The destruction of the Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma has been much in the news recently, and for good reason. This year, 2021, marks the 100th anniversary of the destruction of the community by a White mob and the murder of more than 300 Black Greenwood residents, all with the collusion of local governmental officials.
It was a horrific event, one that none of us ever heard about in school. I’d never heard of such a thing until I started doing research several years ago into the effect of organized racism and anti-immigrant activities that led to the recreation of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s for a column I was working on concerning the Klan’s popularity here in northern Illinois’ Fox River Valley.
That’s when I stumbled across the East St. Louis race riot of 1917, and then when I looked further into things I came across the Tulsa riot—and many, many more such outrages.
We tend to think of riots concerning race and racial issues as relatively recent things. The ones that stick in most minds were those that occurred after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in the late 1960s, during which large portions of many of our major cities were destroyed.
Race riots are nearly as old as the nation, but instead of mostly involving Black rioters attacking Whites, the opposite is by far most common in the nation’s history.
In fact, Wikipedia has a handy page where you can check out the dismayingly long list of violent racial clashes across the nation’s history beginning in the early 19th Century.
The map at left I found on-line is a good reference tool, too, although it only includes a relatively small number instances of major U.S. racial violence. But it does illustrate one eye-opening fact—at least for me. And that is that while Louisiana seems to be the champion state for hosting racial riots targeting Black residents, Illinois comes in a distressing second.
Which, I suppose, shouldn’t really be all that much of a surprise. Illinois was initially settled by Southerners. In fact, it was originally governed as a county of the State of Virginia during and after the Revolutionary War. After the war, most of Illinois’ settlers came from Southern states, west through Kentucky and Tennessee and up into southern Illinois.
In accord with the Northwest Ordinance, Illinois was admitted as a free, non-slave state in 1818. But the state was never a friendly place for Black residents. A few years after statehood, in fact, agitation by pro-slavery politicians nearly rewrote the state’s constitution to legally permit slavery. That move was thwarted, narrowly.
But then things began to change. The Erie Canal in New York opened and the rush of settlers from New England and the Middle States (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania) began and soon the population of anti-slave Northerners in northern Illinois easily outpaced Southerners in southern Illinois. So, by the time the Civil War broke out, Illinois as a whole was firmly in the anti-slave column, although most of the southern part of the state was more or less pro-Confederate. In fact, the state had to station troops in towns including Quincy to guard against pro-Southern violence during the war. And a number of Illinois men fought on the Southern side during the war.
So the seeds of racist violence had long been planted here. And as the 20th Century dawned, the nation experienced a surge in racist and anti-immigrant violence fueled by social change. Blacks were leaving the Jim Crow South to make new lives in Northern manufacturing cities, while immigration from southern Europe—particularly Italy—was fueling anti-Catholic and anti-foreign tensions and violence, all whipped up by racist radio personalities and the reincarnation of the Ku Klux Klan.
By 1917, the 1908 Springfield riot was some years in the past and the Chicago violence was on the horizon. That July, one of the state’s most violent race riots broke out in East St. Louis. At least 50 persons were killed (the toll was undoubtedly higher) and 240 people were reported injured. Damage was set at $1,400,000—which would be $29 million in 2021 dollars.
The history of the riot and accompanying murders and destruction was not completely hidden, although it’s place in Illinois history has certainly been downplayed. In 1964, Elliott M. Rudwick, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University, published an in-depth study of it, Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917. And during the state’s 1968 sesquicentennial, Bob Sutton included Robert Asher’s “Documents of the Race Riot at East St. Louis,” previously published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, in his two-volume The Prairie State: A Documentary History of Illinois. It was certainly not covered in any of our junior or senior high school history courses, nor was the general topic covered in my college U.S. History survey course at Northern Illinois University. As someone on History Twitter noted the other day, back then it was as if Black Americans completely disappeared between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the public aspects of the Civil Rights movement a century later.
Granted, the story’s there. But you have to dig to find it. Letters and personal accounts left by victims of the violence vividly describe the events of July 2, 1917, something that makes it all the more puzzling the East St. Louis violence, along with all the other outbreaks preceding it and following it during the next few years were virtually erased from the histories taught in Illinois schools.
