Remembering May 28, 1917 in East St. Louis, Illinois


In February of 1917, 470 African-Americans were hired to replace striking white workers at the Aluminum Ore Company in East St Louis. On May 28, white workers expressed their concern about African-American migrants at a city council meeting. After the meeting, rumors of an attempted robbery by an African-American man of a white person inflamed whites who formed mobs that attacked African-Americans on the street. Blacks were pulled off trolley cars and beaten. The state’s National Guard was called in to maintain peace, but racial tensions continued to simmer.
There were no actions taken to recognize union concerns or to provide assurances of white job security. There was no reform of the police force that had largely stood aside during the mob violence. The Illinois governor withdrew the National Guard on June 10th, and on July 2nd, one of the bloodiest violent attacks of whites against blacks in the 20th century erupted. (
Memorial Day weekend 2017, the East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission and Cultural Initiative sponsored a conference -The City that Survives: Commemorating the Past, Preparing for the Future – at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville East St. Louis Higher Education Center. The conference featured scholars, artists, activists, and ordinary people sharing their research, poems, artistic creations, family histories and urban planning to remember the tragic events of 100 years ago and thinking of how that history can inform our vision of a resurrected city.
East St. Louis was not the first episode of white mob violence against African-Americans and it would not be the last. Mob violence in Springfield, Illinois happened in 1908 after news that two white women had been sexually assaulted by African-American men. Two black men were arrested, but a mob wanted them lynched before trial. When this did not happen, the mob found two other black men and lynched them, attacked the African-American community killing and beating black people, and burned their homes and businesses. When the mob violence ended, several African-Americans were dead, more than a hundred injured, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage had been perpetrated against the African-American community. As a result of this outrage, a group of white philanthropists and Black scholars and activists in New York founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – NAACP. (
After East St. Louis, the Red Summer of 1919 started in Chicago when a young African-American man drowned in Lake Michigan after having been stoned by white beach goers for having violated an unofficial color line. Violence erupted when the police refused to arrest the people responsible for the young man’s death. After days of violence, some 15 white people and 23 black people were dead, more than 500 people were injured, and at least a thousand black homes were burned to the ground. In the wake of this violence, various commissions were formed to determine the cause of such violence, but nothing real happened. Chicago remains, as of this writing, one of the most segregated and one of the most violent cities in the United States.
When we think about this history, it is important that we are precise in our definition of terms. History has called these episodes of white mob violence against African Americans “riots.” This, however, does not distinguish these events from the urban rebellions of 1960s and later where African-American rage caused a great deal of property damage primarily in the African-American community. In 1917, black activists, journalist and others called the barbarism a “massacre” because of the number of African Americans killed and wounded and because of the savagery of the attacks.
According to children of survivors, passing on oral history they learned at the feet of their father, the East St. Louis violence was a “war.” African-American morticians smuggled guns into the African-American community in coffins so that they could defend themselves against white mob violence. Neighbors and families worked together to protect the children and to escape, even building rafts to cross the Mississippi River when the bridge was closed to blacks fleeing fire and death. The children tell of the ways the survivors suffered from what today we know as post-traumatic stress disorder. The children were taught to be mindful, to be careful, and to keep watch for signs of danger. All of this is the psychic residue of war.
Riot. Massacre. War. Pogrom.
The events that are commonly known as race riots ought to be called pogroms. A pogrom is mass violence against a particular group perpetrated by a dominant group against a weaker group. The intent is ethnic cleansing. This violence often happens with the tacit and in some cases explicit approval of the state. This was the case in Springfield, East St. Louis, Chicago and other places around the United States. The police often stood aside and watched. In many cases, the perpetrators never faced justice. It was also a way to keep workers divided so that they could not organize together to advance their economic interests. Racism as a root cause of this violence has done its divisive work well, and such divisions still reveal themselves in the politics of Trumpism.
The mass, savage, barbaric violence was intended to drive African Americans out of white towns. But it did not work. While it is true that many African Americans after having lost their homes left East St Louis, many stayed. As long as good jobs were available, many new African Americans found their way to the city during the Great Migration. My own parents came in the 1950s. With the coming of the interstate highway system that decimated many black communities, and as blacks began to move into white neighborhoods, white flight became the norm. Now, East St. Louis is an all-black city. If the purpose of the 1917 pogrom was to remove African Americans from East St. Louis, it was a dismal failure.
So, why remember? Why not simply forgive and forget. Move on. Do not dwell on what cannot be changed. Memorial Day is a day to not only remember the military dead who have died in America’s wars. It is a day to remember all of the dead who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of human dignity. Those who were killed or wounded in a thousand ways we may never know or understand deserve remembrance.
Let us be clear: the dead do not need us. We need them. We need them to remind us of the utter uselessness of mass mob terroristic violence. Individual violence is also pointless because the violence we perpetrate violates our own humanity. What the remembrance teaches us is that no matter how horrific the violence, it only works to strengthen the resolve of the victims. It also strengthens the resolve of those who are spiritually related to them. And the Spirit knows no race, class, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation or any of the other myriad ways we find to divide ourselves. The remembrance deepens our love and our determination to be at once more human and more divine.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”

2 thoughts on “Remembering May 28, 1917 in East St. Louis, Illinois

  1. Valerie Elverton Dixon,
    Thank you for your timely, enlightening and inspiring article. We certainly do need to acknowledge all whose lives were
    sacrificed for this nation and all of humanity in ensuring dignity and respect for all people. I was educated in the East St.
    Louis school district. Unfortunately the information relative to our city’s struggles were not part of our education. I am
    hopeful that the educational leaders in the East St. Louis school system have since rectified that deficit and have developed
    curriculum around our history to motivate and inspire students to be exceptional citizens aspiring to make a difference in
    their communities. The history of East St. Louis and the survival of our people who have achieved great things in this nation
    and the world gives all of us much to take pride in and resolve ourselves to do even greater things. I salute all of our
    heroes (men and women) of yesterday and today and those who are preparing our children today to make a difference
    tomorrow. I look forward to spending time celebrating the Centennial of the race riots with East St. Louis. It is the
    beginning of a new era where East St. Louis can write its own story.

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