The following story is an historical fiction. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of hearing the stories of many different people that I’ve met in East St. Louis, Decatur, Urbana-Champaign, or my hometown of Benton Harbor, MI. It would be wrong of me to tell their personal stories, for I did not live them and I do not own them. So I’ve instead used them as background in creating this fiction. If you would like to know more, I encourage you to begin building friendships across difference so that you and they can share each your stories and learn from each other as I’ve had the opportunity to do.
I share this fictionalized account of one East St. Louis family in hopes of opening up a discussion to reorient our understanding of the creation of, and life in, an industrial suburb like East St. Louis, IL.
It’s hard to know where to begin in telling my family’s story. I was just a dream in 1865 when the civil war ended and my family was freed from slavery. I heard stories of us ending up with a small plot of land that we were able to work for ourselves and how my family and neighbors were starting to do pretty well right after emancipation. My family was able to take the skills we had learned working for others as slaves and turn them into small business ventures. I heard mama and papa tell stories about being able to start saving up to buy a nicer house and property and their dreams of starting a small business of their own. And I remember talk of kids in our neighborhood even going to a proper school. And while the books were the white school hand-me-downs from a decade or more past, and while the furniture often required creative fixes by our parents, my older cousins did indeed get to go to proper school.
That all changed pretty quickly when the first attacks started against our community. I was born in 1875 just as things were starting to get bad. Some of the attacks just taunts and sneers but others started to be more violent. Whites would go out of their way to cause trouble and we started having our businesses threatened and attacked. And then the Jim Crow laws, which were passed in part “for our own protection” from the white violence, started to really have an impact on our ability to move around towns, start businesses, and get an education. Local and state laws were passed that enforced segregation, added extra hurdles to us blacks buying houses and starting businesses. It was amazing and frustrating to see how quickly the early successes we were seeing in the ability for blacks to start and manage businesses, advance in education, and finally start participating in the American dream of advancement could not only come to a halt but reverse. It was even more frustrating to hear it said that this was clear indication that blacks were inferior to whites.
Of course, we were careful not to speak openly about such frustrations. Some of the people I knew who did so ended up being lynched or perhaps worse – dragged behind horses or burned in their homes. The terrorism was getting pretty severe, which is why when the recruiters came from up north promising work and safety in Chicago my new wife, Edith, and I decided to pack up what we could carry on the train and head to a better life. My name’s Clarence, by the way. The recruiter promised a free train ride if we signed a contract for me to work for their company for at least a year, which we thought was an OK deal. We thought we’d be headed to Chicago where we already had friends and family, but when we got as far as the suburb of East St. Louis we were told to get off the train. It turned out that the company had a plant in East St. Louis and there was a strike happening. We were needed to go to work at the plant and that we had no choice about it. There was no going on to Chicago even if we had wanted to pay for the rest of the train ride, so off we got. East St. Louis in 1900 was a pretty lively suburb but we quickly learned we weren’t welcome, especially after dark, in the nicer north side of the suburb. We found a place, more a shack than the small house we had down south, that we could rent while we started figuring out what was happening with the company job. I got a pass to let me get to the factory on the north side of town and headed to work, not prepared for the violent threats made against me as I ended up crossing the picket lines for the first time. The job wasn’t much, the pay was less than what the signed contract had said it would be, but when I complained they said it was because I wasn’t in Chicago and so wouldn’t get that amount. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t chosen to get off the train but that they had forced me to do so. They told me to get back to work before I was fired as a troublemaker and put in jail for violating my contract. My wife was pregnant and we needed the income, so I went back to work like I was told. Still, after two weeks the strike ended and I was fired anyway. But overall the Greater Metro East region was a thriving place for employment and I ended up doing all right.
Slowly we started a family, saved a bit of money here and there, and were able to buy the material needed to build our own house. By this time we had made some good friends in the area and we all worked together to build each other’s houses. It was exciting to see one house after another go up in our neighborhood. And we started building a small park for our kids. We looked into starting our own library but were told by the Carnegie foundation that we’d have to put up $3000 of our own money to get a grant from them to start the library. That wasn’t the deal we had heard from white workers at the plant. They were given a grant outright to build a library in their neighborhood, but there didn’t seem to be any fighting it. So we didn’t get the library. We learned their were places to sink in our feet and fight, and others where we needed to just let things go. We did get a small school and were very happy to see our children start to get an education to move forward to a better life! Ida and the kids worked a small farm we were able to buy while I worked at the meat packing plant and then odd jobs that I could pick up here and there. Nothing paid real well, but combined we were able to meet our expenses and begin saving up a little money. At one point there was talk of integrating the union which would have helped blacks and whites get better wages. But just as quick we saw efforts, both from city politicians and industry leaders it seemed, to make a bigger stink about how whites couldn’t trust blacks.
