Sunday, June 9, 2024

An Army with Banners

James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938)
From Jim Crow: Voices from a Century of Struggle (Part One: 1876–1919)

Silent parade protesting the East St. Louis massacre and other recent atrocities, July 28, 1917. The procession, numbering between 10,000 and 15,000 men, women, and children, began at 57th Street and proceeded downtown to Madison Square at 23rd Street. The placard at front says, “The First Blood for American Independence Was Shed by a Negro | Crispus Attucks.” Photograph by Underwood & Underwood, NY. Image from the Library of Congress.
On the morning of Monday, July 2, 1917, Daisy O. Westbrook, a teacher of music at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis, Illinois, was at home with her sister, mother, grandmother, and a baby they had adopted. In a letter to her friend, Louise Madella, she described the horrors of that day:
Louise, it was awful. I hardly know where to begin telling you about it. First I will say we lost everything but what we had on and that was very little—bungalow aprons, no hats, and sister did not have on any shoes.

It started early in the afternoon. We kept receiving calls over the ’phone to pack our trunks & leave, because it was going to be awful at night. We did not heed the calls, but sent grandma & the baby on to St. Louis, & said we would “stick” no matter what happened. At first, when the fire started, we stood on Broadway & watched it. As they neared our house we went in & went to the basement. It was too late to run then. They shot & yelled some thing awful, finally they reached our house. . . .
All over the city, mobs of white residents were attacking, beating, and killing Black men, women, and children, and torching their homes and public buildings, while the city police and National Guardsmen stood by or, in numerous instances, joined the crowd. “Instead of being guardians of the peace they became a part of the mob by countenancing the assaulting and shooting down of defenseless negroes and adding to the terrifying scenes of rapine and slaughter,” reported the House Select Committee created that year to investigate the massacre.

One group reached the Westbrook home but left because they initially thought that “white people lived in that house.” Twenty minutes later, however, they returned, apparently having learned otherwise.
When they were about to surround the house & burn it, we heard an awful noise & thought probably they were dynamiting the house. (The Broadway Theatre fell in, we learned later.) Sister tipped to the door to see if the house was on fire. She saw the reflection of a soldier on the front door—pulled it open quickly & called for help. All of us ran out then, & was taken to the city hall for the night—(just as we were). The next morning, we learned our house was not burned, so we tried to get protection to go out & get clothes, & have the rest of the things put in storage. We could not, but were sent on to St. Louis.

On Tuesday evening at 6 o'clock our house was burned with two soldiers on guard. So the papers stated. We were told that they looted the house before burning it. We are in St. Louis now trying to start all over again. Louise it is so hard to think we had just gotten to the place where we could take care of our mother & grandmother well, & to think, all was destroyed in one night.
The day after the massacre, journalist Carlos F. Hurd began his front-page report for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as follows:
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. . . .
During the previous decade, thousands of Black workers had migrated from southern states to jobs at the steel and iron factories in East St. Louis, where production had rapidly increased because of the war in Europe. In the mid-1910s, there had been frequent labor disputes and strikes in the city. “In nearly every case the employers had refused the demands of the strikers and had put Negroes in their places,” wrote Hallie E. Queen, a journalist on the staff of Howard University who traveled to the city after the massacre and wrote a report for Illinois senator William Yates Sherman. “The owner of a certain Aluminum Plant testified that in order to prevent strikes he had maintained his business on a principle of hate. He employs one third white Americans, one third Negroes and one third foreigners, knowing that each group hates the other so heartily that they will never combine against the shop.” The congressional committee cataloged evidence that city and business leaders had deliberately fueled the antagonisms between the groups.

On May 28, 1917, after a tumultuous labor meeting at City Hall, as many as three thousand white men streamed into the downtown area and began randomly beating African American men. “The mob stopped street cars and interurban cars in its search, and at 1 o’clock was threatening to storm the jail, where a score of negroes had been taken for safekeeping,” according to a report published in The New York Times the following day. Although several men were seriously injured, no fatalities were reported, and the National Guard was able to restore order by the following morning. Tensions during the following month were exacerbated by occasional altercations and outlandish rumors—including the ludicrous idea that Black workers had planned an Independence Day massacre of the white residents who outnumbered them seven-to-one. On July 1 a group of white men in a Ford Model T drove through the Black areas of town, shooting into homes and at people on the street. When residents defending the neighborhood shot at a second car of the same model, they inadvertently killed two white plainclothes detectives. The massacre occurred the following day.

