What happened to East St. Louis?
How did it get into such a mess?
What has happened to East St. Louis?
The next few pages will try to reconstruct what happened, albeit in what has to be vastly oversimplified terms - oversimplified for time and space reasons, and for lack of in-depth research. But I lived through many of those years, and was more of a professional observer than your average resident. However, I'll admit that in almost a quarter century reporting and editing on the East St. Louis scene, from 1949 to 1971, I still never saw the forest for the trees.
When East St. Louis was platted back in the 1860s it was in effect a subdivision. There also was Illinoistown. Illinoistown, from which the Piggott Ferry carried pioneers westward across the Mississippi, was a rowdy, boisterous place. Travelers to as far away as Indiana said they were ashamed to say they were from Illinoistown, so bad was its reputation. So when the town was incorporated the name East St. Louis was chosen over Illinoistown to change the image of the city. So much for the reputation of East St. Louis.
In the "good old days" the blacks - they were still called Negroes then - "knew their place," and it was south of Louisiana Boulevard, west of 26th Street, east of about Eighth Street and south all the way to Monsanto (now Sauget). East St. Louis had gone through a race riot in 1918 when "the boys came marching home again, hurrah," to find many of their jobs taken by blacks who had migrated to the city during World War 1. As best I can gather, the basis for the racial strife then and really all through history - has been economic.
East St. Louis was an industrial giant - only it really wasn't. Most industry was outside the city limits. The Stock Yards incorporated its own city, National City, and Macon Toberman was the almost-immortal mayor. The stock yards industries, including some that spilled across First Street into the East St. Louis city limits, employed well over 10,000 workers. That included Armour and Swift, those two with as many as 8,500 employees, and Hunter and Circle and other independents, the Yards company itself, and the Stock Yards National Bank which employed dozens of youngsters as runners and gave many present-day bankers their start. Monsanto Chemical Co. was in its own village, along with Moss Tie and American Zinc, Midwest Rubber, Phillips Petroleum, Socony Mobil -and I am naming those I can easily remember.
It was said that if you couldn't find a job in East St. Louis, you couldn't find a job anywhere, and so it was for a long time, but changes were happening.
When I came to the Journal in 1949, not so very long after World War II, the civil rights movement was gaining steam. But there still was residential segregation, enforced by social and political means. I can remember as a child when a black family moved north across Louisiana Boulevard, and crosses were burned in the yard When the word got around - and it did like the proverbial wildfire - whites came from all over town to see the phenomenon. The streets were jammed with cars and pedestrians, some simply standing and staring at the house. My father and mother drove to see this with their very own eyes, and of course took me along. I did not really understand what was happening, however, until I began work as a reporter, and another family moved across that line. A city official picked up his phone, called the superintendent at Aluminum Ore, and asked him if the offending black worked for him. A check of the payroll revealed he did. The black was told to move back or lose his job. He moved back. The system worked.
The black area was staked out sometime after World War I. By the '40s the population grew more dense. Factors included the availability of jobs, blacks came to East St. Louis looking for work.
In Mississippi, one in 10 residents was white! The blacks did not have the vote. Living conditions were squalid, educational opportunities sparse. I cite Mississippi because I looked the figures up there long, long ago. Doubtless the situation was similar throughout the South, but I drove through Mississippi to visit my father's birthplace in southeast Arkansas, and so saw the squalor. Human living conditions couldn't have been much worse anywhere. So those who could sent their children to live in East St. Louis with aunts, uncles, even "foster relatives" to give them an opportunity for future better than their parents had. It contributed to the population and the school enrollment, all in the South End.
Then the civil rights legislation came along. The blacks won the vote. That winter I drove through Mississippi on my way to Hamburg, Ark. The cotton still hung, unpicked, from the plants in the fields along the highway. The next summer, the cotton picking machines came in droves. The minority of whites in Mississippi suddenly were outnumbered 10-1 at the polls, but the blacks to a great extent were illiterate, certainly unschooled, and incapable of marshalling their electoral power. In the meantime they systematically, it seemed to me, were driven from the state by the elimination of their jobs. Before the civil rights reform, they dragged huge cotton sacks through the fields, on their knees, picking cotton protected by needle-like spikes on the bowls. To get ready for cotton picking they soaked their fingers in turpentine to toughen the skin above their nails, where the dried bowls gouged until their fingers bled. But once the blacks had the ballot, the cotton picking machines, previously rejected as inefficient, suddenly appeared on every farm. And the blacks had to find work elsewhere - work or relief.
