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Wells-Barnett, Mrs. Ida B. The East St. Louis Massacre: The Greatest Outrage of the Century . Chicago: The Negro Fellowship Herald Press, 1917. [format: book], [genre: report; narrative]. Permission: Public domain
When we made the last trip it was 5 o'clock in the afternoon. I had been so engrossed in the work of helping these poor women, that I had had neither a drink of water nor a bite of food all day. The Red Cross
man who was in charge seemed very glad to have my help. When I came back to the City Hall, the two colored men janitors whom I found there, told me that there was no place in East St. Louis where I could sleep that night, as all the colored people who lived there had gone in the country or over to St. Louis. With my bag in hand, after the men brought me a couple of sandwiches I went over the river, as so many thousands had done that day, to find a bed in St. Louis.
When I got over on the Missouri side, a policeman at the bridge told me to step into the room that the Red Cross people had established. I found that it was for the purpose of having me vaccinated. This was because of two cases of smallpox that had developed in the municipal lodging house that had been housing thousands of the unfortunates ever since Monday night. I was loaded into the patrol wagon with all the others who had been waiting in this room for the wagon to come, and ridden through the streets of St. Louis to the municipal lodging house about three or four miles away. While sitting there, I saw hundreds of men, women and children marched into the municipal lodging house and the physicians and the nurses working overtime vaccinating them. In spite of my objection to being vaccinated in this wholesale way, they said I couldn't leave the building until this had been done, but later on I did leave without having my arm scratched.
Every which way we turned there were women and children and men, dazed over the thing that had come to them and unable to tell what is was all about. Most of them had left clothes and homes behind, thankful to have saved their lives and those of their families. Some of them had not located relatives and did not know whether the mob or fire had taken them. They lined the streets or were standing out on the grassy banks of the lawns that surround the City Hall, or stood in groups discussing their experiences. Red Cross and charitable workers gave them food to eat, and the city the place to sleep in the city lodging house, and some of them had clothing which they were issuing to these people who had suddenly been robbed of everything except what they stood in.
The invariable story was, that the rioting started on the morning of July 2nd, when the workers were coming off the 11 o'clock shift at the factories and packing plants. The cause was alleged to be the killing of two white police officers who had been shot by colored men when they went into the Negro district on the Denver side to quell a supposed riot. These colored men said that an automobile had gone through the neighborhood firing right and left into the windows of the houses and of the church. A bell was rung and the men rapidly came together at the church to plan for resisting other attacks of similar character. When a second automobile came on the scene very soon after, they thought it were the same parties, and fired into it after a parley, wounding two officers who afterwards died.
This seems to have been the signal for starting the blaze which had been smoldering ever since May 28th. At that time, members of the labor unions began to beat up colored men coming from the Aluminum Ore Packing Co. plant. At that time, one or two companies of militia were sent at the request of the sheriff, and the rioting seemed to have stopped. The colored people understood that the labor unions that had gone on strike because of the employment of colored men, had made up their minds to drive out colored laborers who had come there in such large numbers from the south. Accordingly these Negro laborers made up their minds to sell their lives as dearly as possible, and to hold their ground in the effort to make a living for themselves and their families.
When the officers were killed in the unfortunate mixup of July 1st, it gave excuse for the breaking out of the mob composed largely of union workers and the Negro haters who gathered from small towns surrounding, and even from the South. Horrible stories were given both by eye witnesses as well as by others, the saddest part of them all being, that in every instance, as the mob set upon men coming from their work at 11 o'clock in the day, the soldiers or the police held up the black men, searched them and even took their pocket knives, then left them at the mercy of the mob. In all that disgraceful twenty-four hours of rioting, murder and arson, not a shot was
Indeed, according to General Dickson, the state militia were given orders not to shoot white men and women, and they stood by and saw the most brutal savagery perpetrated without lifting a finger for protection or punishment for those who did murder, committed arson or burned up little children and old people. "Five hundred rioters, the ring leaders of the biggest mob, I am informed, are now under arrest," said General Dickson. "This was accomplished by surrounding the rioters and forcing them to submit without shooting or employing the bayonet." General Dickson said, after the 500 were taken into custody, the disturbance at once took on a less serious aspect. "Eleven companies of Illinois troops are here with three more on the way. The troops already here are: Company I of Vandalia, G of Effingham, D of Newton, F of Benton, H of Shelbyville, L of Carbondale, all of the Fourth Illinois Infantry, and Company A of Casey, C of Sullivan, L of Olney, also of the Fourth. There were two companies encamped in the city previous to the riot. Company F of Pontiac, numbering fifty-five men, and Company L of Kankakee, 110 strong, both of the Third Infantry, and Company L of Paris, Fourth Infantry, fifty strong, are on the way here."
