John Sullivan was only 10 years old when he was killed by an act of racist violence during the summer of 1917. His mother, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon — an African American woman from Louisiana — had only recently relocated to East St. Louis, Illinois, in hopes of finding better job opportunities. What Gordon learned that summer was that although she could escape the Jim Crow South, she could never escape white supremacy. Though the specific details are unclear, a white mob had beaten John in East St. Louis. He succumbed to his injuries a few months after the attack.
The incident is just one of hundreds of tragic stories that emerge from the 1917 East St. Louis “Race Riot.” The events that unfolded that summer are lesser known than other historical developments, such as the Red Summer of 1919 and the 1968 rebellions following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. However, they represent a significant moment that bears striking similarities to contemporary developments. The East St. Louis “Race Riot,” much like the current moment, offers a poignant example of how the federal government has failed to protect Black citizens. It’s also an example of how local law enforcement and state agencies have often stood side by side with white vigilantes as they unleash violence on Black people.
In East St. Louis, as in other cities across the nation, white people resented every effort of African Americans to improve their social and economic conditions during the 20th century. In this instance, white residents erupted in violence in response to Black migrants coming into the city in droves — mostly from the South. During World War I, the labor market significantly expanded to meet the needs of military production. With a growing demand for industrial workers in the North, Black Southerners flocked to places like East St. Louis. In response, white business owners worked to block new migrants from gaining economic or political power.
Even though Black workers held the most menial jobs and received lower wages than their peers, white people in East St. Louis still viewed them as a threat. And they were determined to keep Black people “in their place” through acts of violence and intimidation. In May 1917, a group of white workers filed formal complaints against Black migrants in the city, blaming African Americans for taking “their” jobs in local factories.
Within a matter of weeks, white residents began to unleash violence on unsuspecting Black people. According to one witness, “For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless [N]egroes at Broadway and Fourth Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where black skin was a death warrant.” For three days in July, the mobs angrily confronted Black residents — in some instances, pulling them out of streetcars and beating them on the streets. White residents also looted and destroyed homes and businesses all over the city. It was in the midst of this racist violence that Gordon’s son, John, was viciously attacked. And it was this act of violence that ended his life.
Despite the widespread acts of violence and terror that befell Black residents in East St. Louis that summer, law enforcement, state agencies, and federal officials turned a blind eye — as they often did. President Woodrow Wilson, whose record on Black rights was already poor, remained silent as Black people were being killed by white mobs in the city. State police agencies provided full support for white agitators, blurring the lines between lynch mobs and police officers. And police forces attacked Black residents while working diligently to block journalists from documenting the horrific events.
In response, Black residents had to devise their own strategies to protect themselves from the onslaught of white violence. Some residents were armed and coordinated with neighbors to safeguard their communities as best as they could. Many turned to organizations like the NAACP and the Universal Negro Improvement Association for resources to combat the violence on their doorsteps and for support to help rebuild their communities in the aftermath of the riot.
By the time the massacre came to an end, an estimated 100 Black people had been killed. Property worth millions of dollars were destroyed, and thousands of Black residents were forced to flee to St. Louis, Missouri.
Yet, the events that unfolded in East St. Louis in 1917 fueled Black protest even in the face of much pain and tragedy. Black activists across the nation openly denounced the racist violence in East St. Louis and called on Black people to unite in the struggle for their rights and freedom. Describing the riot as “one of the bloodiest outrages of mankind” and a “crime against the laws of humanity,” the Jamaican Black nationalist Marcus Garvey called on Black Americans to “lift [their] voice[s] against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy.” “White people are taking advantage of black men,” Garvey added, “because black men all over the world are disunited.”
His words resonated with Gordon, who departed East St. Louis for Chicago, where she became active in the Garvey movement.
While the events that unfolded in East St. Louis were meant to crush the spirit of Black America, those who survived the racist violence worked to build a path forward. Gordon, for example, went on to launch the largest Black nationalist organization founded by a woman in the United States. With the backing of an estimated 300,000 supporters, she mobilized activists in East St. Louis, Chicago, and neighboring cities. With the painful events of 1917 forever etched in her mind, she called for Black unity and advocated for Black political rights and freedom.
The 1917 East St. Louis riot underscores how white violence and terror has shaped Black life in the United States. More than 100 years later, the struggle continues. As the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade reveal, racist violence is still deeply embedded in the fabric of American society. But what the recent protests tell us is that Black people still refuse to be silent in the face of injustice. From the summer of 1917 to the summer of 2020, Black people have found ways to rise up out of the rubble and out of the ashes — to continue fighting for a better world.