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Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement

Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement

by Harper Barnes

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The dramatic and first popular account of one of the deadliest racial confrontations in the 20th century—in East St. Louis in the summer of 1917—which paved the way for the civil rights movement.

In the 1910s, half a million African Americans moved from the impoverished rural South to booming industrial cities of the North in search of jobs and


The dramatic and first popular account of one of the deadliest racial confrontations in the 20th century—in East St. Louis in the summer of 1917—which paved the way for the civil rights movement.

In the 1910s, half a million African Americans moved from the impoverished rural South to booming industrial cities of the North in search of jobs and freedom from Jim Crow laws. But Northern whites responded with rage, attacking blacks in the streets and laying waste to black neighborhoods in a horrific series of deadly race riots that broke out in dozens of cities across the nation, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Tulsa, Houston, and Washington, D.C. In East St. Louis, Illinois, corrupt city officials and industrialists had openly courted Southern blacks, luring them North to replace striking white laborers. This tinderbox erupted on July 2, 1917 into what would become one of the bloodiest American riots of the World War era. Its impact was enormous. "There has never been a time when the riot was not alive in the oral tradition," remarks Professor Eugene Redmond. Indeed, prominent blacks like W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Josephine Baker were forever influenced by it.

Celebrated St. Louis journalist Harper Barnes has written the first full account of this dramatic turning point in American history, decisively placing it in the continuum of racial tensions flowing from Reconstruction and as a catalyst of civil rights action in the decades to come. Drawing from accounts and sources never before utilized, Harper Barnes has crafted a compelling and definitive story that enshrines the riot as an historical rallying cry for all who deplore racial violence.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A sobering look at white-black history in this country and how it informs race relations today...Barnes brings fresh light to a troubling past that white Americans would prefer to forget and black Americans cannot.” —Scott Martelle, Los Angeles Times

“There is a secret history of American race relations, things they never taught us in school--the wanton terrorism visited upon African-Americans by white mobs from the end of the civil war to the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Harper Barnes takes one of the very worst episodes--the East St. Louis race riot of 1917--and uses it to illuminate and exorcise a past that we need to confront. This is a very important book, heartbreaking and riveting, history that is as fresh as today's news.” —Joe Klein, Time Magazine columnist

“You put Never Been a Time down and think, ‘How can I imagine myself an educated American and not know this?' A terrifying account, by a masterful writer.” —Paul Solman, economics correspondent for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

Never Been a Time uncovers one of those buried chapters in our country's defining narrative of race and vividly lays out the nexus of economic desperation, corporate ruthlessness and racial antagonism that resulted in what Gunnar Myrdal called this ‘mass lynching' in the American heartland. Harper Barnes is a natural reporter and an extremely elegant writer.” —Diane McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home and A Dream of Freedom

“America's worst race riots are pivotal moments in the nation's history with a great deal to teach us. Barnes skillfully places this shocking and important story in its full historical context and conveys a powerful sense of place: the dangerous streets and vice dens of East St. Louis, the foul winds from the smokestacks and slaughterhouses, and the city's toxic stew of greed, corruption, labor competition, and racism. Never Been a Time vividly recounts a horrifying massacre, but it is also a testament to human resilience, a celebration of a city that against all odds has produced so many famous cultural figures and drawn them back home to fight for its survival and its children's future.” —Barnet Schecter, author of The Devil's Own Work

“Harper Barnes has written a brilliant account of a tragic event in the American experience. He places the bloody East St. Louis Race Riot in its historical national context--demonstrating that it was more than an explosion of local pressures, but also a violent intersection of larger societal forces. He does a fine job synthesizing existing scholarly literature and the latest academic analyses alongside his own primary work. This well-researched and cogently-written book makes a meaningful contribution to the understanding of the infamous 1917 riot as well as race relations generally, and deserves the attention of scholars and citizens alike.” —Andrew J. Theising, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Urban Research, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and author of Made in USA: East St. Louis

economics correspondent for the NewsHour with Jim Paul Solman

You put Never Been a Time down and think, 'How can I imagine myself an educated American and not know this?' A terrifying account, by a masterful writer.
Publishers Weekly

