February 25, 2022 – The history of East St. Louis and surrounding communities reveals times of adventure and innovation, success and prosperity, struggle and pain, violence and racism.

East St. Louis Historical Society Fellow Bob Gill presented a history of East St. Louis titled “City of Challenges, City of Champions” on Tuesday, February 22 at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville East St. Louis Learning Resource Center (CRL). The historical society and LRC brought the program to the community, which was developed by LRC program assistant Danayka Saavedra Berrocal.

“East St. Louis was considered to be one of the best places in the country,” Gill said. “We were literally the heart of the United States. For primitive people, all the resources were there for a thriving community. We had wood, water, fertile land and coal, which led to the industrial development of East St. Louis.

In 1100 AD, in the floodplain where East St. Louis would be, the Native American town of Cahokia had a population of 30,000, according to the historian. “It would take 800 years for a European city to reach this size in North America,” he said. “The land of East St. Louis changed hands many times, starting with the French, Britain and later America took over.”

Gill noted that black people first arrived in the area in 1750. According to the book, Bits & Pieces of African American History in East St. Louis by Reginald Petty, 300 slaves lived in the French mission at Cahokia and the surrounding villages. Petty’s book also cites that in 1830 free and runaway slaves established the city of Brooklyn, including Lovejoy School; and in 1833 there were 32 free black heads of households in St. Clair County.

“The area was developing a reputation where African Americans could come and be safe,” Gill explained. “Illinois had passed an anti-slavery resolution which stated that the state would not allow slavery in any form. This brought African Americans across the river from Missouri, and they founded the town of Lovejoy, the first African-American town in America.

The city of East St. Louis developed as a booming industrial city. He appealed to businesses to locate outside the city limits so that they would not have to pay taxes, the historian informed. Some of the early industries included Stockyards, Horn Tool and Dye, Corno Mills, Monsanto Chemical, Obear-Nestor Glass and Aluminum Ore Co.

“When Eads Bridge was built in 1874, it changed everything for the city,” Gill said. “James Eads built the first steel bridge for trains to cross the river. At the time, all the railroads east of the Mississippi went to East St. Louis. At one time there was 27 major train lines terminating in East St. Louis.

However, as industries and population grew, so did labor issues, Gill noted. “The stockyards and factories didn’t treat their workers very well,” he noted. “Because of this, there have been many uprisings and strikes. The city has been paralyzed several times.

To solve the problem, the inspectors went in search of people who would agree to work under their conditions. East St. Louis Mayor Fred Mollman visited African-American communities in New Orleans and handed out publicity flyers. Nearly six million black people moved north in search of jobs, many of whom came to East St. Louis, according to Gill.

“They came in search of a new life, an education and a job,” he added. “But they found out they were scabs, or what we call ‘scabs’. A lot of anger was also generated when people started seeing all these African Americans in what had been a predominantly white city.

It was the summer of 1917 and tensions were high, Gill informed. Two white men in a black Model T car drove into the black section of town and began shooting indiscriminately at homes. In defense, African Americans called the police. However, the police sent officers to their neighborhood in a black Model T car. In self-defense and mistaken identity, black people began shooting at the car carrying officers. Two of the officers died.

This triggered the Race riots of 1917 in eastern St. Louis. “White people went wild,” Gill said. “They came into the black neighborhoods of East St. Louis, burning, beating, looting and killing as many people as they could find. It was horrible. The exact number of black people who died was not known. Hundreds is an accepted number. Those who fled fled the city.

News of the massacre had a shocking effect on blacks and whites across the country. “In New York, people were so outraged that 9,000 African Americans marched silently down Broadway,” Gill continued. “The protest helped popularize the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).”

Later, the blacks bravely returned to East St. Louis. In the 1960s, the city slowly began to integrate schools. SIUE had come to East St. Louis in 1957 and was developing a strong presence throughout the 1960s.

Also, at this time, East St. Louis was gaining a reputation as a crime scene, thanks to Frank L. “Buster” Wortman, according to Gill. Wortman was a low-level person in the Shelton Gang, which controlled alcohol during Prohibition. He was arrested and spent seven years in federal prison. When Wortman came out, he took over the Shelton gang and controlled gambling in southern Illinois. “He gave the city a reputation for corruption, crime lords and gangsters,” Gill added.

The 1960s in East St. Louis was also a time of growing racial tension, as it was across the country, the historian noted. On top of that, realtors would engage in what is known as “block busting,” where they would convince a white family on a street to sell to a black family. “When a black family moved into a house, immediately all the other houses on the street were put up for sale,” Gill explained. “Then the estate agents would go to another street and do the same thing. In a very short time, almost all white people left East St. Louis.

“I’m from East St. Louis, and when I graduated in 1969, my class was about 50-50 black and white. Within 10 years, all the white families were gone.

What happens when two-thirds of a city’s population disappears? More tax money. “White families left behind empty schools, churches, homes,” he said. “Very few American cities could survive if two-thirds of their population moved almost overnight.”

The first black mayor, James Williams, attempted to resurrect the city. “But at the time this white flight happened, the city was on shaky financial legs,” Gill said. “There were infrastructure issues and there was not much he could do to change things.”

Williams stimulated interest in politics among new black political leaders such as Kenneth Hall, Alvin Parks, Charles Merritts, Carl Officer, and Clyde C. Jordon. Gill also noted the contributions of an influential politician who served as the first black state representative from East St. Louis – the late Rep. Wyvetter H. Younge, who has a school named after him in his hometown.

Other East St. Louis “champions” mentioned by Gill include:

  • Eugene B. Redmond – SIUE Professor Emeritus in the Department of English Language and Literature and East St. Louis Poet Laureate
  • Miles Davis, legendary jazz musician
  • Katherine Dunham – legendary dancer, choreographer, anthropologist and author
  • Tina Turner – renowned singer, dancer, actress and author
  • Jackie Joyner-Kersee – Olympic legend and gold medalist