Ida B. Wells-Barnett, in a contemporaneous account, called it “the greatest outrage of the century.” W.E.B. Du Bois devoted an entire chapter of his 1920 memoir, “Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil,” to the riot, which he described in nearly apocalyptic terms:
The white men drove even black union men out of their unions and when the black men, beaten by night and assaulted, flew to arms and shot back at the marauders, five thousand rioters arose and surged like a crested stormwave, from noonday until midnight; they killed and beat and murdered; they dashed out the brains of children and stripped off the clothes of women; they drove victims into the flames and hanged the helpless to the lighting poles. Fathers were killed before the faces of mothers; children were burned; heads were cut off with axes; pregnant women crawled and spawned in dark, wet fields; thieves went through houses and firebrands followed; bodies were thrown from bridges; and rocks and bricks flew through the air.
The background to the riot is mostly straightforward. 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 homes to a number of major industries that, during the years of World War I, attracted Black migrants from the South and white migrants from around the country, as well as immigrants from Europe.
For Du Bois, there were two forces that made this a combustible 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 the city was refused admittance to the union and driven from town because he was black,” Du Bois wrote. “No black builder, printer, or machinist could join a union or work in East St. Louis, no matter what his skill or character.”
The second was the war in Europe. It supercharged demand for industrial products like steel and aluminum, which, in turn, supercharged 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 strikebreakers. “Here were black men,” Du Bois wrote, trying to capture the rage of the white workers, “guilty not only of bidding for jobs which white men could have held at war prices, even if they could not fill, but also guilty of being black!”
In a more recent account, “American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics,” the historian Charles L. Lumpkins argues for a third force, namely, politics. As their population grew, “African Americans in East St. Louis became skilled in mobilizing as a voting bloc, swinging elections, and winning patronage.” By 1915, he continues, “black residents had become … a source of fear for white inhabitants who thought that black voters held ‘the balance of political power.’” And as an “increasingly assertive black population reshaped the city’s political culture,”
white political bosses and progressive reformers firmed their resolve to reverse the expansion of black political strength that they viewed as a threat to white entitlements. In 1917, agents of the state would opt for violence to solve the “Negro problem.”
The violence began on May 28, 1917, after the Aluminum Ore Company had 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 about the influx of the negro,” Lumpkins writes. During the meeting, “two white city police detectives spread the word that patrolmen had just arrested a black man for shooting a white man.” As if on cue, people rushed to the city jail, attempting to seize and lynch the suspect. There were assaults on nearby Black residents and some property damage, but the mob spirit eventually left the crowd.
It would emerge again, on July 2 and 3, organized and supported by figures in the white political class. “The July pogrom represented a political solution planned by certain white real estate men, politicians, and businessmen,” Lumpkins writes. “The mass racial violence of July accomplished what the May riot had failed to achieve: the elimination of the black community’s influential role in local electoral politics.”