1917 East Saint Louis, Illinois, race riot

The 1917 East St. Louis, Illinois, race riot was one of the deadliest race riots in American history. The riot’s official death toll was 39 African Americans and nine whites, although some estimates put the death toll as high as two hundred.

The riot was preceded by months of racial tension. In the fall of 1916, the local Democratic party had accused the Republican party of importing African Americans to ensure GOP electoral victories. On May 28, a mob of angry whites began beating African Americans after a rumor spread that a white man had been shot while being robbed by an African American. The riot lasted until the next day when the Illinois National Guard intervened. No one was killed during the May riot, but racial violence would continue intermittently through June.

On July 1, after white men began firing guns in a black neighborhood, a group of African American men fired on a car, killing two police officers within. Over the next two days, white mobs ravaged the city, burning neighborhoods, injuring several hundred African Americans. Thousands of African Americans fled; many were made homeless. 

Former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt strongly condemned the violence in East St. Louis—calling it “an appalling outbreak of savagery,” according to the front page New York Times article from July 7, 1917. During a welcome ceremony for Russian envoys on July 6 in New York, Roosevelt emphasized that the U.S. could not legitimately criticize Russia for human rights violations until the U.S. first ensured justice for all Americans.

Samuel Gompers, leader of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), was present at the ceremony. He also denounced the riots. He attributed their cause not primarily to racism, however, but rather to an organized effort to destabilize labor conditions in East St. Louis. Gompers’ interpretation suggested that the rioting was understandable since white workers’ jobs were at risk because of the influx of black laborers in the city seeking World War I jobs, some of whom were hired as strikebreakers. 

This elicited an angry response from Roosevelt. As he shook his fist in the labor leader’s face, Roosevelt decried Gompers’ attempt to explain away “the brutal infamies imposed on colored people.” Roosevelt’s ringing condemnation of the riots earned wide praise from W. E. B. Du Bois and other African Americans who had to wait a full year for President Woodrow Wilson to express disapproval of the violence in St. Louis.