“A City without a Social Contract”: Tensions in St. Louis's Industrial Suburb

Welcome to our three-part series about the 1917 East St. Louis race riot. This post covers events leading up to the riot. To find out what happened during it and its aftermath, click here.

“Money tree . . . all you have to do is go up there and shake it.” That’s the visual impoverished Southern blacks used to describe East St. Louis in 1916, according to Lyman Bluitt, a local black doctor.

The East St. Louis money tree had a robust canopy of entry-level jobs in railroads, stockyards, steel mills, and factories. Ads in Southern newspapers promised work to any black person willing to move north. As a result, thousands of African Americans bought one-way tickets.

The Southern blacks who resettled in East St. Louis and other northern industrial cities in the 1910s were the start of a movement later named the Great Migration. Over the next 50 years, millions of mostly rural Southern blacks headed out to start new lives in northern urban centers, away from the dangers of the South and its "separate but equal" Jim Crow laws.

African Americans who arrived in East St. Louis in 1916 saw their shaking of the city's money tree as seizing opportunities otherwise denied them, but many of the people already in East St. Louis saw invasion, theft, and foreigners upsetting the norm. These white residents glared hatefully at the thousands of new black faces arriving each day.

East St. Louis in 1916

Color scan of cover of "A Tale of Two Cities" pamphletIn this 1910s pamphlet, A Tale of Two Cities, industrious, prosperous East St. Louis is shown as the undervalued neighbor of St. Louis’s sleeping royalty. Missouri History Museum.

East St. Louis was steadily rising as St. Louis’s “industrial suburb,” a conveniently distant, city-sized workshop where smokestacks, engines, and other “nuisances” couldn’t bother anyone of note. On the Mississippi River’s east bank, factories chugged away unhindered, sprawling across swaths of cheap, unregulated land. Trainyards, railroad spurs, and industrial rights-of-way shaped the city, creating a cockeyed, sawed-up street grid that only amplified division between black and white residents. Case in point: The “colored district” of southern East St. Louis was cut off from the rest of the city, hemmed in by the Southern Railway tracks, the Malleable Iron Works factory, and the approach to the Municipal (Free) Bridge.

The new black arrivals’ description of the city was correct: It was truly a money tree, a place where profit mattered first and all else—including residential, community, and public health—mattered second. What they didn’t realize was that only a few top-of-the-pile industrialists enjoyed the ample fruits of the East St. Louis money tree. The entire city was at their disposal, gifting them transportation infrastructure; proximity to other industry; a political situation they could control; and most of all, an endless, throwaway workforce.

Map of East St. Louis in 1912East St. Louis, 1912. The city’s blocks filled in between railroad tracks and large industrial grounds. The black district of southern East St. Louis was far removed from the rest of the city. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Labor Issues

Everyday laborers of all backgrounds were the forgotten fertilizer that made the industrialists’ wealth grow, but the city’s African American workers were manipulated in a specific and unique way. Imported black laborers could be paid even less than white laborers, making them pawns in industrialists’ intimidation games—any white worker demanding better treatment could be immediately replaced by a black worker. Officials at the National Stockyards, one of the east side’s largest employers, proved this in July 1916 when they crushed a 4,000-strong white union strike by importing hundreds of black workers. Every new black arrival was therefore a potential thief, stealing food off of white tables. (Whites didn’t seem to care much that blacks had no food on the table to begin with.)

Black-and-white scan of article about the April 1917 strike at Aluminum Ore CompanyA St. Louis Star and Times article detailing the April strike at Aluminum Ore. The striking workers were replaced by black and Eastern European workers. Missouri History Museum.

By late 1916 tensions in this fend-for-yourself city were boiling over thanks to the Aluminum Ore Company, East St. Louis’s biggest single employer. With World War I raging across Europe, 1916 was shaping up to be a year of record profits at Aluminum Ore, but that money wasn’t trickling down to the factory laborers who were working longer and longer hours. On Saturday, October 7, 1916, nearly 600 Aluminum Ore workers walked off the job in protest.

There would be no compromise. African Americans replaced nearly all the striking workers, and white layoffs for black replacements continued throughout the winter. In mid-April 1917, 1,700 white laborers marched off the job again. Hovering outside the plant, they screamed at their black counterparts. Armed National Guard soldiers—who were there to ensure war production would continue, not to protect workers’ well-being—only added to the apprehensive atmosphere.

The Press

Newspapers such as the East St. Louis Daily Journal fed off the city’s simmering anger, pumping out vague sensationalist headlines. “Negro brutes” were seizing young white girls. “Black colonizers” were breaking into railway cars. A police officer had been shot by a “negro highwayman.” “Threatening negroes” were being watched by police. The supposed perpetrators were only ever identified as “negro”—that word was all that mattered.

With the stories given similar headline space, white East St. Louisans saw their “black invasion” on par with any in war-torn Europe. The East St. Louis Central Trades Union even issued a news release stating “the immigration of the southern negro into our city . . . [has] reached the point where drastic action must be taken.” The group invited all white citizens to attend a city council meeting on May 28, 1917, to confront the mayor with “the truth the press will not publish.”

The May 28 Riot

That day the muggy city council chambers overflowed with a furious, captive crowd as East St. Louis mayor Fred Mollman stepped to the podium. With characteristic fragility, Mollman pled against “hotheadedness,” but his peacemaking attempt was met by a volley of tirades. Voices shouted about black atrocities committed against white women, black stick-up artists with influential lawyers, and white families left at “the back door of the poorhouse” by black replacement workers. The suggestion of violence swelled and receded with each speaker, until lawyer Alexander Flannigen cleared his throat.

Flannigen, a rambling, brash conversationalist, captured the audience with his mockery of East St. Louis’s blacks. As one witness recalled, the delighted crowd “began getting itchy” when Flannigen suddenly delivered a serious charge: “As far as I know, there is no law against mob violence.”

Black-and-white scan of article about the aftermath of the May 28, 1917, attacksThe day after the May 28 riot, The St. Louis Star and Times reported that six National Guard companies had arrived and that Mayor Mollman had banned the sale of guns. Missouri History Museum.

The overloaded hall erupted in cheers. A pack of the most rabid individuals stormed out of the meeting and into the streets, beating any African American they came across. In the night’s gathering darkness, small mobs attacked dozens of black bystanders. With the authorities apathetically standing by, it's remarkable no one was killed.

Afterward, hundreds of East St. Louis’s black families packed their suitcases and headed for the bridges. Mobs of whites roared threats at them as they walked across the Mississippi River and out of town.

As the summer progressed, hatred tightened around East St. Louis like a spring under pressure. On the night of July 2, the spring snapped. <<Click here to read Part 2 of our three-part series.>>

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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