The East St. Louis Massacre and Toni Morrison's "Jazz" (Jonathan Garcia)
The following essay was written by student Jonathan Garcia, with additional text and edits by Amardeep Singh.
Account of Incident
The East St. Louis Race Massacre of 1917 led to the deaths of between 40 and 250 African American people in East St. Louis Illinois, and the displacement of 6000 due to the destruction of their homes and businesses.
At the cusp of the first World War, the United States was met with a rejuvenated and actively sustained economy due to potential workers being drafted for military service, therefore creating a high demand for industrial labor in populated cities. Happening in parallel was the Great Migration, a movement of six million African Americans from Southern states to Northern states, leading to the mass employment of Black workers, sometimes under the same government contracts as white workers. Under these contracts, white union workers were threatened by an influx of Black workers willing to accept lowered wages which increased competition and reduced job security. This subsequently led to formal complaints made by white workers at City Council meetings, later devolving into isolated attacks and rumors spurred by racial antagonism.
Starting on July 1, 1917, white-led mobs in East St. Louis began conducting acts of violence such as beatings, shootings, and arson directed towards African American homes and businesses. These attacks were met with either indifference or validation from police or the Illinois National Guard as the massacre continued, refusing to exercise any semblance of authority as rioters continued their mass frenzy. Assistance for refugees came in the form of institutions such as the Red Cross Emergency Committee and Provident Association in St. Louis, helping to provide housing and communication to state representatives in the discussion of potential aid options. Those who were not able to cross the Mississippi river from East St. Louis to St. Louis were left in the city to burn alongside their communities under the threat of a white-led militia. The actual death toll as from the massacre is unreliable, since many corpses were not recovered. Scholars estimate more than one hundred Black people were killed thousands were left homeless after the riots.
In protest of the tragedy at East St. Louis and concurrent acts of racial violence across the United States due to antebellum conventions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and surrounding groups hosted a silent march to raise awareness towards these issues in New York City on July 28th, 1917. The photographs and personal accounts of African Americans were to be recorded in The Crisis, the NAACP’s official magazine discussing the politics, culture, and history related to people of color.
Relevance to Morrison’s Jazz
The relevance of Toni Morrison lies in the active participation of characters in Jazz and their individual traumas resulting from the East St. Louis Race Riot. Alice Manfred recalls her experience of the riot while witnessing the later protests upon Fifth Avenue:
Alice, however, believed she knew the truth better than everybody. Her brother-in-law was not a veteran, and he had been living in East St. Louis since before the War. Nor did he need a whiteman’s job—he owned a pool hall. As a matter of fact, he wasn’t even in the riot; he had no weapons, confronted nobody on the street. He was pulled off a streetcar and stomped to death, and Alice’s sister had just got the news and had gone back home to try and forget the color of his entrails, when her house was torched and she burned crispy in its flame. Her only child, a little girl named Dorcas, sleeping across the road with her very best girlfriend, did not hear the fire engine clanging and roaring down the street because when it was called it didn’t come. But she must have seen the flames, must have, because the whole street was screaming. She never said. Never said anything about it. She went to two funerals in five days, and never said a word. (65)
Morrison presents readers with a similarly horrific image of the historic events and develops a narrative where characters are directly inserted into the chaos, posing their attempts to either rationalize or accept its consequences. In Alice’s case, she refutes the evident causes of the riot for her preconceived notions of society: “No. It wasn’t the War and the disgruntled veterans; it wasn’t the droves and droves of colored people flocking to paychecks and streets full of themselves. It was the music” (66). Morrison makes use of characters such as Alice to take part in her collaboration with history, using a variety of individualized voices to hold the tragedy in an active engagement that implants itself across their developments within the story.
Blues June. “The Massacre of East St. Louis.” Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club, 16 Feb. 2018, bluesjazzbookclub.com/tag/the-massacre-of-east-st-louis/.
“East Saint Louis Race Riot of 1917.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/event/East-Saint-Louis-Race-Riot-of-1917.
Keyes, Allison. “The East St. Louis Race Riot Left Dozens Dead, Devastating a Community on the Rise.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 30 June 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/east-st-louis-race-riot-left-dozens-dead-devastating-community-on-the-rise-180963885/.
The East St. Louis Riot. www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/garvey-riot/#:~:text=Most%20of%20the%20violence%20%2D%2D,estimated%20at%20close%20to%20%24400%2C000.
RUBENSTEIN, ROBERTA. “Singing the Blues / Reclaiming Jazz: Toni Morrison and Cultural Mourning.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 31, no. 2, 1998, pp. 147–163. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44029776. Accessed 23 Apr. 2021.