Reclaiming Black Saint Louis: Blood In the Streets — The East Saint Louis Pogrom of 1917
“St. Louis sprawls where mighty rivers meet — as broad as Philadelphia, but three stories high instead of two, with wider streets and dirtier atmosphere, over the dull-brown of wide, calm rivers. The city overflows into the valleys of Illinois and lies there, writhing under its grimy cloud. The other city is dusty and hot beyond all dream — a feverish Pittsburgh in the Mississippi Valley — a great, ruthless, terrible thing! It is the sort that crushes man and invokes some living superman — a giant of things done, a clang of awful accomplishment.” — W.E.B Du Bois, “Of Work and Wealth”
The blood of New Afrikan and Indigenous people soaks every inch of this metropolitan area of ours. Our blood has run from the North Side to the South Side to the East Side. This city is old. It is literally built on top of the largest Indigenous metropolitan complex north of Mexico. Blood doesn’t sleep. The ghosts of the past inform the present. There is no simple road to reconciliation, or getting over it. What happened in East Saint Louis in 1917 is a perfect exposé of the foolishness of the old Left canard that Europeans and the colonized can simply “unite and fight”. The national question and the colonial question continue to impose themselves at the head of the struggle. In 1917, the United States was in the midst of what would come to be known as the “Great Migration”. Millions of Black people poured up from the South, fleeing debt peonage and pogroms/lynchings. Chicago, Saint Louis, New York City, Detroit, and other Midwestern/Northern industrial centers were the destinations. Later, during the Depression and WWII era, the booming cities of Texas and California would be areas that pulled New Afrikan people from the South. Du Bois wrote:
“Nor were the new blacks fools. They had no love for nothings in labor; they had no wish to make their fellows’ wage envelopes smaller, but they were determined to make their own larger. They, too, were willing to join in the new union movement. But the unions did not want them. Just as employers monopolized meat and steel, so they sought to monopolize labor and beat a giant’s bargain. In the higher trades they succeeded. The best electrician in the city was refused admittance to the union and driven from the town because he was black. No black builder, printer, or machinist could join a union or work in East St. Louis, no matter what his skill or character. But out of the stink of the stockyards and the dust of the aluminum works and the sweat of the lumber yards the willing blacks could not be kept.They were invited to join unions of the laborers here and they joined. White workers and black workers struck at the aluminum works in the fall and won higher wages and better hours; then again in the spring they struck to make bargaining compulsory for the employer, but this time they fronted new things. The conflagration of war had spread to America; the government and court stepped in and ordered no hesitation, no strikes; the work must go on.”
So we saw the forced exclusion of the new Black migrants from the better paying, skilled labor positions and their unions. Keep in mind that Black people in the South had been doing this labor for free for generations. Contrary to the old racist myth that we were simply hunched over in cotton and tobacco fields, Black people were blacksmiths, coopers, builders, boat pilots, cooks and more. Upon emancipation de jure (by law), the colonizer working class feared what the new glut of skilled, disciplined laborers would do, and the colonizer bourgeoisie/landlord class resented having to pay their former slaves wages according to labor. Thus, we saw the beginning of debt peonage and neo-slavery in the South and attacks on Black laborers seeking work in the North, through exclusion from craft/trade unions or through outright violence and pogroms. Phillip Foner’s book “Organized Labor and the Black Worker: 1619–1981” is an excellent history of this process.
So, East Saint Louis, 1917. Like always, at the heart of the beginning of the violence were vague rumors of Black men fraternizing with white women. Fraternizing included “looking at” or “saying hello”, mind you. Meantime white men were free to do whatever they pleased with married Black women, particularly if they were employed in the home. On May 28, after a riotous meeting of colonizer workers, thousands of colonizers swarmed the streets, beating Black people. The governor called in the National Guard. Violence flared worse two months later, when colonizers drove into a Black neighborhood on July 1, armed, and opened fire into a group of Black people. Another vehicle carrying colonizers (two police officers and a journalist) drove through later, and was fired upon in retaliation for the earlier assault. The notion of colonized people fighting back and defending our communities was, as it is today, too much for colonizers to stomach, and they of course went wild. Du Bois explains in graphic detail:
“So hell flamed in East St. Louis! 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 Negroes fought. They grappled with the mob like beasts at bay. They drove them back from the thickest cluster of their homes and piled the white dead on the street, but the cunning mob caught the black men between the factories and their homes, where they knew they were armed only with their dinner pails. Firemen, policemen, and militiamen stood with hanging hands or even joined eagerly with the mob.It was the old world horror come to life again: all that Jews suffered in Spain and Poland; all that peasants suffered in France, and Indians in Calcutta; all that aroused human deviltry had accomplished in ages past they did in East St. Louis, while the rags of six thousand half-naked black men and women fluttered across the bridges of the calm Mississippi.”
Jenn Jackson of Teen Vogue writes:
“On July 3, Carlos F. Hurd, a staff reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, published the earliest and gruesome reports out of the area. He reported that many white Americans, often dressed in suits and house clothes, roamed the streets looking for black residents to terrorize. He was even shocked by the calmness of their demeanor as they brutally killed black people. These weren’t drunken, dispassionate rabble-rousers; they were working people who were killing black people for fun. And they were doing so in the most sickening of ways. Hurd noted that the term “mob” didn’t quite make sense with the scene at hand. “A mob is passionate. A mob follows one man or a few men blindly; a mob sometimes takes chances,” he wrote. “The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a man hunt, conducted on a sporting basis.” I saw one of these men, covered with blood and half conscious, raise himself on his elbow, and look feebly about, when a young man, standing directly behind him, lifted a flat stone in both hands and hurled it upon his neck,” Hurd wrote.”
This hell was the result of national and colonial contradictions. At the end of the day, colonizer labor saw no common ground with colonized labor. They hunted, beat and killed us for sport, in their Sunday best. We who fled from the South in our millions with nothing but our clothes and cardboard suitcases were not fighting for a Victrola record player, or a Model T Ford, we were fighting for our lives. The police did not protect us then, just as they do not protect us now. They joined the mob, who were comprised of their neighbors, friends and family members, just as they today leak information about activists and organizers to the Proud Boys and other fascist groups. They are our enemies. After the riots, 6,000 Black people were left homeless, between 40–250 lay dead, and the colonizers of East Saint Louis were infamous as the perpetrators of one of the worst race riots in US history, side by side with the perpetrators of the Tulsa pogrom 4 years later. East Saint Louis teaches us the lengths that colonizers, regardless of class, will go to when they feel their mudsill, the fact that their standard of living is rooted on our super-exploitation, slipping away and we start to do for self.