Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Women in the Crowd: Gender and the East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Women in the Crowd: Gender and the East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917

Article excerpt

The notorious East St. Louis race riot was one of the bloodiest outbursts of white mob violence in twentieth-century American history. Trouble erupted on the morning of July 2, 1917, and the city was very rapidly plunged into a chaotic carnival of violence that lasted into the night. White rioters streamed through the streets, beating and shooting black people, smashing and setting fire to black businesses and homes. Appallingly, the riot mobs were actively urged on by racist police officers, and when the National Guard arrived in the city, many troops deserted their posts and joined in the killing. The rioters were thus almost wholly unrestrained and carried out merciless attacks downtown and in adjoining residential streets. Meanwhile, black residents struggled--resorting to armed force--to keep the rioters at bay at the border of the main black ghetto district of Denverside. As the day wore on, local whites turned out into the streets in the hundreds to applaud and cheer at the scenes of violence. A semblance of order was only restored by nightfall as National Guard commanders established control over their troops and dispersed the mobs. By then entire city blocks were ablaze and bodies were strewn about the streets. Official estimates later placed the death toll of African Americans at thirty-nine, but local reports spoke of many bodies that had been thrown into the Mississippi River by rioters or hurriedly buried in unmarked graves in the aftermath upon the instructions of local officials. Many of the dead would remain unaccounted for. In addition to the appalling cost in human life, rioters destroyed over 300 buildings, causing roughly $400,000 worth of damage and leaving hundreds upon hundreds of African Americans homeless. Many of the survivors fled East St. Louis, never to return. Those who dared to venture back to the city were left to pick their way through their shattered homes to recover what little property had not been stolen or destroyed by the mobs (Rudwick passim; McLaughlin passim; Duster 386-87; Stokes l; "Negroes" 7).

Amid the tumultuous violence of the East St. Louis race riot, many observers were struck by the brutal role that white women took in the killing. Their actions were perhaps surprising given that lynching in the South had been thought of as a masculine preserve, a means of supposedly "protecting" or "avenging" the honor of white women threatened by putative black "rapists." In contrast, in East St. Louis, white women threw themselves into the fray along side the men, and their fury was unmistakable. One such woman rioter wielding a knife was heard calling out from amongst the crowd that she "wanted to 'cut the heart out' of a negro, a man already paralyzed from a bullet wound" ("Man-Hunting" 1 and "Guns, Knives" 2). Another was seen swinging a broomstick "like a baseball bat" as she set about a black girl (Hurd 2). Other white women carried firearms with deadly intentions. There was, for example, a white woman with "a big revolver in her hand," who was seen by one witness shooting at black people as they fled their homes at Third and Brady after rioters had set the buildings ablaze (Board of Inquiry 331). (2) She was possibly one of a group of "four girls, none of them more than 20 years old, all carrying revolvers" who were seen chasing and shooting at black people in this vicinity. It was later confirmed that at least five people were shot and killed there ("24 Negroes" 2). Near the railroad station, a "woman with short, bobbed hair" was seen in the midst of a mob that knocked a black man to the ground as he attempted to flee; she stepped forward and shot the man in the head as members of the mob cheered her on (Malone 1E). As well as taking an active part in the violence, in some cases white women led the attacks. It was, for example, said to be the "frenzied women in the crowd" who "were amongst the first to start brick throwing" when the rioters encountered African Americans ("Mob Said" 5). …

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