Col. Tripp could easily give orders to fire on Negro rescuers. "A report came to Col. Tripp that Negro inhabitants at Brooklyn, Ill., a city entirely populated by Negroes, were moving on East St. Louis, and he sent a commandeered truck full of guardsmen to the "black" bridge to meet any attack that might be attempted."
"Nobody seems able or willing to say when an inquest will be held, or over what or whom any of the three that could be used as evidence for murder could have been picked up this evening across the street from the public library, where three bodies were still being roasted in hot ashes of a completely devastated square block. * * * * Meanwhile three more victims of savage assaults died in the hospitals, and twenty-eight bodies in all had been recovered.
The guards were lax and cruelly good-natured. In one instance a corpulent Negress brought up in the rear of such a procession and for several blocks a boy, one of the gang of stone-throwing mischief-makers, who followed every squad, was beating her with an iron bar at intervals of a few yards. She did not dare to protest or to resist. She was even too frightened to scream. At last a white man, probably a nonresident of East St. Louis, called the attention of a guardsman to the outrage, and he laughingly drove the boy off.
The results so far have been almost unqualifiedly uncomplimentary to our Illinois state guard, or at least the portion of it that represented it in the first contingent sent here.
Hundreds of episodes are jocundly retailed here by spectators to the slaughter and rioting of Monday evening to evidence that the soldiers were toys in the hands of the determined and desperate mobs when they were not actually co-operating with them.
The square block from Broadway and Eighth streets was burned to an ash heap. On that corner stood a Negro commercial building, containing a grocery and barber shop. The vanguard of the rioters invaded these stores and found a Negro crouching timorously in each. The armed invaders drove the two blacks out through the back doors and there they were shot down and left to be buried alive. The shots were fired from militia rifles by khaki-uniformed men. Dozens of men who saw it done today loudly proclaimed it so, slapped their thighs and said the Illinois National Guard was alright.
When the newly fired buildings were fired this morning the militia men helped get property out of the homes of whites near by, but had done nothing to prevent the torching, for which they had been assigned. When the tardy fire department vehicles came and two streams of water of the force of garden hose were turned, spurting wheezing, toward the
rising flames, the mob yelled: "Let 'em burn!" And at each fireman who tried to do his duty. "Nigger lover!"
Another newspaper says: "Saint Bartholomew's day did not outdo this massacre, when once it started. Indescribable barbarity was born on the moment and perpetrated with malicious deliberation not typical of the most depraved inhabitants of a western nation. Boys of 13, 14, 15 and 16 were in the forefront of every felonious butchery: girls and women, wielding bloody knives and clawing at the eyes of dying victims, sprang from the ranks of the mad thousands.
There was no attempt at avenging specific misdeeds upon selected individuals. A black skin was a death warrant. Wherever a Negro appeared he was stoned, beaten, shot, strung up more than a dozen suffered all of these forms of savage onslaught. Fire came as an inspiration. A woman set the first blaze and was triumphantly carried on the shoulders of her brethren for it.
The outlying colored folks were shot and thrown into the river, the creek, down manholes anywhere. Among them was a little girl, 2 years old, shot through the heart and flung into midroad.
Each man slain was frightfully abused, as a lesson to all others of his color. A murdered man wasn't allowed to die after he had been fatally pierced. He was kicked and beaten with fists, feet and clubs, hanged, shot some more, kicked and beaten again.
And his martyrdom was notice to the world, written in flame and blood, that East St. Louis would not tolerate a black man."
Springfield, Ill., July 10. "There is to be no passing of the buck and no evasion of responsibility on the part of officials in St. Clair county in this race riot investigation," Attorney General Brundage declared this morning before departing for East St. Louis to make a personal survey of the situation. It was intimated that the St. Clair county grand jury, sitting at Belleville, did not take up the riot cases at once because the proper officials had not prepared evidence on the basis of which indictment might be issued.
Mr. Brundage said lawless conditions had existed long enough in St. Clair county and that officials there would be forced either to correct the evils or get out.
"How could undesirable officials be eliminated?" the attorney general was asked.
"Disbarment proceedings can be instituted against any attorney who is remiss or who fails to perform his duty," he replied.
Mr. Brundage had been asked by the chamber of commerce of East St. Louis to take personal charge of the investigation and to direct the grand jury inquisition.
Mrs. Ida Wells Barnett of Chicago headed a delegation of colored residents of Chicago which waited upon Governor Lowden to ask relief for the large number of colored persons who were driven out of East St. Louis in the recent riots. Mrs. Barnett declared that it is the duty of the state to aid the colored persons who are now public charges of St. Louis. The delegation was named at a mass meeting held at Bethel Church, Chicago.
Following the conference with Governor Lowden, Mrs. Barnett departed for St. Louis to aid the Negroes now in public lodging houses in that city.
