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Archive article: 'Post-Dispatch man, an eye-witness, describes massacre of negroes'

Archive article: 'Post-Dispatch man, an eye-witness, describes massacre of negroes'

From the Read the Post-Dispatch coverage of the East St. Louis riot series
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This article was first published on July 3, 1917. 

The text here is as printed that day, with minor changes to correct typographical errors and syntax. These articles contain graphic details of the violence, and use the ugly racial terminology of the era, including a racial epithet.

By Carlos F. Hurd | St. Louis Post-Dispatch

For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless Negroes at Broadway and Fourth Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where a black skin was a death warrant.

I have read of St. Bartholomew’s night. I have heard stories of the latter-day crimes of the Turks in Armenia, and I have learned to loathe the German army for its barbarity in Belgium. But I do not believe that Moslem fanaticism or Prussian frightfulness could perpetrate murders of more deliberate brutality than those which I saw committed, in daylight by citizens of the State of Abraham Lincoln.

I saw man after man, with hands raised, pleading for his life, surrounded by groups of men — men who had never seen him before and knew nothing about him except that he was black — and saw them administer the historic sentence of intolerance, death by stoning. I saw one of these men, almost dead from a savage shower of stones, hanged with a clothesline. Within a few paces of the pole from which he was suspended, four other Negroes lay dead or dying, another having been removed, dead, a short time before. I saw the pockets of two of these Negroes searched, without the finding of any weapon.

Rock dropped on Negro’s neck

I saw one of these men, covered with blood and half conscious, raise himself on his elbow and look feebly about, when a young man, standing directly behind him, lifted a flat stone in both hands and hurled it upon his neck. This young man was much better dressed than most of the others. He walked away unmolested.

I saw Negro women begging for mercy and pleading that they had harmed no one, set upon by white women of the baser sort, who laughed and answered the coarse sallies of men as they beat the Negresses’ faces and breasts with fists, stones and sticks. I saw one of these furies fling herself at a militiaman who was trying to protect a Negress, and wrestle with him for his bayonetted gun, while other women attacked the refugee.

What I saw, in 90 minutes between 6:30 p.m. and the lurid coming of darkness, was but one local scene of the drama of death. I am satisfied that, in spirit and method, it typified the whole. And I cannot somehow speak of what I saw as mob violence. It was not my idea of a mob.

Crowd mostly workingmen

A mob is passionate; a mob follows one man or a few men blindly; a mob sometimes takes chances. The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a manhunt, conducted on a sporting basis, though with anything but the fair play which is the principle of sport. The East St. Louis men took no chances, except the chance from stray shots, which every spectator of their acts took. They went in small groups, there was little leadership, and there was a horribly cool deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it. I cannot allow even the doubtful excuse of drink. No man whom I saw showed the effect of liquor.

It was no crowd of hot-headed youths. Young men were in the greater number, but there were the middle-aged, no less active in the task of destroying the life of every discoverable black man. It was a shirt-sleeve gathering, and the men were mostly workingmen, except for some who had the aspect of mere loafers. I have mentioned the peculiarly brutal crime committed by the only man there who had the appearance of being a business or professional man of any standing.

I would be more pessimistic about my fellow-Americans than I am today, if I could not say that there were other workingmen who protested against the senseless slaughter. I would be ashamed of myself if I could not say that I forgot my place as a professional observer and joined in such protests. But I do not think any verbal objection has the slightest effect. Only a volley of lead would have stopped those murders.

“Get a nigger,” was the slogan, and it was varied by the recurrent cry, “Get another!” It was like nothing so much as the holiday crowd, with thumbs turned down in the Roman Coliseum, except that here the shouters were their own gladiators, and their own wild beasts.

When I got off a State Street car on Broadway at 6:30, a fire apparatus was on its way to the blaze in the rear of Fourth Street, south from Broadway. A moment’s survey showed why this fire had been set, and what it was meant to accomplish.

Fire drives out Negroes

The sheds in the rear of Negroes’ houses on Fourth Street had been ignited to drive out the Negro occupants of the houses. And the slayers were waiting for them to come out.

It was stay in and be roasted, or come out and be slaughtered. A moment before I arrived, one Negro had taken the desperate chance of coming out, and the rattle of revolver shots, which I heard as I approached the corner, was followed by the cry, “They’ve got him! …”

And they had. He lay on the pavement, a bullet wound in his head and his skull bare in two places. At every movement of pain which showed that life, there came a terrific kick in the jaw or the nose, or a crushing stone, from some of the men who stood over him.

At the corner, a few steps away, were a sergeant and several guardsmen. The sergeant approached the ring of men around the prostrate Negro.

