Black demonstrators protest hiring practices at a $13 million federal housing project in East St. Louis, Illinois, Aug. 8, 1960.
Photo: AP Photo
America's Blackest CityFor Black History Month, we asked writers to explain why they think their hometown, current residence or notable place deserves the title of America’s Blackest City by defining a city’s history, music, cuisine, notable figures, and cultural touchstone/unique black fact.  

Firstly, I want to make this clear: People often (always) confuse East St. Louis and St. Louis—they are not the same city. Kind of like assuming all black people look alike or just because our names are close than we must be sisters—nah. East St. Louis is literally “east” of St. Louis and is housed in the state of Illinois. So there’s East St. Louis, Ill., and there’s St. Louis, Mo. Granted, both cities are literally a rock’s throw from one another, but let you ask someone from East St. and St. Louis if they are from the opposite city….you just need to immediately apologize for your ignorance.

The relationship between both cities is complex. St. Louis talks big shit about East St. Louis in the same way that a cocky older brother would talk about baby bro. However, can’t no other city speak ill of East St. Louis to St. Louis or it’s gone be big smoke. Similarly, both cities have played an integral role in some of the most historic events of our time (R.I.P, Mike Brown).

History

While the souf had agriculture on lock in the late 19th and early 20th century, up nawf had the industry booming—literally. Us melanated folks got tired of the BS that wypipo been on and sought better living upways. East St. Louis was a thriving city where just about everyone had a job to support their family because of the onset of World War I, and the great demand on the industrial market was set ablaze—not free from racism, of course, but the assumption was us black folks would fair better in Illinois than in Jim Crow-saturated Alabama and the such. Business was boomin’ so much that we were coming up in trains by the droves to set up shop wherever we could—miss one, next 15 one comin’ (word to Gucci).

The influx of blacks in both the city and the workforce got the wypipo draws all in a bunch and them doing what they do best when they feel threatened, they took out their feelings towards their personal plight on the first black person they saw—which then turned into hundreds of black lives lost. White residents were under the impression that the melanated migrants intentionally came to East St. Louis to steal their jobs when, in reality, the white folks’ failed attempts to unionize and subsequently going on strike made eager and hard-working black transplants all the more attractive to the factory employers.

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According to author Elliot M. Rudwick, who wrote Race Riot at East St. Louis July 2, 1917:

Most (white) East St. Louisans did not belong to recognized labor unions and feared that job competition with the migrants would result in the denial of wage increases as well as the right of collective bargaining. As long as the whites believed they could obtain union recognition and job security, their hostility towards Negroes was held in check. However, the white labor leaders, like politicians in the 1916 presidential election, were prepared to use racist propaganda when, in their view, legitimate goals were jeopardized. Such a situation occurred during the spring of 1917 when a labor union was destroyed in one of East St. Louis’ largest industrial plant.

The destruction of the 1917 labor union set the stage for one of the most violent, bloodiest race riots on American soil. While an “official” death toll stated that only 39 blacks and eight whites were killed during the massacre, there were more than 250 black bodies unaccounted for once the riot residue settled. Word got around that the riot was so horrific that W.E.B. Dubois made it a point to visit East St. Louis and later draft the Massacre in East St. Louis report. A few weeks following the riot, the NAACP coordinated a massive protest in New York City with over 5,000 people, sending a message that the riot wasn’t just one city’s issue but it was (is) a problem for the entire nation. No need to go into detail about the gruesomeness of events—they are as hard to read as it is to write about them. If you are interested in learning more the accounts of July 2, 1917, check out another short piece I did on the race riot here and/or pick up Elliot M. Rudwick’s book.

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Blackest Person From East St. Louis 

East St. Louis got a couple heavy hitters in the chamber (no pun intended). World-renowned dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham created a Performing Arts Center for local youth to hone their artistic craft. Jazz extraordinaire Miles Davis. Olympic Gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee. And even though Tina “Switchin’ Hips Songstress” Turner and Ike “I Can’t Keep My Hands to Myself” Turner weren’t born in East. St. Louis, they spent a great deal of their career in the city—in fact, East St. Louis is where they first laid eyes on each other. Now based on what we know about that tumultuous-ass situation, that could’ve been the beginning of an end or end of a beginning—depends on who ya ask. Anywho, I digress.