The East St. Louis police blotter told the story. Place of birth: a city in the South, often Mississippi. I served for a good many years on the county advisory board of the Illinois Department of Public Aid. Its rolls were swollen with relief recipients from the South, driven out by economic pressure after civil rights legislation, ill-prepared even or the back-breaking work of the smokestack industries, and choosing Illinois because in public assistance, we were among the more liberal states certainly far more liberal than Missouri. Many went to Chicago, but we were closer to the South. So
East St. Louis acquired more than its share of problem people from the troubled south.
The South End - the contained ghetto - was straining at the seams.
Meanwhile, industry was going through changes. The Aluminum Ore Co. was located in Illinois refining bauxite from South America and Arkansas into aluminum ore to be shipped elsewhere for fabrication. It built a reduction plant at the mine mouth in Arkansas. Then it tried shipping bauxite from South America in small freighters with a shallow enough draft to sail right up the Mississippi to East St. Louis. At least one round trip was made - probably two - before that was given up as not cost effective. So the whole reduction plant was moved to the Gulf Coast - and though we are not privy to any company records, probably to an area with lower salary costs.
Armour and Swift plants were old and inefficient. They closed rather than rebuild, moved to more efficient plants in the Sunbelt states, where labor was cheaper. New marketing techniques broke their dependency on locations next to the stock yards.
The heavy industry had responded to World War II with maximum production - the cost was not important. But now competition forced industries to look at their efficiency, and to decide whether they would rebuild or requip ... or move. A factor was East St. Louis' tough organized labor climate and its reputation for jurisdictional disputes among construction crafts. The Sun Belt beckoned.
What began as a trickle turned to a tidal wave of departures and plant closings. The city of jobs suddenly had no jobs.
The railroads were big business in East St. Louis. The Terminal Railroad Assn. was successor to the Wiggins Ferry Co., and controlled the riverfront, owned the Eads Bridge and Union Station in St. Louis. East St. Louis was second in the nation only to Chicago as a major railroad terminal. Front Street was lined on the east side with railroad freight houses. The Alton & Southern was thriving as a major switching operation. Its employees made up a significant portion of Alta Sita. The Missouri Pacific yards at Dupo were the heart of that community. Then came trucks and planes and buses and the railroads shriveled up and died, and with them thousands more jobs.
It is my opinion that if you could factor in all the spin-off jobs lost when heavy industry and the packing plants left the greater East St. Louis area, that between the end of World War II and 1970, almost 45,000 jobs were lost.
Looking at the political picture, East St. Louis was ruled by a white often bipartisan political machine, the good old boys. It would have been hard for any of them in the political climate of the day not to have been involved in some way in the spoils of office, because there were plenty of tempting opportunities to pick up money on the side. Gambling and prostitution - once the federal ended prohibition - were the biggest pots at the end of the rainbow, and the system was intertwined with Frank "Buster" Wortman, the mobster who with the help of police kept the other gangsters out of town. The city had the commission form of government, which meant every council member was a commissioner responsible for a segment of government - police, fire, finance, streets, etc. Each had his own little kingdom, and payoff and kickback opportunities. Suppliers undoubtedly held out bowls of sweets for the commissioners to taste as the very minimum of "perks."
Our interview with Charles Merritts Sr. will give you some feeling for what went on then. It wasn't necessary to tap the public tax till, you could become a millionaire -some did - with sideline payoffs that the commissioners still could spend tax money on improvements. But political patronage made the political system go 'round, and waste was rampant. The city found itself in financial trouble. All those industries were not in the city, were not taxpaying. I have seen the finance commissioner, after a bout with Capt. Charles Cadell and the Fire Fighters Local 23, hold his head in his hands and weep, because he didn't know where the money was coming from to pay salaries.
And those sideline payoffs were declining, too. Why, it wasn't hardly worth being a city official any more! In 1949 Sen. Estes Kefauver brought his traveling TV show to St. Louis - television was in its infancy and KSD was the only station in St. Louis, I believe. He spotlighted organized crime and its links to the political system, and embarrassed the East St. Louis police department and commissioners, Citing the betting parlors run within sight of City Hall, and wide open gambling and prostitution throughout the city. Charles Stewart, investigative reporter for the East St. Louis Journal, had led the Senate committee's chief investigator (was his name George White?) throughout the area serving subpoenas on gaming operators to be questioned by the panel. One of the volunteer witnesses, by the way, was a young newspaper publisher from Troy, Paul Simon, who testified about gambling and prostitution on Collinsville Road. The Journal did a feature story on him, and Russ Maxwell photographed him sitting on a big dictionary so he could reach, his typewriter - little but mighty.
