This Day in History: July 3rd

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Racial Tensions Lead To The East St. Louis Riots of 1917

The city of East St. Louis, Illinois, was once a place where African-Americans could find opportunities working for meatpacking, metalworking and railroad companies, but that all ended with the East St. Louis Race Riot. Most of the rioting persisted from July 2 to July 3, 1917.

During the early years of the 20th century, industrial cities in the North and the Midwest became top destinations for African-Americans looking to leave the South in search of employment. East St. Louis was one of these cities and during World War I, the demand for workers had dramatically increased. Some East St. Louis companies actively recruited African-Americans from the South and made promises of transportation, jobs and communities where African Americans were building new lives for themselves. This increased the migration to East St. Louis and by the spring of 1917, more than 1000 African-Americans were arriving in the city each week.

Racial tensions began to rise as more African-Americans were being hired for factory jobs and white resentment increased. Issues heightened after a City Council meeting on May 28, 1917, went awry and angry white residents led a mob throughout the city and started beating any African-Americans insight. The National Guard was called out but proved to be ineffective, so local African-American groups began to mobilize in self-defense. 

White men began terrorizing African-Americans in the community. On July 1, 1917, a white man started firing shots into Black homes and armed African-Americans retaliated, which resulted in the death of police officers investigating the initial shooting. Whites were outraged, more mobs formed, and the violence towards African-Americans amplified. The mobs beat any African American they could find with guns, rocks and pipes and set homes on fire. Once again, the National Guard was sent in but neither the guardsmen nor the local police officers helped in protecting the African American residents from the mob.

Many African American men, women, and children were shot, hanged, beaten to death, or burned alive at the hands of the mob in East St. Louis, Illinois. The riot ended with more than $400,000 in property damage and led 6,000 African American residents to leave the city. As for the members of the mob, 105 people were indicted but only 20 people were given prison sentences. 

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