The Last Race Riot in Missouri – 1917

Two nights ago Piaget Crenshaw, a witness to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, released a video of the incident, and recalled what is fast becoming the accepted course of events – that Brown was shot dead while surrendering to police. Officer Darren White fired the fatal shot, one of six to hit Brown.

Although the story is compelling, its central characters have almost been lost in the broader discussion of police violence. Again America has received a brutal reminder of the tenacity of its racial past, of the fact that invisible lines continue to divide communities and often manifest in tragedy.

Much has been made of the fact that St Louis blacks actually did not riot in 1960s, or as the Washington Post declared ‘St Louis doesn’t riot.’ However to characterize this as an historically racially harmonious community is false.  St Louis does not have a clean  record on this score.

100 Years Earlier

On 2 July 1917 East St Louis was site to one of the worst race riots in US history. Lynchings and beatings were meted out in response to black employment in Aluminium Ore and Aluminium Steel Companies, which both held government contracts, in what Marcus Garvey called ‘one of the bloodiest outrages of mankind.’

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Marcus Garvey

Throughout the early war years southern blacks migrated north to fill jobs in booming, labour intensive industries. Competition within these industries often held to racial lines, with white unions intimidating and excluding black workers so as to advance their own position.

Riots Break Out

Tensions were clearly high when the Illinois governor was forced to call in the National Guard to quell minor riots in May 1917. Simmering antipathies turned into open violence when on July 2 a group of white men drove into the black neighborhood of East St. Louis and opened fire on pedestrians.

Rioting and fighting soon spread throughout the city. There were multiple lynchings before National Guardsmen were called up, and several accounts attest that they joined in the killing.

Whites employed the most brutal methods, stabbing, clubbing and hanging at least 40 blacks in total. The city police chief estimated the total was nearer 100, and the NAACP between 100 and 200. 8 whites were also killed  and around 6,000 blacks were driven from their homes.

NAACP Protests the Killing

To protest the incident the NAACP staged a silent parade down 5th Ave. in New York City.

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NAACP silent protest on New York’s 5th Ave.

Woodrow Wilson Steps In

German propaganda looked to magnify and exploit the incident, and President Woodrow Wilson, a man whom the historical community has almost universally labelled as deeply racist, publicly denounced mob violence and lynchings. In these mid-war years there had been 92 such incidents in the USA.

Almost 100 years later the scars of such conflicts are still visible.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.