The story I’m about to share is one I had never heard until I really started looking into #OurHistory through the lens of the African-American experience. It may be new to you as well, so please don’t skip over this. It’s important we all understand and truly listen to what it tells us.
July 2, 1917.
This was right in the heart of the Great Migration, as scores and scores of African Americans fled the South in hopes of a brighter future. Certainly, they were fleeing the terror of the lynch mobs, but the driving force was the hope of better financial opportunities than the subtle (reinvented) slavery of sharecropping. When they arrived North, I wish I could say the experience was different.
In East St. Louis, labor agents had successfully recruited thousands of black men to work in the city’s aluminum factories. The predominantly white work force was on strike at the time, so the new labor force was brought in to keep production moving. The race card was played on purpose, and as expected, it infuriated the striking workers.
Little skirmishes broke out here and there as the black workers entered the factory, but before long it evolved into open violence throughout much of East St. Louis. The police force, which was largely white, decided to look the other way as those within the black community were assaulted, clubbed, and stabbed. Riots broke out, and when it was all said and done, 9 white people and at least 40 black people died.
“AT LEAST 40…”
The ambiguity there is one of the saddest parts of this story. Many remained unaccounted for after the dust settled. The number was likely far greater, based on eyewitness accounts of black bodies being thrown in ditches and in the Mississippi River, never to be recovered. One of the pictures in this post is an image of the aftermath, the search for bodies among the debris.
The massacre did not go unnoticed.
Just 3 weeks later, the NAACP organized a silent march in NYC, down Fifth Avenue. With only the sound of muffled drums, ten thousand men, women, and children marched from Harlem to Manhattan. No words, no shouting. They carried signs, some of them displaying messages like these:
“Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?”
“Mother, do lynchers go to heaven?”
This was a silent protest because it seemed that nobody would hear their cries out loud.