With this account of the East St. Louis, Ill., race riot, "the deadliest of a series of devastating racial battles that swept through American cities in the World War I era," Barnes (Blue Monday) chronicles one of the devastating assaults on African- American communities across the nation that culminated in the Red Summer of 1919. Barnes's account of the 1917 riot is a tale of labor unrest as blacks were used as strikebreakers, of the power of rumor, of corrupt local politics, of the ineffective (when not complicit) response of police power (local and military) and of sickening savagery. Barnes is attentive to the role of the press, citing both the national and black press, but he focuses most sharply upon two St. LouisPost-Dispatchfigures, Paul Y. Anderson and Carlos Hurd. Between their dispatches and the "military and congressional hearings in the aftermath of the riot," Barnes offers a nearly block-by-block, minute-by-minute account, solid in reportage, pedestrian in the telling, useful to students of American and African-American history and accessible to the general reader. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Barnes (Blue Monday), a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writes of the truly senseless race riots that took place in East St. Louis, IL, in the summer of 1917, resulting in the deaths of nearly 100 people and the burning of over 200 buildings. The riots were the tragic legacy of slavery, Reconstruction, and its aftermath-compounded by circumstances of organized labor, strikes, business competition, and municipal corruption. Rioting white union members focused not on those circumstances but singled out victims on the basis of skin color. Mobs of African Americans reacted violently in self-defense. Judicial inquires in the aftermath placed blame on local businesses and union agitation. Local police and the Illinois militia were complicit and were shown to have actually spurred on violence toward those they were charged to protect. The legacy of these events is evident in the city to this day, yet among much blight there are pockets of sustained rebuilding and a community not without hope. Malcolm McLaughlin's Power, Community, and Racial Killing in East St. Louis is a dryer, more scholarly treatment than Barnes's, with more tables, maps, and citations. Barnes offers an essentially populist account, crafted with an eye on newspaper reporting and municipal politics. It is most fitting for public and undergraduate library collections.
—Jim Hahn

School Library Journal

Adult/High School

Barnes does a fabulous job of providing the broad cultural context of the violence that took place in East St. Louis, IL, in 1917, exploring both what led up to it and how it became a symbolic rallying cry for civil rights activists. The city was one of the main migration points for Southern blacks searching for jobs and equality during an era when labor unions were organizing and workers were striking for employee rights; many companies took advantage of African Americans willing to work for less money by using them to cross picket lines. Spurred by job loss and old racism, the white population blamed the black residents for their problems, both real and imagined. Violence erupted between the two groups, culminating in coordinated lynching that ended with the murder of at least 150 black residents. It becomes clear, however, that racism was not just a local issue, as evidenced by the strong anti-black coverage in leading newspapers, actions by leaders as high up as Woodrow Wilson, and other riots across the nation. Key features of the volume include photographs of the major political players of the time and a detailed bibliography. Based on key academic sources and original research, this is a work of strong scholarship. But just as important, Barnes's journalistic style brings this nearly forgotten tragedy of U.S. history to a wide audience in an accessible and meaningful way.-Matthew L. Moffett, Pohick Regional Library, Burke, VA

Kirkus Reviews
St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Barnes (Standing on a Volcano: The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis, 2001, etc.) recreates the deadliest racial melee in American history until the Rodney King riots. The author deftly sets the stage with a brief history of racial tensions in the United States. Her chronicle of the riot that gripped East St. Louis, Ill., on July 2, 1917, relies heavily upon the contemporaneous research of W.E.B. Du Bois, newspaper reports and court documents. East St. Louis was a transit hub for Southern African-Americans as they began their migration to the North in the wake of the Civil War, seeking economic opportunity and social freedom. Many opted to settle in the industrial city, heightening competition for jobs that led to several racial skirmishes early that spring. Total anarchy erupted on the morning of July 2 after the murder of a policeman. Bloodthirsty white mobs stormed black neighborhoods, seeking revenge as they burned, beat and shot indiscriminately. The bloodletting left at least 48 dead with hundreds more injured, thousands displaced and more than 300 businesses and homes consumed by fire. The incident drew unprecedented national outrage: A flood of activists arrived on the scene, while thousands descended upon New York to participate in The Silent Parade, the country's first civil-rights march. Barnes's straightforward prose delivers richly textured portraits of those caught up in the fracas, most notably in the chapter entitled "A Drama of Death," which stitches together eyewitness accounts of the riots. A highly engaging subplot follows Post-Dispatch journalist Paul Y. Anderson, who landed on the battle's front lines as he struggled to compilereports throughout the day. The final chapter, though an interesting profile of the city's luminaries, seems an afterthought attempting to brighten an overwhelmingly dark period in East St. Louis's past. Authoritative account of a criminally overlooked incident in American history. Agent: Matthew Carnicelli/Carnicelli Literary Management

Product Details

Walker & Company
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.46(w) x 9.36(h) x 1.04(d)
1420L (what's this?)

Meet the Author

Harper Barnes is a longtime editor and cultural critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and has written for the Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone and the Washington Post. He is the author of Blue Monday and The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis. Barnes lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

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