Book: Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot that Sparked the Civil Rights Movement by Harper Barnes
Publisher: Walker & Company
Publication date: 2008
Summary: The subtitle of Never Been a Time, the 1917 race riot that sparked the civil rights movement, is a good overview except that it misses the one point that made our Diversity Book Club feel that this was a must-read for our group. That 1917 race riot took place in East St. Louis, Illinois. From where we meet, that’s a 30 minute drive going across the Poplar Street Bridge over the Mississippi River.
Harper Barnes starts the story in Philadelphia in the 1800s, giving both historical and geographical context to the 1917 riot. A context that helps understand this statement from the introduction:
The East St. Louis race riot was not only the first but officially the deadliest of a series of devastating racial battles that swept through American cities in the World War I era.
At that time, race riots were closely related to the mob violence that led to lynchings and they were most often tied to fears of whites regarding unemployment.
Thoughts: Our group found this book difficult to read because of the topic, it was alternately horrifying and infuriating.
Our discussion of this book, even though it was a history, began with stories “ripped from the headlines.” We noted that a root cause for the race riot in East St. Louis was calculated efforts by corporations to bring blacks from the south into the region. They promised jobs that weren’t there and then played the large population of unemployed blacks against any efforts at unionizing or striking by white employees, cynically doing it in such a way that white workers directed most of their anger at black workers rather than white employers.
Current anti-immigrant sentiment seems to have a similar role now. Ask yourself why anger is always directed at the illegal immigrant and not the corporation who employs him or her. There are many more illegal immigrants than there are employers of them. Just from a problem-solving perspective, it seems easier to tackle the employers than the immigrants, but that’s not how it gets played out on talk radio. It is, however, the kind of question that might come up in an Occupy Wall Street session and the headlines about that movement also entered into our discussion.
Another large theme of our discussion was how little white Americans know of this history. In our group, those of us who grew up in this area knew that there had been a race riot in East St. Louis but little else. Whites who grew up in other regions didn’t even know that much. The blacks in our group had much greater knowledge. Eugene Redmond, a black poet who grew up in East St. Louis before becoming a professor of English, was quoted on page 240 of this book:
There has never been a time when the riot was not alive in the oral tradition.
Our question was, “Why wasn’t this in our history text books?” The whites in our group sometimes find ourselves or others wishing that blacks would put the past behind them. “Talk to me about something that I can do right now,” we say, “not about something that is dead and gone and I can’t change.” The leader of our discussion pointed out that we should probably be more aware of what we are asking people to forget before we ask them to forget it. The events in this book were a shocking revelation to the whites in our group and after nearly three years of meeting we are more attuned than most. What do we still not know? What do our friends and neighbors not know about our own history? White privilege means we don’t have to be exposed to this ugly history. White people who want to make positive change in the world need to learn it, anyway. Teach it to ourselves and encourage others to learn it as well.
Appeal: This book is difficult in the topic, but not in the reading — the story is mesmerizing and the context makes it an important piece of history for all Americans to understand. It’s an excellent next book if The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns) intrigued you.
Have you read this book? What did you think?