“It is not possible to give accurately the number of dead,” concluded the congressional committee report. “At least 39 negroes and 8 white people were killed outright, and hundreds of negroes were wounded and maimed.” The fatality counts, however, were based largely on the reports from the coroner’s office. “It is impossible to say,” the report added, “how many people perished in the 312 houses that were burned by the mob, but many negroes who lived in those houses still are missing and it is not possible to get an accurate report as to just how many found death in the flames.” Anyone who attempted to escape was either shot at, beaten, or—in some cases—thrown back into the conflagration. Among the list of uncounted deaths reported by the congressional select committee: “A negro child 2 years old was shot and thrown into the doorway of a burning building, and nothing ever was found of the remains.”

Only three months earlier, the United States had declared war on Germany. “In the name of world democracy we land black soldiers in France to fight for our white allies, while white soldiers in East St. Louis kill black Americans for daring to compete in the world of labor with their white fellowmen,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in the next issue of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. James Weldon Johnson, who was the field secretary of the organization, worked with other civil leaders to organize a protest in New York on July 28, and he described the Silent Protest Parade in an article for the weekly newspaper The New York Age.

Notes: The letter by Daisy O. Westbrook and the report by Hallie E. Queen both were discovered in 1972 among Senator Sherman’s papers and published by Robert Asher in “Documents of the Race Riot at East St. Louis,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, from which the above excerpts are taken. Westbrook returned to East St. Louis and resumed her position as a director of music at Lincoln High School, where she taught for at least another four decades. Miles Davis was among several notable students in the program during her tenure. She died in 1970.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below.
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An Army with Banners

Last Saturday the silent protest parade came off, and it was a greater success than even the committee had dared to hope it would be. Some of the New York papers estimated the number of marchers in line as high as fifteen thousand. It was indeed a mighty host, an army with banners.

No written word can convey to those who did not see it the solemn impressiveness of the whole affair. The effect could be plainly seen on the faces of the thousands of spectators that crowded along the line of march. There were no jeers, no jests, not even were there indulgent smiles; the faces of the onlookers betrayed emotions from sympathetic interest to absolute pain. Many persons of the opposite race were seen to brush a tear from their eyes. It seemed that many of these people were having brought home to them for the first time the terrible truths about race prejudice and oppression.

The power of the parade consisted in its being not a mere argument in words, but a demonstration to the sight. Here were thousands of orderly, well- behaved, clean, sober, earnest people marching in a quiet, dignified manner, declaring to New York and to the country that their brothers and sisters, people just like them, had been massacred by scores in East St. Louis for no other offense than seeking to earn an honest living; that their brothers and sisters, people just like them, were “Jim Crowed” and segregated and disfranchised and oppressed and lynched and burned alive in this the greatest republic in the world, the great leader in the fight for democracy and humanity.

The impact of this demonstration upon New York city was tremendous. And it is not strange that it was so. More than twelve thousand of us marching along the greatest street in the world, marching solemnly to no other music than the beat of muffled drums, bearing aloft our banners on which were inscribed not only what we have suffered in this country, but what we have accomplished for this country, this was a sight as has never before been seen.

But, after all, the effect on the spectators was not wholly in what they saw, it was largely in the spirit that went out from the marchers and overpowered all who came within its radius. There was no holiday air about this parade. Every man, woman and child that took part seemed to feel what it meant to the race. Even the little six year old tots that led the line seemed to realize the full significance of what was being done. And so it was that these thousands and thousands moving quietly and steadily along created a feeling very close to religious awe.
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When the head of the procession paused at 30th Street I looked back and saw the long line of women in white still mounting the crest of Murray Hill, the men’s column not yet in sight; and a great sob came up in my throat and in my heart a great yearning for all these people, my people, from the helpless little children just at my hand back to the strong men bringing up the rear, whom I could not even see. I turned to Dr. Du Bois at my side and said, “Look!” He looked, and neither of us could tell the other what he felt.

It was a great day. An unforgettable day in the history of the race and in the history of New York City.

First published in The New York Age, August 2, 1917.