(C) Sylvia Sukop

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“Remember, Commemorate, Rebuild”-- East St. Louis’ day of commemorating the violence of 1917 by Sylvia Sukop

(C) Sylvia Sukop

Kierstan Carter, posted on September 20, 2017

It’s late afternoon on July 2, 2017, and I’m walking with more than 200 other people toward Eads Bridge in a heat wave, drenched in humidity and sweat. We are tracing the route taken by African American residents of East St. Louis on this day a century ago, fleeing for their lives in the face of horrifying white mob violence—beatings, shootings, lynchings, burnings—that left dozens dead, hundreds injured, and thousands permanently displaced from their homes.

     A woman in front of me scoops up her young daughter and carries her awhile, then puts her down again, encouraging her to walk on her own. But soon the child reaches up begging to be carried again, and the mother can only do it for so long. Then the cycle starts over, with patience and love, as the two keep pace with the group the entire length of our one-and-a-half-mile walk from ground zero of the 1917 massacre (where the SIUE Higher Education Center now stands), to the center of the great steel arch bridge vaulting over the Mississippi River that served as an escape route for thousands that day.

(C) Sylvia Sukop

     Even in this long day of thoughtfully choreographed mourning and celebration rituals designed to honor lives lost and showcase a resilient and forward-looking community, intimate, everyday gestures like that between a parent and child stand out. East St. Louis is understated like that; its traumatic history all but invisible to most Americans. Even among those who grew up in the city, many say that until they studied it in college, they were unaware of the brutality that took place, the congressional investigation that followed, the thousands of pages of survivor testimonials collected, and how outrage at these events inspired the nation’s first mass demonstration by African Americans several weeks later in New York City (the Negro Silent Protest Parade organized by W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP). Once one does learn the history, however, it seems to magnify every good thing that’s ever happened in East St Louis, and there are good things happening every day.

     Community historian Anne Walker, East St. Louis native and director of the nonprofit, Freedom Trails, Legacies of Hope, celebrates the good things with contagious and creative energy. She was a student of modern-dance icon Katherine Dunham, one of the city’s revered local heroes along with jazz legend Miles Davis and Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Walker supplied the guiding force behind the programming for July 2, which included speeches and performances on an outdoor stage at SIUE Higher Education Center, followed by a silent march and a ceremony atop Eads Bridge.

 

Intergenerational program emphasizes community’s creativity and resistance

 

The commemoration combined moods and elements of memorial, of resistance, and of community pride. Working with her fellow commissioners on the East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission and Cultural Initiative , Walker brought together elders and youth, modern dancers and traditional drummers, poets and educators, religious and civic leaders, scholars and street activists, and African American fraternities and sororities, for an afternoon by turns solemn and high-spirited. I wore white as organizers had encouraged and, with temperatures well into the nineties, helped distribute handheld fans (“Only put one on every other seat, since we don’t have enough for all!” we were instructed), bearing the commemorative inscription, “The East St. Louis 1917 Centennial … THE CITY THAT SURVIVES.”

     This brief post does not permit a comprehensive account of the many voices that came together that day, but they represented a wide spectrum of the community, with a notable emphasis on intergenerational perspectives. One of the youngest speakers was filmmaker Damon Davis (b. 1985), co-director of the searing new documentary “Whose Streets?” about the Ferguson uprising that followed the killing of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown by police in 2014. It captures a community’s grief and explores the long-standing racial tensions that echo those of 1917. “When I hear the death toll [in East St. Louis in 1917], I don’t think riot, I think massacre,” Davis told those gathered. “It’s okay to commemorate but it’s okay to be angry too.”

      One of the oldest speakers was Harper Barnes (b. 1937), marking his 80th birthday on this day. The retired veteran reporter and editor for the St. Louis Dispatch read excerpts from his landmark history Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement (2008), at moments offering plaintive asides such as, “Not much has changed.”

     Renowned East St. Louis poet Eugene B. Redmond, and his daughter Treasure Shields Redmond, also a poet, read together, in call and response, from his poem “Carryover” with the insistent lines, “EAST ST. LOUIS will rise!” and “EAST SAINT ain’t dead yet!” The title of the elder Redmond’s collection  Arkansippi Memwars invents a neologism that deliberately foregrounds the word “war”—“because that’s been my experience in the world,” he said. This resonates with the reality emphasized by many speakers, that the residents of East St. Louis were not passive victims in the face of the attacks. They fought back, and some were armed, said Dhati M. Kennedy, whose family members always referred to it as a “race war,” not a “race riot” as it was long described in official and popular accounts. “For me, this is a very personal thing,” said Kennedy. “My family had to build a raft to get across the river and the trip in the strong current took four hours. For years in my family we’d go down to the river and give thanks for our survival.” But, he adds, it goes beyond the losses sustained by any one family. “What happened here 100 years ago affected the entire region.”

