PBS.org - The American Experience: The East St. Louis Riot
On July 1, 1917, a rumor spread claiming that a white man had been killed by a black man, and tensions boiled over. The next day, the city of East St. Louis exploded in the worst racial rioting the country had ever seen. Most of the violence -- drive-by shootings, beatings, and arson -- targeted the African American community. The riots raged for nearly a week, leaving nine whites and hundreds of African Americans dead, and property damage estimated at close to $400,000. More than six thousand black citizens, fearing for their lives, fled the city.
The carnage was all the more shocking because it occurred only shortly after American's entry into World War I. According to historian Winston James, "You have black troops going off to fight to make the world safe for democracy in April and in July you have black people being murdered in the most wanton and barbaric manner in East St. Louis; children being thrown back into flaming houses, people being boarded up in their houses before they're torched so that they couldn't escape. So even by American standards, East St. Louis was a horror."