East St. Louis came to its darkest financial hour. Firefighters Local 23, AFL, was holding the council's feet to the fire, prohibiting politics in the department, demanding fair wages and working conditions, and threatening to shut down city government if their demands were not met. (The policemen, many of whom owed their jobs to political appointments, refused to go along.) There was no money to meet the pay demands.
Let the trumpets blare, the flags fly, (sound cavalry horses hoofbeats in the background) the bankers came riding to the rescue. They invented a system to bypass tax referendums to give the city' more money, and the banks interest payments. They called the system judgment funding bonds. You see, the legislature permitted taxes within certain basic ranges. To raise them, you had to have a vote of the people. That is, you usually did. But if there was a court judgment against you, then you could issue bonds to pay the judgment, and raise taxes to retire the bonds, all without a referendum.
The judgment funding bonds indebted the taxpayers for 20 years at a time - and the taxpayers had no recourse to limit taxes. Each year new ones were issued, piling them up, tax upon tax. This is the device that plunged East St. Louis into long-term debt, and helps keep it there today! And it came from the bankers. No politician was smart enough to think of it.
To get the judgments, those whom the city owed gathered their bills together and filed suit collectively. The city agreed not to fight the suit. To laymen, that sounds like collusion, doesn't it? But that is the way it worked. And the judges were - and are - part of the political system. Who was to complain?
When we interviewed Bob Kassing, president of First Illinois Bank, he complained that the city does not fight judgment suits against it, and taxes go up and up. When I remarked the banks invented the system, he objected that it was meant for a short-term solution; instead it has become a long-term problem.
Revenue bonds also were not subject to the debt ceilings, so there was no limit to the depths the city could plunge financially.
All this is history. All this is accurate generally if not specifically. And all of this happened before the white flight: the whites were in control, and while some blacks were bursting out of the tight confines of the ghetto, the white flight was barely discernible.
On day I received a telephone call from a news source with the housing authority. He advised me that the federal government was going to provide funds for "turnkey housing" to be scattered throughout the city. If I would buy some vacant lots, I could be assured they would build houses on them and I could make a little money on the side.
Somebody made a lot of money building marginal housing for the housing authority. And real estate agents and developers made a lot of money building and selling houses in west Belleville to whites who fled when one of these turnkey houses, or other kinds of federal housing - and there lots of kinds - was built in formerly all-white neighborhoods and occupied by blacks. They became part of "block busting" and turned the white flight into an exodus.
The civil rights movement went into high gear. What happened in East St. Louis was a microcosm of the nation. "Militant" was the key word. It began with sit-ins at the banks, included an axehandle march for jobs on construction projects at Scott Air Force Base. Whitey was on the run, scared, feeling outnumbered. And the blacks didn't let up the pressure. I took my son to a basketball game between Lincoln and O'Fallon at O'Fallon. We sat in the stands on the Lincoln side. The referee made a questionable call against Lincoln. The whole black side stood in the bleachers, rising in unison, stepped forward one seat, and sat down again. They didn't say a word. There was a concerted gasp, and absolute panic registered on the faces of the whites on the other side of the gym. I don't know how the move was orchestrated, but it struck fear deep in the hearts on the other side. The blacks laughed.
Then there were angry young men who did not know what they wanted, except it should be their way -- the War Lords and their followers. Against this mix, the few whites who did seek to understand what was going on were perplexed. They could do nothing right. While there was a revolution going on, it was for varied reasons and toward varied ends and sometimes there was no reason at all, just anger.
War Lord leader Sweed Jeffries taught me the basic, and I mean basic, meaning of words like candor and truth and honesty in reporting, and I appreciate that. I looked hard for him when I started this book but I could not find him. The Globe ran a page one report on "snipings" in East St. Louis which contributed to the fear. Almost all "snipings" were domestic disturbances, black against black. Sweed could background almost every shooting. At the Metro-East Journal, I tried to keep a balance in the news. I initiated a "news threshold" so we didn't even report domestic incidents short of deaths. And we strove for accuracy and fairness. One anxious night when a policeman shot a fleeing black kid in the back as he crawled over a fence, killing him, we let the police keep it secret for 24 hours. We didn't really know what happened, but we knew something happened and we were silent, a little while. We didn't want to add to the problem, but we did tell the story, and I think, fairly.
An irony of the militants' actions was that they were directed against their white friends, perhaps logically so, even if unfairly. The neighborhood grocer who was first to hire blacks to stock shelves or even operate checkout lines - the same one who extended credit and called his black customers by name and who had not fled when the neighborhood changed - was the "softest" and therefore the best mark for even greater demand. And there were greater demands. The store of the grocer I have in mind eventually was torched.