For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless Negroes at Broadway and Fourth street, in downtown East St. Louis, where a black skin was a death warrant.
I have read of St. Bartholomew's night. I have heard stories of the latter-day crimes of the Turks in Armenia, and I have learned to loathe the German army for its barbarity in Belgium. But I do not believe that Moslem fanatism or Prussian frightfulness could perpetrate murders of more deliberate brutality than those which I saw committed in daylight by citizens of the State of Abraham Lincoln.
I saw man after man, with hands raised, pleading for his life, surrounded by groups of men men who had never seen him before and knew nothing about him except that he was black and saw them administer the historic sentence of intolerance, death by stoning. I saw one of these men, almost dead from a savage shower of stones, hanged with a clothes line, and when it broke, hanged with a rope which held. Within a few spaces of the pole from which he was suspended, four other Negroes lay dead or dying, another had been removed, dead, a short time before. I saw the pockets of two of these Negroes searched, without the finding of any weapon.
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, lifted a flat stone and hurled it directly upon his neck. This young man was much better dressed than most of the others. He walked away unmolested.
I saw Negro women begging for mercy and pleading that they had harmed no one, set upon by white women of the baser sort, who laughed and answered the course sallies of men as they beat the Negresses' faces and breasts with fists, stones and sticks. I saw one of these furies fling herself at a militiaman who was trying to protect a Negress, and wrestle with him for his bayonetted gun, while other women attacked the refugee.
What I saw, in the 90 minutes between 6:30 P. M. and the lurid coming of darkness, was but one local scene of the drama of death. I am satisfied that, in spirit and method, it typified the whole. And I cannot somehow speak of what I saw as mob violence. It was not my idea of a mob.
A mob is passionate, a mob follows one man or a few men blindly; a mob sometimes take chances. The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a man hunt, conducted on a sporting basis, though with anything but the fair play which is the principle of the sport. The East St. Louis men took no chances, except the chance from stray shots, which every spectator of their acts took. They went in small groups, there was little leadership, and there was a horribly cool deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it. I cannot allow even the doubtful excuse of drink. No man whom I saw showed the effect of liquor. It was no crowd of hot-headed youths. Young men were in the greater number, but there were the middle-aged, no less active in the task of destroying the life of every discoverable black man. It was a shirtsleeve gathering, and the men were mostly workingmen, except for some who had the aspect of mere loafers. I have mentioned the peculiarly brutal crime committed by the only man there who had the appearance of being a business or professional man of any standing.
I would be more pessimistic about my fellow-Americans than I am today, if I could not say that there were other workingmen who protested against the senseless slaughter. I would be ashamed of myself if I could not say that I forgot my place as a professional observer and joined in such protests. But I do not think any verbal objection had the slightest effect. Only a volley of lead would have stopped those murderers.
"Get a nigger," was the slogan, and it was varied by the recurrent cry, "Get another!" It was like nothing so much as the holiday crowd, with thumbs turned down, in the Roman Coliseum, except that here the shouters were their own gladiators, and their own wild beasts.
When I got off a State street car on Broadway at 6:30, a fire apparatus was on its way to the blaze in the rear of Fourth street, south from Broadway. A moment's survey showed why this fire had been set, and what it was meant to accomplish.
The sheds in the rear of Negroes' houses, which were themselves in the rear of the main buildings on Fourth street, had been ignited to drive out the Negro occupants of the houses. And the slayers were waiting for them to come out.
It was stay in and be roasted, or come out and be slaughtered. A moment before I arrived, one Negro had taken the desperate chance of coming out, and the rattle of revolver shots, which I heard as I approached the corner, was followed by the cry, "They've got him!"
And they had. He lay on the pavement, a bullet wound in his head and his skull bare in two places. At every movement of pain which showed that life still remained, there came a terrific kick in the jaw or the nose, or a crashing stone, from some of the men who stood over him.
At the corner, a few steps away, were a Sergeant and several guardsmen. The Sergeant approached the ring of men around the prostrate Negro.
"This man is done for," he said. "You'd better get him away from here. No one made a move to lift the blood-covered form, and the Sergeant walked away, remarking, when I questioned him about an ambulance, that the ambulances had quit coming. However, an undertaker's ambulance did come 15 minutes later, and took away the lifeless Negro, who had in the meantime been further kicked and stoned.
By that time, the fire in the rear of the Negro houses had grown hotter, and men were standing in all the narrow spaces through which the Negroes might come to the street. There was talk of a Negro, in one of the houses, who had a Winchester, and the opinion was expressed that he had no ammunition left, but no one went too near, and the fire was depended on to drive him out. The firemen were at work on Broadway, some distance east, but the flames immediately in the rear of the Negro houses burned without hindrance.