     To conclude the presentations and transition into the march, Kennedy led a traditional water ceremony—an homage to ancestors, an expression of gratitude, and a plea for protection—in which water was sprinkled on members of the audience. In an impromptu benediction, East St. Louisan Fr. Joseph Brown, a Jesuit priest and Africana Studies scholar whose father passed on to him their family’s stories of 1917, said of the day’s gathering, “It’s baptism, it’s rebirth, and it’s tears of thanksgiving. No matter how troubled it gets, we’re going to push through.”


(C) Sylvia Sukop


Procession onto bridge, symbols of survival

The large crowd assembled behind those at the front carrying a large wreath of white roses of remembrance, and sunflowers. As we set off on foot, our procession, accompanied by tireless beats on djembe, conga, and snare drums, weaved alongside abandoned lots, beneath littered underpasses, through busy intersections, past the Casino Queen’s sprawling parking lot, up Riverpark Road and onto Eads Bridge. It was an unusual opportunity for up-close immersion in a post-industrial landscape crosshatched by the highways, railroad tracks, and bridges that have defined East St. Louis. A single police car blocked the bridge’s usual traffic, and an officer waved us on. Beside me, a young man held the Pan-African flag aloft, waving red, black, and green, and at least one person carried a Black Lives Matter placard. But the largest contingent of marchers were Black Masons and members of black sororities and fraternities, women in white dresses and sashes indicating their affiliation, men in black suits, bow ties, and white gloves, many wearing the embroidered ceremonial aprons of their Masonic temples. They were all part of the “Great Reunion”—a homecoming of the East St. Louis diaspora—that Walker and the Commission had envisioned. There was even a classic fire engine rolling along with us. Its presence called to mind the fires that raged in East St. Louis as homes and business burned to the ground on July 2, 1917, one more element of the willfully neglectful response of authorities, including police and National Guard, to the unfolding violence.

     Finally approaching our destination, the borderline between Illinois and Missouri etched on a concrete barrier near the halfway point of the bridge’s 6,442-foot span, I saw white folding chairs neatly arranged in the otherwise deserted roadway, facing a podium and a banner in large block letters, red, black, and green—REMEMBER COMMEMORATE REBUILD—and beyond it the Gateway Arch. Weary marchers file into seats under the still-glaring sun for the closing ceremony. Among several speakers, two current mayors took turns at the microphone, first Emeka Jackson-Hicks of East St. Louis, who lamented that African Americans are still judged “by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.” She continued, “The past was traumatic, but history makes us who we are today. And we are resilient and strong, and we embrace our history.”

     St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, sworn in to office just two months earlier, described the events of 1917 as a “symptom of a disease we still suffer from today,” adding, “We have come a long way, but we are nowhere near finished….If we minimize our country’s history of racial violence we do ourselves a disservice.”

(C) Sylvia Sukop

     As a solo saxophone played, the two mayors, along with Walker, Kennedy, and others, together lifted the large wreath up and over the bridge’s railing. And what had seemed so large suddenly became tiny, its splash inaudible at his great height (more than 10 stories above the river), disappearing into the wake of a passing barge. Afterward, individuals scattered handfuls of rose petals over the railing, and others lit paper lanterns that floated skyward—symbols of human survival, resilience, creativity, a refusal to be forgotten.

     As I drove into East St. Louis earlier that day, Gateway Geyser gushed white, its foamy spray like a sheet fluttering  in the wind. The tallest water fountain in the U.S., it rises to the same height as the more famous Gateway Arch across the river, but offers no comment on the violence of 1917 though it's built on “sacred sites” where East St. Louis residents were murdered. Later, as I descended the bridge back into East St. Louis alone after dark, still on foot after witnessing the poignant rituals on the bridge with descendants of the survivors of 1917, I again noticed the Geyser, now illuminated by an alternating series of projected colored lights. It appeared to bleed red, the past hemorrhaging into the present, as Anne Walker’s words spoken earlier about East St. Louis came back to me: “This is rich soil because it contains our blood.” Meanwhile, distant Fourth of July fireworks crackled like gunfire.

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To learn more, click the links below:

[Video] "March in memory of race riot victims gives voice to history and healing," Belleville News-Democract, July 2, 2017

[Article] “The East St. Louis Race Riot Left Dozens Dead, Devastating a Community on the Rise,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 30, 2017

[Article] “Remember the Race War,” Riverfront Times, June 28, 2017 


Sylvia Sukop is an essayist, photographer, and 2018 MFA candidate in the Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis. She participated in the Spring 2017 AMCS course, The Material World of Modern Segregation. She has received fellowships including PEN Emerging Voices, Lambda Emerging Writers, and a Fulbright to Germany, and has essays forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction magazine (Fall 2017) and Southeast Review (early 2018). Previous essays have been published in the PEN anthology Strange Cargo (2010), the Heyday anthology LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas (2015), and the Lambda Literary anthology Emerge (2016).


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