“There has never been a time when the riot was not alive in the oral tradition," said Eugene Redmond, poet laureate of East St. Louis, speaking of the 1917 racial attacks in his city. Journalist and cultural critic Harper Barnes borrows a phrase from Redmond for the title of Never Been a Time, his history of the deadliest riot of the era and its impact on the civil rights movement.
On the evening of July 1, 1917, white gunmen drove through black neighborhoods in East St. Louis, Ill., firing into homes. For the previous month in this small industrial city — a magnet for thousands of Southern blacks lured by the promise of jobs and greater freedom — there had been sporadic attacks on the black population after a heated city council debate about their influx. Many of the new black arrivals had been used as strikebreakers in the city's mills, refineries and stockyards, and the press carried sensationalized — and often untrue — accounts of black crime.
Arming themselves against the assaults, a group of blacks mistook white plainclothes policemen for attackers and opened fire on their unmarked car. Two policemen were killed. As the news spread, and the sight of the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked police car stoked tempers further, crowds of whites began attacking blacks on the morning of July 2.
Drawing on ample primary source materials, as well as eyewitness accounts from reporters, businessmen, factory managers and other bystanders — much of which comes from testimony given before a congressional committee that investigated the riot — Barnes provides a riveting, lucid account.
He describes the bedlam of roving gangs of white men (and sometimes women) beating, shooting and hanging any black men, women or children they came across. They set fire to black neighborhoods and shot those who ran from the burning buildings. Yet, Barnes writes, "To at least one observer . . . the rioters seemed in an odd way almost calm as they did the most horrible things."
Under the inept leadership of Col. Stephen Tripp (who wore a "gray summer suit and straw hat"), assistant quartermaster general for the Illinois National Guard, troops meant to put down the riot stood by passively, and in some cases even joined in the violence. The city's feckless mayor, overwhelmed, abdicated authority to the city attorney. By the time the riot petered out on the morning of July 3, at least 100 African-Americans were dead, and many more were badly injured.
The trauma of the riot left an indelible mark on future generations of the city's residents, including legendary jazz musician Miles Davis, a native of the city, who is quoted in the introduction: "When I was coming up in East St. Louis, black people I knew never forgot what sick white people had done to them back in 1917."
Two dozen riots erupted in cities across America between 1918 and 1921 — notably in Houston, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Chicago and Tulsa — but the East St. Louis riot was "not only the first but officially the deadliest . . . in the World War I era."
In its wake, membership in the NAACP skyrocketed, and on July 28, 1917, some 10,000 blacks marched down New York's Fifth Avenue "to the funereal beat of muffled drums," in what would later be known as the Silent Parade — the first major civil rights march.
To illustrate the scope of racial violence in American history, Barnes devotes his early chapters to previous antiblack riots and the history of lynching, which peaked in the 1890s but continued into the 1960s, claiming thousands of lives.
Attempting to make sense of this history, Barnes occasionally offers oversimple explanations, as when he writes: "Poverty and economic fear among poor whites . . . bred seething anger, and racist politicians made certain that the anger was directed at the blacks on the lowest rung of the societal ladder rather than upward at the political and economic moguls perched on the top step."
But hard times and racist politicians explain only so much. Lynch mobs and rioters invariably cut across class lines, and not all poor whites engaged in violence. Like Holocaust historians who ascribe heavy causal significance to Germany's economic woes, Barnes settles for reductive class-warfare explanations rather than probe the far more troubling and elusive phenomenon of human evil.
Still, his book is a valuable addition to the growing literature of the episodic violence and terror visited upon African-Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Daniel Wein is a freelance writer and editor in Houston.