two forces that made this an explosive situation. The first was white racism, which kept or drove black workers out of unions and divided labor in the city. “The best electrician in town was denied union admission and kicked out of town because he was black,” Du Bois wrote. “No black builder, printer, or machinist could join a union or work in East St. Louis, regardless of skill or character.”
The second was the war in Europe. It has supercharged the demand for industrial products like steel and aluminum, which, in turn, has supercharged the demand for labor. When white workers took advantage of this demand to strike for higher wages, employers used black workers—excluded from union work—as scabs and scabs. “There were black men here,” Du Bois wrote, trying to capture the rage of white workers, “guilty not only of having applied for jobs which white men could have filled at the cost of war, even if they couldn’t fill them, but also guilty of being black!”
In a more recent account, “American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics,” historian Charles L. Lumpkins argues for a third force, namely politics. As their population grew, “African Americans in East St. Louis became adept at mobilizing as an electoral bloc, swinging elections, and winning patronage.” By 1915, he continues, “black residents had become … a source of fear for white residents who believed that black voters held ‘the balance of political power’.” And as an “increasingly assertive black population has reshaped the city’s political culture,”
white political bosses and progressive reformers affirmed their determination to reverse the expansion of black political power which they saw as a threat to white rights. In 1917, the agents of the State will opt for violence to solve the “negro problem”.
The violence began on May 28, 1917, after the Aluminum Ore Company hired several hundred black workers to replace white workers who had gone on strike. At a city council meeting that evening, nearly 1,000 people gathered to “protest to the mayor against the influx of Negroes”, writes Lumpkins. During the meeting, “two white city police detectives passed on the message that patrol officers had just arrested a black man for shooting a white man.” As the timing was right, people rushed to the city jail, attempting to arrest and lynch the suspect. There were assaults on nearby black residents and property damage, but the spirit of the mob finally left the crowd.
It will reappear on July 2 and 3, organized and supported by personalities from the white political class. “The July pogrom represented a political solution planned by certain white realtors, politicians and businessmen,” writes Lumpkins. “July’s mass racial violence accomplished what the May riot failed to accomplish: the elimination of the influential role of the black community in local electoral politics.”