A half-block to the south, there was a hue and a cry at a railroad crossing, and a fusilade of shots were heard. More militiamen than I have seen elsewhere, up to that time, were standing on a platform and near a string of freight cars, trying to keep back men who had started to pursue Negroes along the track.
As I turned back toward Broadway, there was a shout at the alley, and a Negro ran out, apparently hoping to find protection. He paid no attention to missiles thrown from behind, none of which had hurt him much, but he was stopped in the middle of the street by a smashing blow in the jaw, struck by a man he had not seen.
"Don't do that," he appealed. "I haven't hurt nobody." The answer was a blow from one side, a piece of curbstone from the other side, and a push which sent him on the brick pavement. He did not rise again, and the battering and the kicking of his skull continued until he lay still, his blood flowing half way across the street. Before he had been booted to the opposite curb, another Negro appeared, and the same deeds were repeated. I did not see any revolver shots fired at these men. Bullets and ammunition were used for use at longer range. It was the last Negro I have mentioned who was apparently finished by the stone hurled upon his neck by the noticeably well-dressed young man.
The butchering of the fire-trapped Negroes went on so rapidly that, when I walked back to the alley a few minutes later, one was lying dead in the alley on the west side of Fourth street and another on the east side.
And now women began to appear. One frightened black girl probably 20 years old, got as far as Broadway with not worse treatment than jeers and thrusts. At Broadway, in view of militiamen, the white women, several of whom had been watching the massacre of the Negro men, pounced on the Negress. I do not wish to be understood as saying that these women were representatives of the womanhood of East St. Louis. Their faces showed, all too plainly, exactly who and what they were. But they were the heroines of the moment with that gathering of men, and when one man, sick of the brutality he had seen, seized one of the women by the arm to stop an impending blow, he was hustled away with fists under his nose, and with more show of actual anger than had been bestowed upon any of the Negroes. He was a stocky, nervy chap, and he stood his ground until a diversion elsewhere drew the menacing ring of men away.
"Let the girls have her," was the shout as the women attacked the young Negress. The victim's cry, "Please, please, I ain't done nothing," was stopped by a blow in the mouth with a broomstick, which one of the women swung like a base ball bat. Another women seized the Negress' hands and the blow was repeated as she struggled helplessly. Finger nails clawed her hair, and the sleeves were torn from her waist, when some of the men called, "Now let her see how fast she can run." The women did not readily leave off beating
her, but they stopped short of murder, and the crying, hysterical girl ran down the street.
An older Negress a few moments later came along with two or three militiamen, and the same women made for her. When one of the soldiers held his gun as a barrier, the woman with the broomstick seized it with both hands and struggled to wrest it from him, while the others, striking at the Negress, in spite of the other militiamen, frightened her thoroughly and hurt her somewhat.
From Negress baiting, the well-pleased procession turned to see a lynching. A Negro had his head laid open by a great stone-cut, had been dragged to the mouth of the alley on 4th street and a small rope was being tied about his neck. It broke when it was pulled over a projecting cable, letting the Negro fall. A stouter rope was secured.
Right here I saw the most sickening sight of the evening. To put the rope around the Negro's neck, one of the lynchers stuck his fingers inside the gaping scalp and lifted the Negro's head by it, literally bathing his hand in the man's blood. "Get hold and pull for East St. Louis," called a man with a black coat and a new straw hat on as he seized the other end of the rope, and helped lift the body seven feet from the ground, and left hanging there.
A mob of white men formed and burned all the Negro houses on Bond Avenue between Tenth and Twelfth Streets, 43 houses being destroyed.
In the fire zone at Sixth and Broadway, two Negroes are reported to have burned to death. At Fifth and Railroad, another death by fire was reported. One of the mid-afternoon killings was at 4 o'clock, at Broadway and Main Street. A Negro was shot down. One of those firing on him being a boy in short trousers. The driver of the first ambulance that came was not permitted to remove this body, and it lay for an hour beside the street car tracks seen by the passengers in every passing car.
At 9:30 this morning a Negro, still living, but in a critical condition, was found in a sewer manhole at Sixth Street and Broadway. He was beaten by the mob with paving bricks 13 hours before and thrown in.
The 2-year old Negro child who was killed was the daughter of William Forest of 1118 Division Ave. A bullet fired into the house entered the body near the heart.
City Attorney Fekete is credited with having saved the life of a young Negro who was running from a crowd which had fired a number of shots at him while the Negro was plainly visible in the glare of the burning buildings. Fekete placed the Negro in his own automobile, and after arguing for several minutes with the group of men succeeded getting away with the rescued man.
Wells-Barnett, Mrs. Ida B. The East St. Louis Massacre: The Greatest Outrage of the Century . Chicago: The Negro Fellowship Herald Press, 1917. [format: book], [genre: report; narrative]. Permission: Public domain
Persistent link to this document: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/file.php?file=wells-stlouis.html