Tuesday, April 28, 2009

July 2, 1917 - East St. Louis

The theme for the 71st Carnival of Genealogy is: Local History
As genealogists, we are used to tracing our ancestors and the history of the places they lived. Not all of us live where our ancestors did. Do we take the time to see the history all around us? Use some of your investigative skills to research the
house, street, or town/city where YOU live. Write about an interesting person, place, or event of local history.
I do live where my ancestors lived - or at least moved to between the 1880s-1920s. I have talked before about St. Louis History. Most notably about:
I considered writing about a positive, uplifting moment in our city's history, but then I recalled running across information a year or so ago about a race riot, in the same neighborhood some family lived at the time. Technically, it didn't occur in the same city I live. A river and a state boundary separates the two. Some may accuse me of violating the purpose of this carnival's theme. But the term 'local' is more encompassing than city. Measuring from the office building in which I work, the place the riots occurred is 8 miles closer than the home in which I live.

July 2, 1917, one of the largest race riots in United States history occurred in East St. Louis, Illinois. Estimates on deaths range from 48-150 people killed, making it the bloodiest until the LA riots in 1992 may have surpassed it. Though since less than 60 died in LA, the record may still stand.
The police chief estimated that 100 blacks had been killed. The renowned journalist Ida B. Wells reported in The Chicago Defender that 40-150 black people were killed during July in the rioting in East St. Louis. Six thousand blacks were left homeless after their neighborhood was burned. [Wikipedia]
Here is a contemporary account:

On the first of July, 1917, between 9 o'clock and midnight, two automobiles loaded with white men drove through the negro settlement of East St. Louis shooting toward negro homes. This naturally aroused the colored people so that by midnight great numbers of negroes were marching the streets in the colored settlement portion of East St. Louis armed with shotguns, rifles and revolvers. The police department having been informed of these conditions ordered a sergeant of police, two patrolmen and a chauffeur to proceed at once in an automobile to the south part of East St. Louis, the seat of the trouble. Upon reaching Fifteenth Street and Bond Avenue, this detail of police encountered about one hundred negroes marching in the street in battle array. After some conversation between the police and the negroes, the negro mob fired into the automobile, killing the sergeant of police and one patrolman. 'This occurred about 12.15 a. m. of the second of July, 1917.

From 8 o'clock a. m. to 10 o'clock a. m. on July 2, 1917, the automobile that had been occupied by the policemen and which was riddled with bullets was standing in front of the police station at East St. Louis, around which automobile crowds of people had gathered. Some of the leaders called on these people generally to go to a certain hall to discuss the situation. At this meeting incendiary speeches were made and when the crowd left the hall, it marched down Collinsville Avenue, the principal business street of East St. Louis. Assaults on colored people by this crowd began to be made about 10 o'clock a. m. and continued until 11 p. m. of July 2, developing into the most lawless and disgraceful race riot. About 8 o'clock in the evening of that day the white mob began applying the torch, burning large areas of houses occupied by colored people. In this riot, eleven white men and probably one hundred colored people lost their lives. Many of the bodies were completely burned, some were thrown in the Cahokia Creek, and the exact number of those killed will never be known.

During all of this time, there was not the slightest effort made on the part of the police force of East St. Louis nor the sheriffs force of St. Clair County to stop the riot.

Biennial report and opinions of the Attorney General of the State of Illinois By Illinois. Attorney General's Office, Illinois, Published by State Printers, 1918 (pp 16-18)
The area is better defined in a 1982 account:
Between ten o’clock and eleven o’clock, other colored people were attacked along Collinsville Avenue between Broadway and Illinois Avenue. This area became a bloody half-mile in the following three or four hours. (Race riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917, by Elliott M. Rudwick, 1982, p. 44)
There were a handful of bright spots
Many Negroes owed their lives to the alarm sent by True Light Baptist Church which rang its bell to indicate that rampaging whites were coming. Sympathetic whites hid Negroes in their basements while flames illuminated the night sky. Hundreds of refugees were brought to the city hall auditorium.(The East St. louis Action Research Project)

A few whites who attempted to protest against the violence were threatened; some were ‘hissed’ and ‘hushed’ by women carrying hatpins and pen knives as weapons.
(Rudwick, p. 44)

And several others, though sympathetic, were too scared to act.
(Left: Political cartoon. Caption: Mr. President, why not make America safe for Democracy?")

Some of my ancestors moved between East and West a lot; especially the Cruvant branch. As I noted above, then, as today, if you worked in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, living in the Illinois suburbs could actually be more convenient.

My second great grandfather, Moshe Leyb Cruvant, lived at 415 Collinsville Avenue up until his death in 1911. My great grandmother, Bertha Cruvant, likely lived there until she married a month before her father died. I believe his son, David Cruvant, was already living there, or moved into the house at that point. He was definitely living there in 1918, when he registered for the war. The Sanborn maps I looked at date back to 1905 when Collinsville Avenue extended only to the 350s - right on the border of Illinois Avenue. It appears the numbering hasn't changed - on current maps, 415 is just North of Illinois Avenue, just outside the boundaries of the riot defined by Rudwick. Another son, Ben, was also living in East St. Louis, not too far away.

So where were my great grandmother's brothers during the riot? I don't know. Only a generation removed from European pogroms, it's hard to believe they did anything truly regretful. There are no family stories I have heard, and their names aren't mentioned in any of the online sources I searched.

1 comment:

Bill West said...

An interesting post about an event
that must be remembered.

I'd venture to say your ancestors
would have been targeted as well if
they'd been anywhere outside near this.

And yet, look how far we've come today, and how far we still have to go on other fronts!