A Dark Legacy
It was an incident of such vicious barbarism the nation was shocked into action. On July 6, 1917, representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and business owners in East St. Louis met with the mayor to demand the resignation of the police chief and for extensive reform in the police department. Newspaper writers, outraged by the rioting, accused the mayor of having allowed a “reign of lawlessness.” The death toll may have been the primary focus of news stories, but the cost of extensive property damage was another cause for outrage. The Southern Railway Company loss claims included a warehouse and more than one hundred carloads of merchandise valued at more than $525,000. A theater valued at more than $100,000 had been burned, and at least 312 homes were destroyed.
Even though this, the race riots in Springfield, Illinois and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and similar incidents during the first decades of the 20th century predated certification of Route 66, I included these stories of racial strife and prejudice fueled violence in cities along that highway corridor in my latest book, Murder and Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66. They were necessary to provide insight into American society of the era and the role prejudice played in crimes committed during the glory days of Route 66.
In 1917, in East St. Louis long simmering racial tensions reached a boiling point. As in Springfield, the immigration of African Americans from the south fueled deep rooted prejudices. By 1910 the African American population in East St. Louis was six thousand, a number that doubled by 1917 as factories were desperate for workers to fill war-contract quotas. In February 1917, the predominately white workforce at the Aluminum Ore Company went on strike. In retaliation and to prevent a decline in production, the company hired African American workers as replacements.
On the heels of a fiery city council meeting on May 28 where angry white workers lodged formal complaints, the rumor of an attempted robbery of a white man by an armed black man spread through the city like a wild fire. Late that afternoon an enraged mob poured into the streets beating any African Americans they encountered and vandalizing storefronts. As the violence increased, the governor dispatched the National Guard to restore order. By mid-June, an uneasy calm descended on the city and the soldiers withdrew. This, however, was only act one. On the first day of July, groups of white men drove through African American neighborhoods and indiscriminately fired guns at the houses.
Armed African Americans, some military veterans, took to the street, and in one incident shots were fired into an oncoming car in what they believed to be self-defense. Tragically, the two men killed were police officers, Detective Sergeant Samuel Coppedge and Detective Frank Wadley, who had been called out to investigate the drive-by shootings. The following morning, after a meeting in the Labor Temple where crowds were whipped into a frenzy of anger and hatred, attendees swarmed onto the streets where they savagely beat blacks with guns, rocks, and pipes. As the mod grew in size, homes were firebombed, fleeing residents were shot, and there were impromptu lynchings.
Carlos F. Hurd, a reporter who had gained notoriety in 1912 for his heart-wrenching interviews with survivors of the RMS Titanic sinking, wrote a detailed eyewitness account that was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 3. He opened his feature with, “For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless Negroes at Broadway and 4th Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where black skin was a death warrant. The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a man hunt, conducted on a sporting basis, though with anything but the fair play which is the principle of sport,” he wrote. “There was a horribly cool deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it. ‘Get a nigger’ was the slogan, and it was varied by the recurrent cry, ‘Get another!’” The Crisis featured additional articles that provided details of mayhem, brutality, and outright horror: a person beheaded with a butcher knife, a twelve-year-old African American girl pulled from a trolley bus, and the girl’s mother attacked and left for dead with a gaping hole in her head.
A federal investigation and hearings before the Committee on Rules in the House of Representatives in August led to indictments. Among those brought to trial to account for the tragic events was Dr. Leroy Bundy, a dentist and prominent leader in the East St. Louis African American community. In the rush to judgment, he was formally charged with inciting a riot. Bundy was given prison time in connection to the riot, along with thirty-four other defendants, ten of whom were white.
Perhaps the most egregious race riot of the era occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The incident now known as the Tulsa race massacre was actually the culmination of a serious incidents, including the lynching of two African Americans the year prior. On May 30, 1921, a nineteen-year-old shoe shine man named Dick Rowland, stepped into the elevator of the Drexel Building. Accounts vary in detail, but according to later testimony Rowland either tripped and fell or was jostled against Sarah Page, the seventeen-year-old elevator operator, and stepped on her foot. She screamed. Witnesses claimed that Rowland had made sexual advances toward Page.
Rowland was arrested that same day and held, pending investigation of the incident. That evening a lengthy editorial entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight” was published in the Tulsa Tribune fueled growing tensions. By 7:30 p.m. the following evening, a crowd was gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse. Vocal elements in the mob demanded that Dick Rowland be surrendered to them, but the sheriff steadfastly refused. Reports of the growing mob circulated throughout Tulsa, and in the Greenwood District apprehension mounted. In response, a group of African American men, many of whom were veterans of WWI, went to the courthouse with the intent to aid authorities. The sheriff wisely rejected the offer of assistance and asked the men to quietly return to their homes.
The Greenwood District of Tulsa was more than a prosperous, progressive African American community. It was a shining light for reformers and was often highlighted to bolster arguments that African-Americans were equals to whites. As a testimony to the district’s affluence, in the years following WWI the district was often referred to as Black Wall Street. The vibrant neighborhoods supported two newspapers, numerous churches, a library, and scores of prosperous African American owned businesses.
After being rebuffed by the sheriff members of the mob stormed the National Guard armory but were turned back by guardsmen on duty. Then shortly before midnight, a rumor swept through the Greenwood district that the all-white mob was attacking the courthouse. A group of nearly one hundred armed men, many of whom were veterans, from the Greenwood District again went there with an offer of assistance to the law enforcement officers guarding the jail and courthouse. Again, the offer was rejected and the men turned away. As they made their way through the crowd, a scuffle ensued, an attempt was made to disarm an African American veteran, and a shot was fired.
The following morning, just after daybreak, thousands of armed white men gathered on the outskirts of the Greenwood district and swept into the area as a horde. By late afternoon in some areas, such as along the tracks for the Frisco Railroad, the riot became a pitched battle as African Americans fought back. Pedestrians were viciously beaten, windows were smashed, fires set, and cars were overturned and torched cars. There was extensive looting of businesses and homes. As the violence escalated there were reports of unarmed men, women, and even children being shot in the streets. Among the slain was A. C. Jackson, a renowned African American surgeon, who reportedly was shot after he surrendered to a group of vigilantes. At one point a machine gun was used indiscriminately. The unprecedented violence led Oklahoma governor James B. A. Robertson to declare martial law and order the National Guard to restore order.
The riot had transformed more than thirty-five city blocks of businesses and homes into charred ruins. more than a thousand people were treated for injuries, and there were an unknown number of deaths. In the investigation that followed Dick Rowland was exonerated of all charges and an all-white grand jury laid the blame for the riot and destruction on the citizens of the Greenwood District. Not a single vigilante was sent to prison for the murders and arson. The Greenwood District was devastated and thousands of residents spent the winter of 1921, as well as much at that year, living in tents. Many chose to relocate. Tulsa was transformed by the riot.
The reverberations of these incidents are with us today and are made manifest in the call for police reform that followed the death of George Floyd, and the senseless destruction of American cities that are accompanying protests. In Tulsa the Greenwood District was rebuilt in the decade that followed, but many families moved west. They followed Route 66 to California. Not surprisingly, for many years the Tulsa riot, and the incidents in Springfield and East St. Louis were subjects not often discussed. And that is one reason we are still fighting the same battles.
As a somber footnote, in 1997 an Oklahoma state commission was formed to investigate the riot. After extensive investigation by scientists, archaeologists, and historians, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission released a report in 2001. The death-toll estimate was revised to at least three hundred people, and local legend was confirmed when investigators found that many of the dead had been unceremoniously dumped into mass graves.