Trouble had been brewing in East St. Louis for several months, fanned by the labor problems then existing in the area. On July 1, supposedly as a means to forestall violence, police and Illinois National Guard soldiers appeared at the homes of black families and demanded their weapons. Most of the families complied. But in spite of—or perhaps because of—the seizure of Black citizens’ arms, throughout the day, warnings that rioting would begin that evening spread through the Black community.
But according to the testimony of a White woman, the actual riot started about noon, when a colored man came to her house to deliver gasoline. Whites attacked the man, but the woman held the mob at bay with a revolver while the black tried to escape through the back door. The mob pursued him and killed him. Scott Clark, a black teamster, was next. He was stoned to death by women in the mob as he was dragged through the streets by a rope around his neck.
Most Black residents felt their only hope was to get to the Municipal Free Bridge across the Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri. Many made it, but many more did not, and were either hung, shot, or burned to death by the mob. Although the governor called out the Illinois National Guard, that seemed to have little or no effect on the destruction.
Among those who made it to safety was Daisy Westbrook. Westbrook, a young black woman at the time, was the director of music and drawing at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis. She described her experiences in a letter written on July 19, just l7 days after the riot, recounting the terror of the black residents of East St. Louis in graphic detail.
“It started early in the afternoon. We kept receiving calls over the ‘phone to pack our trunks and leave, because it was going to be awful that night. We did not heed the calls, but sent grandma and the baby on to St. Louis and said we should ‘stick’ no matter what happened. At first when the fire started, we stood on Broadway and watched it. As they neared our house we went in and went to the basement. It was too late to run then. They shot and yelled some thing awful, finally they reached our house. At first, they did not bother us (we watched from the basement window), they remarked that ‘white people live in that house, that is not a nigger house.’ Later, someone must have tipped them that it was a ‘nigger’ house, because, after leaving us for about 20 min. they returned and started shooting in the house, throwing bricks and yelling like mad ‘kill the nigger, burn that house,’
“It seemed the whole house was falling in on us. Then some one said, ‘they must not be there; if they are they are certainly dead’. Then some one shouted ‘they are in the basement. Surround them and burn it down.’ Then they ran down our steps. Only prayer saved us, we were under tubs and any thing we could find praying and keeping as quite as possible, because if they had seen one face, we would have been shot or burned to death. Sister tipped to the door to see if the house was on fire. She saw the reflection of a soldier on the front door and pulled it open quickly and called for help. All of us ran out then and was taken to the city hall for the night. The next morning, we learned our house was not burned, so we tried to get protection to go out and get our clothes and have the rest of the things put in storage. We could not, but were sent on to St. Louis. Had to walk across the bridge with a line of soldiers on each side in the hot sun, no hats and scarcely no clothing.
“On Tuesday evening at 6 o’clock our house was burned with two soldiers on guard. So the papers stated. We were told that they looted the house before burning it.”
Things eventually calmed down in East St. Louis, only to flare up again in Chicago in 1919 and then in Tulsa in 1921. The riots could, I suppose, be seen as Jim Crow moving violently north in on-going efforts to stymie Black economic advancement. The riots and massacres destroyed millions in business and home equity that was thereby eliminated from being used to finance Black families’ generational advancement.
If that wasn’t bad enough, some years in the future when President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Alphabet Agencies” began fighting the Great Depression by pumping money into the economy, Black families were effectively barred from receiving any assistance. Black homeowners, farmers, and business owners were kept from participating, again denied the chance to build equity for the future. And yet again, after World War II with the passage of the G.I. Bills, rules created by Southern legislators effectively barred Black veterans from accessing federal housing and education loan and grant programs.
Not until passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 did some equity begin making its way into the systemic racism that was baked into the nation’s governmental and social life. And as soon as that happened, racist Southern Democrats left the party in droves, to be warmly welcomed by cynical Republicans who figured they could keep the racism parts quiet while using the old Confederacy to cement their political power.
And so here we find ourselves in 2021, observing the centennial of the horrific Tulsa race massacre at a time when overt racism is again being promoted and encouraged by politicians as shameless as those who encouraged the racism and religious bigotry of the early 20th Century. Until the last five years, I’d assumed we’d come a lot farther along this particular road than we obviously have. It’s apparent the road’s a lot longer and more winding than I’d hoped or imagined.