Forgotten Lessons: A century ago, a tragic series of events in East St. Louis set the stage for a national movement—yet today, few people remember the horror.

riotIt was around noon on a bright Monday in early July 1917, and Lena Cook was on her way home to St. Louis. Cook had just spent the morning fishing with her husband, son, and daughter at a lake  near Alton, Illinois. Now the family was aboard a streetcar in downtown East St. Louis, their first time in the surging industrial city, heading west toward the Eads Bridge.

The city was crumbling around them. Throughout that morning, angry white citizens had been gathering on Main Street outside City Hall, rousing themselves into an enraged swarm. The Illinois National Guard had been called in, and troops were arriving at the train depot by the hour. The first shots had sounded little more than an hour prior. The first black man had been left dead in the street. Before the violence abated, at least 48 people would be killed in one of the worst race riots in U.S. history. More than 300 African-Americans’ homes and business would burn, the smoke visible from Missouri. Perhaps sensing what was to come, dozens of black East St. Louisans had begun their exodus by car, train, or foot, carrying what they could across the Eads Bridge to the west side of the river. Cook and her family were less than a mile from that crossing, at the corner of Collinsville and Illinois avenues, when they heard men shouting: “Stop the car!”

A mob had gathered around the streetcar and pulled its wheel trolley from the overhead wire. Cook felt a hand grabbing at her, tearing the shoulder of her dress.

“Come on out, you black bitch!” shouted a man. He and another man boarded the car. “All you white people get out!” he shouted, vowing to kill any blacks on the trolley.

The white people fled the car. Cook began to plead that she and her family did not live in East St. Louis and certainly hadn’t harmed anyone there. The mob’s leader grabbed her husband, Edward Cook, by the collar, pulled him to the car’s rear platform, and threw him from the vehicle. Then he shot Edward in the back of the head. Another white man grabbed Cook’s 14-year-old son, Lurizza, beat him with a revolver, and started to drag the young man away.

Cook grabbed the child. “You’ve killed my husband,” she cried. “Don’t kill my boy.”

The man jerked Lurizza away, but the lanky teen managed to break free. There was a gunshot. Cook lost track of Lurizza and her 13-year-old daughter, Bernice, when she was dragged into the street by the man who had killed her husband. The mob converged on her, beat her with clubs, kicked her, and pulled fistfuls of hair from her bleeding head. A white onlooker stepped in and begged the brutes to spare the women. The mob turned on him, allowing Cook to crawl away to a nearby storefront, where she was taken in but lost consciousness.

Cook came to inside an ambulance. Blinded by blood that coated her eyes, she groped about in the dark, feeling at least three other bodies around her, and finally found a man’s handkerchief. Wiping the blood away, she looked down to find that she had been thrown on top of the corpses of her husband and son, whose eyes were still open, staring through her. She still had no idea where her daughter was.

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