In 1917 East St. Louis was on the brink of economic disaster, though it ranked #1 in the sale of horses and mules, was the world's largest aluminum processing center, was the second largest railroad center, and led the country in the manufacturing of roofing material, baking powder, and paint. These industrial achievements, the advantageous location of East St. Louis on the Mississippi River across from a major city, and the railroads connecting the city to other major industrial sites belied the fact that East St. Louis had extremely limited industrial tax support because the larger industries located outside the city limits, eventually creating their own cities--Sauget, National City, and Morton. Employment at these major industrial sites was the primary impetus for racial discord, though secondarily discontent mounted because the Republican party "imported" Blacks from the South in a failed attempt to increase the Republican vote in the 1916 Presidential election. Thus, labor unrest and the importation of Blacks from the South fomented deadly aggression.
On April 18, 1917, the Employees' Protection Association called
a strike against Aluminum Ore. When Blacks began to fill the positions
vacated by the strikers--often for lower wages--the strikers were
permanently barred from Aluminum Ore. The tempers of these displaced
workers flared, and on May 10, 1917, a Central Trades committee
demanded that Mayor Fred Moilman inform southern Blacks that,
if they came to East St. Louis seeking jobs, they would be embroiled
in a "holocaust" that would make the 1908 Springfield
riot seem like a "tame affair."
Daily, whites became more physically aggressive, and police became more protective of white interests. On May 23, 1917, when Black and white youths threw stones at each other, police arrested the Black youths. On May 26, after an altercation between Blacks and white at Tenth Street and Piggott Avenue, police started carrying two guns as a defense against Blacks. On May 28, Blacks were disarmed by police, though the Blacks themselves were attacked by a white mob at Broadway and Collinsville. On May 29 at Second Street and St. Clair Avenue, Black employees leaving Swift's Packing House were beaten by whites intending to intimidate them into leaving East St. Louis. On June 17, a white mob beat a sixty-six year old Black male who refused to relinquish his seat on a Collinsvile Avenue street car to an elderly white woman. On July 1 conditions became explosive when Blacks mistakenly killed two East St. Louis policemen whom they believed to be driving a car ~imiIar to one used in a drive-by shooting. The next day, July 2, 1917, from 10 A.M. to 12 A.M., one of the most serious race riots of the twentieth century left over one hundred Blacks dead and many more homeless as whites ravished the South End, a Black neighborhood. Although the aggressors were clearly the whites, Blacks received more stringent legal penalties.
According to Elliott Rudwick in his book Race Riot East St. Louis & there were two trials of Blacks stemming from the race riot. Peop1e vs. farker was the very first of all the riot cases and was tried in early October, 1917. PeopJe~vs~Bundy was the last riot case, taking place in March, 1919. In the first trial, ten Blacks went to prison. The Chicago Defender summed up the sentiment in declaring that "the convicted men received a bum deal and were victims of race prejudice pure and simple." In both cases Edward Wilson was a witness for the prosecution.
Dr. Leroy Bundy, the last person tried in the riot case, was a fiercely independent, ambitious man who was a prominent dentist and businessman. His arrest had transformed him into a celebrity among Negroes across the country. Proclaiming him a "race leader," Negro newspapers declared that the case was not "the trial of an individual but... the trial of the Race." The N.A.A.C.P. gave a limited legal defense fund. Despite N.A.A.C.P. support, the dentist's fierce independence created conflict with the Association, and the estrangement probably hurt his case.
However, Bundy was finally freed on appeal by the Illinois Supreme Court. According to Rudwick's book on the riot, "The hearings were publicized across the country as well as in East St. Louis, and although no fundamental reforms were made in the economic or political system, the inquiry strengthened the resolve of many East St. Louisians to avoid further racial violence.
Thus, against this backdrop of racial violence and discrimination, East St. Louis entered into the decade of the twenties, a decade of prohibition, Al Capone, Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic, the Jazz Age, and the Harlem Renaissance. Black writers, like Langston Hughes, decried racial injustices and publicized the degradation of the Black man, whose plight, riveted with economic poverty, was rife with suffering; everywhere Blacks contended with racial hatred. During the first half of the decade, the Ku Klux Klan's membership swelled to four million!
Amidst this tension, the East St. Louis Branch of the N.A.A.C.P. was organized in 1924 as an arm of the national office in addressing racialconflicts specific to ty. Rev. Fisher was the first president. Blacks, virtually powerless in government, needed a recognized support group demanding equal justice and reparation. Thus, through the years pressure against discriminatory practices by this organization has netted East St. Louis, a predominantly Black city, successes in combating racially-segregated housing, employment, and education. Aggrieved citizens have relied on this advocacy group to confront the problems of racial hatred to their resolutions and to fight "for the enforcement of the Constitution of the United States" (W.E.B. DuBois).