“This man is done for,” he said. “You better get him away from here.” No one made a move to lift the blood-covered form, and the sergeant walked away, remarking, when I questioned him about an ambulance, that the ambulances had quit coming. However, an undertaker’s ambulance did come 15 minutes later, and took away the lifeless Negro, who had in the meantime been further kicked and stoned.

By that time, the fire in the rear of the Negro houses had grown hotter, and men were standing in all the narrow spaces through which the Negroes might come to the street. There was talk of a Negro, in one of the houses, who had a Winchester, and the opinion was expressed that he had no ammunition left but no one went too near, and the fire was depended on to drive him out. The firemen were at work on Broadway some distance east, but the flames immediately in the rear of the Negro houses burned without hindrance.

Militiamen try to curb mob

A half-block to the south, there was a hue and cry at a railroad crossing, and a fusillade of shots was heard. More militiamen than I had seen elsewhere, up to that time, were standing on a platform and near a string of freight cars, and trying to keep back men who had started to pursue Negroes along the track.

As I turned back toward Broadway, there was a shout at the alley and a Negro ran out, apparently hoping to find protection. He paid no attention to missiles thrown from behind, none of which had hurt him much, but he was stopped in the middle of the street by a smashing blow in the jaw, struck by a man he had not seen.

“Don’t do that,” he appealed. “I haven’t hurt nobody.” The answer was a blow from one side, a piece of curbstone from the other side, and a push which sent him on the brick pavement. He did not rise again, and the battering and kicking of his skull continued until he lay still, his blood flowing half way across the street. Before he had been booted to the opposite curb, another Negro appeared and the same deeds were repeated. I did not see any revolver shots fired at these men. Bullets and ammunition were saved for use at longer range. It was the last Negro I mentioned who was apparently finished by the stone hurled upon his neck by the noticeably well-dressed young man.

The butchering of the fire-trapped Negroes went on so rapidly that, when I walked back to the alley a few minutes later, one was lying dead in the alley on the west side of Fourth Street and another on the east side.

And now women began to appear. One frightened black girl, probably 20 years old, got as far as Broadway with no worse treatment than jeers and thrusts. At Broadway, in view of militiamen, the white women, several of whom had been watching the massacre of the Negro men, pounced on the Negroes. I do not wish to be understood as saying that those women were representative of the womanhood of East St. Louis. Their faces showed all too plainly exactly who and what they were. But they were the heroines of the moment with that gathering of men, and when one man, sick of the brutality he had seen, seized one of the women by the arm to stop an impending blow, he was hustled away with fists under his nose, and with more show of actual anger than had been bestowed on the Negroes. He was a stocky, nervy chap, and he stood his ground until a diversion elsewhere drew the menacing ring of men away.

“Let the girls have her,” was the shout as the woman attacked the young Negress. The victim’s cry, “Please, please, I ain’t done nothing,” was stopped by a blow in the mouth with a broomstick, which one of the women swung like a baseball bat. Another woman seized the Negress’ hands, and the blow was repeated as she struggled helplessly. Finger nails clawed her hair, and the sleeves were torn from her waist, when some men called, “Now let her see how fast she can run.” The women did not readily leave off beating her, but they stopped short of murder, and the crying, hysterical girl ran down the street.

An elder Negress, a few moments later, came along with two or three militiamen, and the same woman made for her. When one of the soldiers held his gun as a barrier, the woman with the broomstick seized it with both hands, and struggled to wrest it from him, while the others, striking at the Negress, in spite of the other militiamen, frightened her thoroughly and hurt her somewhat.

From Negress baiting, the well-pleased procession turned to see a lynching. A Negro, his head laid open by a great stone-cut, had been dragged to the mouth of the alley on Fourth Street and a small rope was being put about his neck, There was joking comment on the weakness of the rope, and everyone was prepared for what happened when it was pulled over a projecting cable box, a short distance up the pole. It broke, letting the Negro tumble back to his knees, and causing one of the men who was pulling on it to sprawl on the pavement.

Stouter rope obtained

An old man, with a cap like those worn by street conductors, but showing no badge of car service, came out of his house to protest. “Don’t you hang that man on this street,” he shouted. “I dare you to.” He was pushed angrily away, and a rope, obviously strong enough for its purpose, was brought.

Right here I saw the most sickening incident of the evening. To put the rope around the Negro’s neck, one of the lynchers stuck his fingers inside the gaping scalp and lifted the Negro’s head by it, literally bathing his hand in the man’s blood.