All that hit a fever pitch over a couple of days in 1917. My family and I were celebrating my 42nd birthday when all hell, literally, broke loose. Whites said us blacks killed a couple of police and that all of us were getting too uppity for our own good. The riots lasted from evening until early into the morning hours of the next day and they’ll never know how many blacks died. My family and I were able to escape to our farm just outside the suburb and hide there. But we heard from some of our neighbors that several families were forced into their houses that were then started on fire. If they tried to run out they were shot to death. If they stayed inside, they were burned to death. Others tried fleeing over the bridge into St. Louis where they were shot and thrown into the Mississippi river. Sometimes white women and children watched as the killing happened, almost like it was a play being put on for their entertainment. We lost our house that day but at least we survived unharmed. Some of our neighbors weren’t so lucky. We had a lot of funerals we attended at our church in the days that followed. It was little consolation when a couple years later a federal investigation found that the white local government and industry leaders had worked together to instigate the riot and to make sure it turned as violent as it did. Few were even charged and none really saw any punishment for their involvement.
What little savings we had was gone pretty quickly trying to recover. Often we’d work with our neighbors to scrounge what we could from the rubble. It looked an awful lot like the scenes you’d see from the battlegrounds of the world war happening overseas. I expect we’d have made a fair go of a good recovery, though, if it weren’t for the continuing raids on our neighborhood, the need to continue working multiple jobs to make ends meet, and the hostility we’d face from the city government, police, and fire department. We were seen as the enemy by the whites, but we were needed, too, to keep the factories going. What kept us going was the deep community that we formed amongst our black neighbors, our families, and our church. We watched out for each other, we took care of each other’s kids, we ate together, and worshiped together. We are blessed!
The factories also seemed to be on the offensive as smoke, soot, stench, and paint pigments often rained down on our neighborhood. We didn’t know at the time the toxicity that was a part of that industrial waste. The health impacts weren’t as immediately obvious as the new chemical weapons being used for the first world war, so we didn’t know how they were affecting our breathing, or the physical health of our kids, until it was too late. And it wasn’t just us breathing it in, but since it was sinking into the soil, it was also impacting the food we were growing. Overtime you start to notice that more of your children fight asthma and seem to have learning disabilities than the white families that don’t have to live downwind of the factories. Who knows if it’s a combination of second class schools or the impact of these environmental conditions or a combination that meant so many of our kids struggled in school in spite of the encouragements we gave them to succeed. For instance, when our children would start a new grade at the beginning of the school year, the teacher would ask them who their people were. They didn’t want to just know who the parents were, because it was our whole neighborhood and church family that would be making sure the kids were held responsible if they weren’t doing their best in school. We knew how important a good education was, and we were going to make sure they worked their butt off getting one. We certainly would have lived somewhere other than downwind of factories if there was any choice in the matter. But even if local, state, and federal policies didn’t keep us where we were at, the hostilities of whites sure would have come out in force had we moved to the nicer part of town.
Regardless the hurdle we did start rebuilding and we did start seeing improvements in our standard of living again. My youngest son headed off to the second world war to fight in an army that was being integrated. There was real promise for him to be able to move forward because of the GI bill that was passed in 1944. But it didn’t take him long to find out that the low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start businesses, and cash payments to attend college didn’t amount to much for blacks. The federal housing administration had policies in place that required increased interest rates for any houses purchased in neighborhoods where blacks lived. Insurance rates increased, too. Segregation of schools meant our children couldn’t attend most colleges and universities. So while blacks and whites served in the same war and made the same sacrifices on the battlefield, only whites were able to see the full financial benefits. And as they moved into the white suburbs where many rapidly saw upward mobility by building powerful business networks, my son was closed off from this world. Don’t get me wrong, he was smart in doing what he could after the war using the GI Bill, getting a degree from a black college. And he used that business degree to get an entry-level job in the corporate office of a major industry. But his degree was seen as second class and so try as he might he couldn’t leverage his GI Bill to its fullest – watching as one white after another were advanced forward. His white colleagues, on the other hand, had leveraged their GI Bills not only for a degree from a “preferred” University, but also to live in those white suburbs and to participate in the business networks that were built over backyard picnics on the weekends. It just didn’t matter that he graduated top of his class and worked more hours than they did. So he left and came back to East St. Louis to start a business in town.
