Processional honors lives lost during East St. Louis race riot 100 years ago

EAST ST. LOUIS • At the line between Missouri and Illinois on the Eads Bridge, two mayors and a few hundred people honored the lives of the men, women and children who died 100 years ago trying to flee race-related riots in East St. Louis.

They walked there in the 90-degree heat Sunday evening.

It wasn’t a parade — that sounds too light. And it wasn’t a march — too heavy.

It was a processional, an organizer told the crowd. It was a chance to honor the lives of the up to 250 people, according to some accounts, who died in the East St. Louis riots 100 years ago. They walked from the East St. Louis Community College Center to the state line on the bridge.

At least 7,000 African-Americans fled across the Eads and MacArthur bridges to St. Louis to escape the violence.

Read the coverage of the riot as it ran in the Post-Dispatch in 1917

The grandmother of St. Louis Alderman Terry Kennedy is among those who successfully crossed the river, along with her nine children, including Kennedy’s father.

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Remebering the East St. Louis riots, 100 years later

Members of the Sunshine East St. Louis Performance Ensemble (from left to right) Cartez Thomas, 15, of East St. Louis, Jajuan Gibson, 17, of Belleville, Corey Harris, 28, of East St. Louis, and Tim Wilson, 30, of St. Louis, perform on the Eads Bridge in remembrance of the East St. Louis riots of 1917 on Sunday, July 2, 2017. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

He shared a piece of his family’s plight Sunday, including the four-hour journey across the Mississippi River on a makeshift raft. By the time they tried to cross, the bridges were blocked.

“We’re here to make sure a history that’s been hidden too long isn’t hidden anymore,” Kennedy told the crowd. Walking to the river on July 2 each year is a 20-year tradition for Kennedy’s family.

During the processional, two East St. Louis police officers shared stories their grandparents once shared with them about seeing blood flow down the streets and people running for safety past a man who had been hanged.

It was as much of an educational experience for the dozens of children walking with their parents and grandparents as it was a reflection opportunity for those who are two or fewer generations removed from the riots.

After helping carry a wreath across the bridge toward the end of the processional, East St. Louis Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson reflected on the violence.

“The history of East St. Louis speaks to many issues we still face today,” Jackson-Hicks said, pointing to systemic racism and other injustices that she said disproportionately affect African-Americans. “Our work must continue.”

It’s about staying accountable to the those who died 100 years ago, and those who have died since because of the color of their skin.

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Remebering the East St. Louis riots, 100 years later

A crowd listens to speakers on the Eads Bridge in remembrance of the East St. Louis riots of 1917 on Sunday, July 2, 2017. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

A similar sentiment was echoed by Krewson, who called the riots a “symptom of a disease we still have today.”

“We are confronted with how far we have to go” in addressing equity issues in housing policies, the criminal justice system and health care, she said.

The events Sunday evening capped a weekend full of commemorative events across the metro area in remembrance of the riots. Sunday morning, a bell above the Truelight Baptist Church in East St. Louis rang for the first time in a while. It’s the same bell that alerted African-Americans that the white mobs were coming.

All weekend, the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis shared the chronology of the riots on Twitter.

Events continue the next few weeks, including the screening of a documentary, “Made in the USA: The East St. Louis Story,” at 7 p.m. July 25 at the Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Boulevard.

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