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Organizers hope weekend conference on 1917 East St. Louis race riots will begin ongoing dialogue

A family flees violence in East St. Louis following the 1917 race riots.
Courtesy of East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission and Cultural Initiative
A family flees violence in East St. Louis following the 1917 race riots.

The social, economic and political factors that led to the deadly East St. Louis race riots 100 years ago will be examined at a conference that begins Friday. 

The point is to educate people about the riots while beginning an ongoing conversation about what the region still faces today, said the Rev. Joseph Brown, chairman of the East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission.

“I have studied enough American history to know that quite often we’re only told bits and pieces that are disconnected.  Politics, economics, labor issues, cultural issues — they’re all connected,’’ Brown said. “And in America’s history, quite often those are connected through acts of violence and fear, retribution. East St. Louis is a perfect example of what happened from all those different points of view.’’

“The City That Survives: Commemorating the Past, Preparing for the Future,” includes academic panels and cultural programs. It will run through Sunday at the East St. Louis Higher Education Campus.

The worst of the rioting was on July 2-3, 1917, when mobs of white people roved through East St. Louis, assaulting and lynching African-American men and burning the homes and businesses of black residents.

According to the official report, 48 people were killed in the violence, 39 of them African-American. But historians believe the death toll was several hundred. An estimated 7,000 black residents lost their homes.

The conference is timed to coincide with the first outbreak of violence on May 28, 1917.

“Things had been simmering for months and then there were people who got together as groups and went out to harm black people,’’ said Brown. “And there was a great eruption on May 28th. So for us to start the public conversation and rituals of remembrance, this was a perfect time to do this.’’

Registration is free and open to the public. Saturday night's reception will raise funds for a monument to victims of the violence. The commission is working with the Bi-State Development Agency and the National Park Service on a plan to place markers at the base of the Eads Bridge — over which hundreds fled during the riots to seek safety in St. Louis — and at the East St. Louis Higher Education Campus, which is the site of the bloodiest violence. 

Brown said a permanent memorial is important to keeping alive knowledge of the East St. Louis riot that took place during a time period when African-Americans were targeted by mobs in many American cities, including Chicago, Springfield, Illinois; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“This has got to be a continuing event,’’ said Brown, a Catholic priest and professor of Africana studies at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. “You’ll never get over it if you don’t talk about it. And I think the city is more than ready to start dealing with this so that people can tell stories and then talk about how they got through it and how their relatives got through it and how it became a city that survives.’’

The conference opens at 3 p.m. Friday, with a keynote speech by author Charles Lumpkins, a lecturer at Pennsylvania State University, who wrote “American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics” and “An East St. Louis Anthology: The Origins of a River City.”

Saturday’s events include a panel discussion with SIUE professor Andrew Theising and Washington University professor Michael Allen, who will examine the sociopolitical factors that led to the riot and relate them to today. St. Louis Alderman Terry Kennedy and his brother, Dhati Kennedy, will share their family’s story of the riots. And there will be a staged reading of “Tinderbox,” an exploration of the riots by playwright Gregory Carr.

On Sunday, an arts and cultural festival, featuring East St. Louis poet laureate Eugene B. Redmond, will commemorate the victims of the riots. Details on the conference and online registration are available on the commission’s website.

If you go:
The conference will be at the East St. Louis Higher Education Campus, 
Building D, 601 James R. Thompson Blvd., East St. Louis.

Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard

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