“East St. Louis, Illinois, is more than a small town on the Mississippi River. It is the intersection of many national forces. It is an example of nineteenth century capitalism. It is an example of twentieth century struggle. It is an example of twenty-first century challenge. It is also one of the most misunderstood cities in America.
— Andrew J. Theising, Made in USA: East St. Louis
Although Captain James Piggott is often credited for founding “Illinoistown” in 1797 with his ferry service across the Mississippi River, native people inhabited the land of present-day East St. Louis long before European Americans began settling there. In fact, located just to the north of East St. Louis is Cahokia Mounds, the remains of an enormous prehistoric native civilization.
Following the American Civil War, East St. Louis experienced a period of rapid industrial growth, especially in the meat packing, stockyard, and railroad industries. Because East St. Louis quickly became a booming industrial suburb and because a strong labor supply is necessary for industry, the demographics of the city were affected as industry manipulated the labor supply. In the early 1900s, East St. Louis industries sought to flood the market with cheap labor so that they were in a better position to quell unionization efforts, threaten employees with dismissal and replacement, and maintain wages at the lowest possible level, undoubtedly altering both the racial and the socio-economic demographics of the city.
These racial and socio-economic shifts throughout the early twentieth century eventually contributed to one of the most devastating social and political crises in 1917: The East St. Louis Race Riot. When industries in the North began openly advertising in Southern newspapers that Black workers were needed, Black Americans living in the rural South began moving to the urban North during a period now called the “First Great Migration.” Believing that the North offered them more opportunities for economic and political power as well as an escape from the racialized violence in the Jim Crow South, around 1.6 million Black Americans migrated North between 1910 and 1930. In East St. Louis specifically, industries like the Aluminum Ore Company advertised for Black workers from the South to replace the white workers who had gone on strike. Their scheme worked and racial tensions between Black and white people were rapidly growing in East St. Louis.
On the night of July 1, 1917, one or two cars of white men drove through Black neighborhoods randomly firing shots at houses. When a nearly identical car passed through a second time, the Black residents living in the homes returned fire. Unknowingly, undercover detectives Samuel Coppedge and Frank Wadley occupied the second car. Coppedge was killed immediately and Wadley died the next day. On July 2, their bullet-riddled Ford police car was intentionally placed in front of the police station, blood still staining the interior upholstery. Hundreds of armed white East St. Louis residents begin gathering at the Labor Temple downtown and marching in military formation near the intersection of Broadway and Collinsville Avenue. The angry white mob began shooting and beating Black people on sight in the streets, with disregard to age or gender.
By the end of the night, the numbers were staggering: property damage was valued at $373,605, between two hundred and forty-four and three hundred and twelve structures were burned, forty-four railroad cars were destroyed, and the official death count was at least thirty-nine Black people and eight white people. However, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) estimated that between one hundred and two hundred black people were actually killed.
While the race riot of 1917 is an example of the extremely brutal and overt anti-Black racism found in East St. Louis’ history, there were more covert examples as well, especially in regards to employment and housing. Beginning in the 1960s, industrial suburbs across the United States experienced deindustrialization, the structural processes of industrial decline through disinvestment, relocation, or both. Black residents who had fewer resources and faced discrimination in both job and housing markets, were especially affected.
In addition to deindustrialization, another social phenomenon began concurrently in East St. Louis: white flight, defined as the process of white migration from racially mixed urban areas to more racially homogeneous suburban or exurban areas. During the post-World War II period of the 1950s and 1960s, white flight to the suburbs dramatically increased as millions of Black Americans from the rural South moved to the urban North as part of the Second Great Migration.
Although this is extremely oversimplified, to understand the reality of East St. Louis today, one must first grapple with East St. Louis’ unpalatable history: the labor injustices, the race riots, the deindustrialization, and the white flight. Because East St. Louis is repeatedly stigmatized and dehumanized, the average outside observer understands the city to be, at best, a dangerous place needing immediate assistance, and at worst, a place that simply does not exist. It is our hope at the Family Center that we can resist and challenge that narrative by learning the true history of East St. Louis and by centering the previously marginalized voices of the people who call East St. Louis home.
- James Borchert, “Deindustrialization,” Encyclopedia of Homelessness, Edited by David Levinson, (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2004).
- Jennifer Hamer, Abandoned in the Heartland: Work, Family, and Living in East St. Louis, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).
- Charles Kubrin, Tim Wadsworth, and Stephanie DiPietro, “Deindustrialization, Disadvantage and Suicide Among Young Black Males,” Social Forces, 84.3 (2006): 1559-1579.
- Elliot Rudwick, Race Riot at East St. Louis: July 2, 1917, (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1982).
- Meghan A. Rich, “White Flight,” Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society, (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc., 2008): 1396-1398.
- Andrew Theising, Made in USA: East St. Louis, (St. Louis, MO: Virginia Publishing, 2003).