As far as the blackest person from East St. Louis, if you ask me (and you are), I’m giving that title to no other than the basketball legend himself—Darius Miles. Bruh, if you have not read his writeup in The Players Tribune, “What the Hell Happened to Darius Miles,” do yourself a favor and open another browser to read it then come back to this. Thank and cash app me later ($AlanaFlowers). I’ll be kind enough to share a snippet:

I used to go back to East St. Louis every summer, even when I was in the league. I bought up damn near the whole block I grew up on. I remember as soon as I started getting some buzz, everybody would say, “Don’t forget about us.”

And I promised I wouldn’t.

In my mind, I was coming back for the kids, so they could see what kind of car I was driving, and how I was living, and the stories I was telling.… Just to see that it was possible to get up out of there.

I thought the streets loved me. That was my curse.

The streets don’t love you like that. The streets don’t love nobody.

When you’re young, you think the money is gonna last forever. I don’t care how street smart you are, or who you got in your corner, when you go from not having anything to making millions of dollars at 18, 19 years old, you’re not going to be prepared for it.

If you read the headlines about me now, it’s all about me going bankrupt. People ask me, “Man, how can you lose all that money?”

That part is easy to explain. You already heard that story a million times, with a million players. The cliche is that guys go broke buying Ferraris or whatever. Listen, it takes a long time to go broke buying Ferraris. What makes you go broke are shady business deals….

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To sip the rest of this tea, you gotta finish the article. He shares his truth the only way an East St. Louis knee-gah can and I am here for it.

Food

East St. Louis may not have the staple food like the overrated Harold’s Chicken (all tea, no shade). However, it was the mom and pop shops from your everyday neighbors, educators and church folks that ensured anyone could have a cooked meal when asked. Places like Sandy’s BBQ, Red Door BBQ, and even Mellow Freeze ice cream shop, which recently celebrated its 45th anniversary in the Fall of 2018.

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Music

Much like several other cities in the midwest (St. Louis, Chicago, etc), East St. Louis was a jazz, blues, and all-things-soultry stomping ground. This isn’t just the city where the Turners sparked their toxic love story but this is also where Ike Turner’s music group, Kings of Rhythm, built their momentum as musicians by playing all-nighters in hot nightlife spots such as Kingsbury’s, Club Manhattan and Sportsman. Per the request of the musical genius, Miles Davis, his parents granted him permission to enhance his craft for music and attend Julliard School of Music.

Unique Black Fact 

“Rapper’s Delight,” the song we credit as the origin of hip-hop, got its traction from a small radio station in East St. Louis. The founder of Sugar Hill Records, Sylvia Robinson, wasn’t getting no love when trying to get “Rapper’s Delight” some air time—New York City included. However, a DJ on the air in East St. Louis played the 15-minute track but not without hesitation (15 minutes is a long-ass time. We exit out of 30-second YouTube commercials).

“The last hour of my show was always the special hour. Usually it was ladies back to back: Aretha and Gladys. So when I was asked to play this song, that’s what was going on. I was in my last hour. When I put it on, it was like ‘ahippity hoppity hippity. I was like ‘what is this?’Lo and behold, when I put it on the turntable, people just started calling up: ‘What is that? What is that?”—Edie Anderson

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On a serious tip, we know what all is said about the city. You could easily google East St. Louis after reading this article, and there would be rows and rows of redundant commentary about debt, destruction, dilapidation and death by murder. In fact, much of the conditions of the city are not by fault of its people but by the nature of deindustrialization and white (and black) flight as well as chronic federal budget cuts toward programs that many residents depend on.

Honestly, it really is an overexaggerated depiction of what occurs in thousands of other cities across the country but it appears to stick when it comes to East St. Louis. Despite it all, East St. Louisans ride for this city. Native born and bred make it a point to stick it out and invest in areas within our own God-given capacity. We stay and we ride it out to the wheels fall off despite the odds. Can’t get no blacker than that. To know East STL is to love East STL. Don’t believe me, head up 55 and see for yourself.