Deadly 1917 Riot Mostly Forgotten : Unrest: Seventy-five years before Los Angeles’ disturbances, 48 died in East St. Louis racial attacks. A survivor says, ‘It was just like war.’
Helen Smith Petty remembers the terrified and injured blacks who hid in the fields while downtown burned. But memories like hers are rare remnants of the race riot long considered the nation’s deadliest in this century.
July 2 was the 75th anniversary of that riot, but no plaques or banners mark the event.
Mayor Gordon Bush and other residents are more concerned about the city’s emergence from economic decay. July 1, for example, saw the resumption of residential trash pickup after a seven-year lapse.
East St. Louis residents prefer to forget the town’s grimmest day.
“It was a dark moment in the city’s history, and it more or less has been removed from memory,” Bush said. “It really hasn’t been spoken of until the L.A. riots.”
This spring’s Los Angeles riots were blamed for 52 deaths and $800 million in damage. They began after four white police officers were found not guilty of beating black motorist Rodney G. King.
The official death toll from the July 2, 1917, East St. Louis riot was 48, all but nine black, though the late historian Elliott M. Rudwick estimated the actual number at close to 100. His 1964 book “Race Riot at East St. Louis,” is considered authoritative.
Although she was only 8, Petty says her memories of that day are vivid.
“It was just like war. We could hear explosions, and we could just see fire, fire, fire,” Petty recalled. “It was such a terrible thing.”
More than 300 buildings, including many shanties where blacks lived, were destroyed by white rioters. When blacks fled, they were shot by snipers or beaten.
Fires caused more than $373,000 in damage, by 1917 estimates.
Petty’s father, Carl Smith, was the first black to own a grocery store in East St. Louis, and she recalls he fed many riot refugees, some of whom had been stabbed, shot or beaten.
“I can remember as a little girl seeing people in all directions leaving their homes. People slept out in the fields,” she said.
Before the riot, Southern blacks were flocking to East St. Louis for factory jobs promised by companies trying to weaken fledgling unions, according to Rudwick’s book. Democrats portrayed the influx as a Republican plot to ensure GOP victories and stirred anti-black sentiment.
On May 28, several blacks were attacked after a union rally, and rioting began. National guardsmen called in from Springfield broke it up the next day. There were no deaths.
The guardsmen were withdrawn in mid-June. After weeks of rumors of an impending riot, blacks shot and killed two white police officers, igniting the July 2 riot.
If memories of the riot have faded, many of the factors behind it have not, said Nancy L. Grant, a history professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
“If you take away the issue of race, the city is very similar now,” she said.
Just 15% black in 1917, the population now is almost entirely black. With white flight, the city lost jobs and eventually the solvency of its government.
Unemployment runs about 13% in the city of 41,000. City debt has been estimated as high as $50 million. Housing prices are deflated, crime is rampant, and until recently police protection was lacking.
City Hall was given away in 1990 to a man disabled in a jail beating because the city couldn’t afford to pay him $3.4 million in court-assessed damages. The city got the building back on appeal.
The big topics now are the promise of tax revenue from a recently approved riverboat gambling port and regular trash collection that resumed for the first time in seven years.
“What’s prevailing now is the new spirit of the city,” Bush said. “The riot was certainly something that we were ashamed of. We are moving away from shameful acts.”
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