The problem was, by the 1950’s the businesses were starting to pull up and leave. The interstate highway system was being built and allowing for the railway and river traffic hubs to be bypassed. As a matter of fact, it was coming right through our neighborhoods. Because of the interstate, what once was a 2 minute walk down the street to visit friends became a 10 minute drive if you didn’t get caught behind a train that had stopped on the tracks that you had to cross getting around the Interstate. For some reason too, the way the drainage was done on the interstate roads our houses started to flood more once they came through. We might complain but all we were ever told was we should have not built on land that would flood. On the plus side in advance of our being recognized by Life magazine as an “All-American City”, the last of the streets in our neighborhood were paved and the last of the houses were connected with indoor running water and sewage by the city after decades of us asking for such city services to be brought to our neighborhood.
Life in our suburb sure wasn’t the beautiful picture you’d see of the white suburbs in the magazine. We certainly tried over and over to make it so, but there was never any government support. Sure, we got funds to build a small park in our neighborhood, and boy did we use it for some great Sunday-after-church gatherings. We even had a semi-professional baseball team that sent players up to the negro baseball league and later the major leagues. And track stars and other athletes got their start in that park, too. That park was a place for us to build community through play and socialization. But it was nothing like the luxurious park that got built for the white families on the north side of town.
We took pride in our homes and neighborhood worked hard to take care of them. But sometimes if you were coming home from a late shift of work in the wee hours of the morning you might see a white guy jump out of his truck to unload a bunch of trash from the back of his pickup. It didn’t matter how much we tried to stop such activities, people from outside found ways to make our place their dumping grounds. Adding insult to injury then the newspaper reports would be written how we didn’t care or know how to take care of our neighborhoods.
By 1960 when I celebrated my 85th birthday we were seeing a lot of businesses leave, and with them the white executives. On the plus side my younger son who had come back to start his business got his chance to move to the nicer neighborhoods. On the downside the city was running out of money to take care of the city infrastructure. Years of maximizing profit for the industries that founded our suburbs left few resources for maintaining the infrastructure needed to support those industries. Once everything was used up, they left. We quickly started seeing both our personal and business property taxes skyrocket. At the same time, we started having problems with sewer systems backing up regularly and the city not being able to repair them. At one point, the city stopped collecting trash for a while and it just piled up on the sidewalks.
When my health turned bad at one point, we had to mortgage the house my neighbors and I had built to cover medical expenses. But the interest was so high, and the property values were dropping so fast, that we quickly ended up in an upside down mortgage, owing more than it was worth. We had to foreclose and ended up paying rent to someone else to live in that house. Some of the better off blacks moved out of town when the whites did. That just meant fewer who could pay taxes, so taxes had to go up and services continued to be cut.
One of my grandsons has tried and tried to find a group of jobs that would cover expenses. But there’s fewer of them to come by. Still, he can’t bring himself to leaving his family and the support that it brings. In many ways, it’s all the capital we really have after years of fighting against a system that seems determined to knock us down at every turn. I don’t mean to complain and truth is I’m thankful for every day I have to live on this earth. But it’s hard to watch my grandson decide to not get married to his girlfriend and live with their child just so that they can collect the full welfare benefits only available to single moms not living with a man. They need those welfare benefits just to try to provide nutritious meals to their child and meet basic living expenses. Unfortunately they need those benefits even though combined the two of them work around 120 hours per week at a hodge-podge of part time jobs open to them, along with the odd jobs they can pick up helping others in the neighborhood to fix things, build things, or clean things. We do what we can to help raise our great-grandchild. And as we always have done in the past, we continue to choose our fights in building up the strongest possible community for our family and friends.
- What support systems do we depend on daily to help us face challenges and develop and exercise our gifts and talents?
- In what ways do these support systems break down in some cases?
- How do our laws and social structures contribute to and sustain the development and disruption of social support systems?
- How is it that each of us contributes to the need for a place like East St. Louis even today?
For Further Reading:
- Made in USA: East St. Louis by Andrew Thiesing. 2003, Virginia Publishing.
- Abandoned in the Heartland: Work, Family, and Living in East St. Louis by Jennifer Hamer, 2011, University of California Press.
- Race, the Power of an Illusion. A PBS series produced in 2003 by California Newsreel.