A Dark Chapter
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.
The year 2020 with its countless stories of tragedy, political intrigue, and the dawning of a dramatic pandemic induced global shift will provide ample fodder for a generation of historians and authors. More than a few will ponder the Black Lives Matter movement and linked societal unrest and see it as a manifestation of a story that has plagued America since its inception.
In the first decades of the 20th century deeply rooted prejudices and related perceptions were an accepted part of American society. Incidents of this manifesting in violence were long a part of the nations story. But nothing compared to the explosion of turmoil that decimated communities along what would become the Route 66 corridor after 1926. Race riots decimated the Greenwood District of Tulsa, and African American neighborhoods in Springfield, Illinois. But these paled in comparison to the horrors unleashed in East St. Louis, Illinois.
Racial tensions had simmered in East St. Louis in the late nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century as thousands of African Americans poured into East St. Louis from the states of the former Confederate States of America in search of economic opportunity. By 1910 the African American population in East St. Louis was six thousand, a number that would double by 1917 as factories employed more 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. The fuse was lit.
On the heels of a fiery city council meeting on May 28 where angry white workers lodged formal complaints, rumor of an attempted robbery of a white man by an armed black man spread through the city. Enraged mobs poured from taverns into the streets, beating any African Americans they encountered. As the violence increased, the governor dispatched the National Guard to restore order. By mid-June, control was returned to the city and the soldiers withdrew. But it was brief respite.
Then, on the first day of July, groups of white men drove through neighborhoods and indiscriminately fired guns at the houses of African Americans. Armed African Americans, some military veterans, took to the street, and in one incident shots were fired into an oncoming car in what was believed to be self-defense. Tragically, the two men killed during the brief melee 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 by labor leaders and politicians. Attendees of the meeting swarmed onto the streets where they savagely beat African Americans with guns, rocks, and pipes. Homes were firebombed, residents and business owners fleeing for their lives were shot, and several impromptu lynchings were documented.
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. Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 3, the article was also quoted in The Crisis, an NAACP publication. 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.”
His account continued, “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.
As reports of the incident spread, there were manifestations of national outrage and investigations at the city, state, and federal level. An article published in the Post-Dispatch of St. Louis noted, “All the impartial witnesses agree that the police were either indifferent or encouraged the barbarities, and that the major part of the National Guard was indifferent or inactive. No organized effort was made to protect the Negroes or disperse the murdering groups. The lack of frenzy and of a large infuriated mob made the task easy. Ten determined officers could have prevented most of the outrages. One hundred men acting with authority and vigor might have prevented any outrage.”
In Washington D.C., hearings before the Committee on Rules in the House of Representatives began on August 3, 1917, which led to a federal investigation. 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.
I was aware of this story, as well as the one about the Tulsa Race Riot, but only vaguely. While conducting research for my latest book, Murder & Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66, I had this overwhelming conviction to include these stories even though they predated the certification of Route 66. These horrendous incidents had an effect on the evolution of that highway, and of the nation as we can see by the racial strife in 2020.