“Get hold, and pull for East St. Louis,” called a man with a black coat and a new straw hat, as he seized the other end of the rope. The rope was long, but not too long for the number of hands that grasped it, and this time the Negro was lifted to a height of about 7 feet from the ground. The body was left hanging there.

While this lynching was in preparation I walked to Broadway, found a corporal’s guard of militiamen, who had just come from where the firemen were working, and called their attention to what was going on. I do not know that they could have done anything to stop it. I know that they did not try to.

In the first hour that I was there I saw no sufficient body of militiamen anywhere, and no serious effort, on the part of the few who were about to prevent bloodshed. Most of the men in uniform were frankly fraternizing with the men in the street. But beginning at 7:30, I did see instances of what national guardsmen, in reasonable numbers, and led by worthy officers, can do.

Rescue some Negroes

First, there came a hollow square of soldiers from the fire zone along Broadway. In the front row of the frightened group within the square was a mulatto boy, not more than 6 years old. Further within the group were other children with their mothers. The Negro men were marching with their hands raised, and some of the women were also holding up their hands.

The natural point of attack was in the rear, and the soldiers, under sharp commands from an officer, repeatedly turned and made room for their bayonets. The pitiful procession got safely around the corner and to the police station. Some smaller rescues of a similar kind were carried out in the next few minutes.

Following one of the these rescue parties to the police station, I suddenly became aware that a new man, and a new spirit of soldiery, had entered into the situation. A man in a light suit and straw hat, who had just come into town, was listening to a few details of what had happened in the neighborhood. He gave some quick commands, and in the moment, the first adequate body of guardsmen that I had seen was marching toward Broadway. The soldiers were B Company and other companies of the Fourth Illinois, and the apparent civilian in command was Col. Stephen O. Tripp of the Adjutant General’s office in Springfield.

As they turned onto Broadway, double-quick was ordered, and it was none too quick, for another lynching was being prepared. This lynching was apparently to be on Broadway, and the Negro, his head cut, but still conscious and struggling, was being dragged along the pavement with a rope around his neck.

“Get those men!” was the command, and a moment later several white men were in line on the south sidewalk, some of them with their hands raised, while guardsmen faced them with bayonets. On the opposite sidewalk, the soldiers merely told the men to “move on,” and this brought a sharp reprimand from Col. Tripp. “Don’t let them get away,” he ordered. “Make them prisoners.” Most of these men were again lined up, and two lines of prisoners, 25 or 30 men in all, were then marshalled in the car tracks, and the march to the station began, a guard being left behind to protect the Negro, and to keep the street clear. I did not learn what became of this Negro.

The temper of crowd changes

The temper of the men in the street showed a change after the first encounter with Tripp’s methods. It began to seem that the situation had found its master. But the most efficient colonel cannot be everywhere at once, and while the uniformed line was busy keeping a crowd from forming about the police station, scattered shooting began in the neighborhood of the recent killings.

One Negro ran the gauntlet on Broadway. Several shots were fired at him in a reckless fashion that explains the number injured by stray bullets earlier in the day. But it appeared that he got away.

It was nearly dark, and the fire on Broadway was becoming more threatening. A half hour before, some lines of hose, though apparently in insufficient number, had been in use, but now the use of water had ceased, and it was said that hose had been cut. The fire was nearing the Mollman harness establishment, in which the mayor of East St. Louis is interested, and the big wooden horse on top of the building was silhouetted in the twilight.

As I returned from a look at the fire, I saw an ambulance drive into Fourth Street, to get the bodies which had been lying there for nearly an hour. I saw one body placed in the ambulance. I heard it said, as I was leaving town, that the men in the street had prevented the removal of one of the bodies, saying that the Negro was not dead, and must lie there until he died. I did not verify this, and do not state it as fact. Everything which I have stated as fact came under my own observation. And I was, as I have said, but a small part of the whole.

I must add a word about the efficiency of the East St. Louis police. One of them kept me from going too near the fire. Absolutely the only thing that I saw policemen do was to keep the fire line. As the police detail marched to the fire, two of the men turned aside onto Fourth Street, apparently to see if the two Negroes, lying on the pavement within a few steps of Broadway, were dead. These policemen got a sharp call from their sergeant. They were not supposed to bother themselves about dead Negroes.

In recording this, I do not forget that a policeman — by all counts a fine and capable policeman — was killed by Negroes the night before. I have not forgotten it in writing about the acts of the men in the street. Whether this crime excuses or palliates a massacre, which probably included none of the offenders, is something I will leave to apologists for last evening’s occurrence, if there be any such, to explain.

• Read followup coverage of the riots

• Read other articles that ran on July 3, 1917

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