At the Journal I hired a black librarian. I also hired Lillian Williams, whose father James later was to be the first black mayor, to write obituaries and serve as my secretary. She now is a star reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Bill Gray, black, editor of the Menard Times prison newspaper, had been writing to me. We were able to get him released from prison to be a reporter. Black reporters were hard to find. We hired a black from Iowa - who had no accent as I recall - who left us for a high-paying job with Sun Oil Co. He wrote back he spent his time at a desk reading Playboy--he was the token front-office black. It was too bad, he was a better newsman than that.
I had a hard time getting reporters to work in East St. Louis. I hired Bob Goodrich, white, now a reporter for the Post-Dispatch in Belleville. One of the first stories he wrote - call it "enterprise" was on discrimination by the Belleville Board of Realtors. Many of us are not always sure of what is right and wrong. I am sure many of the old political leaders took their payoffs and considered themselves public servants. I've always felt only preachers and Mormons were certain of right and wrong. Recent revelations about nationally known preachers just leaves the Mormons. Bob is Mormon. I wasn't going to reject a morally right article on discrimination. But the Real Estate Board members were among our best advertisers. I had a problem. Yes, we ran Bob's story, but as I recall I had him balance it with a story about the pressures that home sellers and apartment owners put on the Realtors to keep blacks out. That is the kind of basic honesty Sweed taught me -the whole story, not just one side.
Sweed taught me by visiting me, usually backed up by a group of other angry young men, who somehow had swelling muscles. One time they came in overalls and no shirts, and I swear they had oiled their skin so the light would glisten on the rippling muscles. Sometimes they began with threats, so he could establish his toughness, but he had brains and we talked out our problems. That was good - I was short on muscles.
One of our "shorts" drivers on Saturday night stopped for the stoplight at Tenth and State. A black man held a gun up to the side window and fired a shot through the car, just in front of his face. The driver came back to the office, left the keys and a terse note on a desk and quit.
There was violence. People were hurt. Homes were burglarized, people were robbed and terrorized and some were killed. The quip "they all look alike to me" took on another meaning as the whites were afraid of all blacks and joined in the flight, contributing to the problem. There was no way to stem the tide.
We had a janitor who lived near 15th Street and Broadway. In those tense days I worked until midnight almost every night, and I drove him home, to 15th and Broadway, almost every night. I never had a problem. I carried a hammer on my car seat, I drove defensively and I knew what I would do if I were accosted, but I never had to do it.
Elmo Bush said many white businessmen in those neighborhood stores found a way to retire; they torched their own stores and headed for the hills with the insurance money. Perhaps some did. Perhaps many did. But the bottom line was that neighborhood stores just about disappeared. If an East St. Louisan wants to buy a spool of thread today, he almost has to go to Fairview Heights to find it. If he is a high school kid looking for a parttime job, there is no corner store to hire him. You'll find the determined black kids at work in Fairview Heights, too, despite transportation problems.
Whites who could sold their houses for peanuts and ran. Thefts and vandalism soared, sometimes in the guise of black militancy. At a bachelor party for a young friend I said I thought East St. Louis would come back, and it was smart people who bought property there. A man called my hand, said he would sell me two houses in Lansdowne for $2. 1 borrowed $2 from a friend Joe Haas and paid the man. In a week or so he sent me the deeds. I drove down to see one house, a frame house on a raised corner lot.
The worst crime was black against black, and people with property had to install bars on their windows, buy ADT systems, build garages, hang floodlights around their houses - or move out. Many affluent black East St. Louisans joined the flight, to Fairview, Belleville, O'Fallon, as far as Mascoutah.
Mayor Alvin G. Fields, the symbol of the white machine and an effective political leader, retired. Elmo Bush had been the first black to run for mayor, but he was defeated. Sen. Kenny Hall could have had the job, but declined it. Republican Jim McRoberts, who had masterminded the election of Dave O'Neal, a Republican, as sheriff, was political counselor to Jim Williams who became the mayor of an even-then bankrupt and corrupt city. He had one big thing going for him, Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie was behind him 100 per cent. But Williams wouldn't play politics. "Hell, I'd give him anything he asked for," a disappointed Gov. Ogilvie told me one time, "but he didn't have the backbone to run the city." Maybe the anatomy was off, he didn't have the stomach.
Politics is a game of IOUs. You don't win supporters because of your principles, but rather for the favors you do for your supporters and for other politicians. Even Abraham Lincoln knew that. Williams didn't. The black leaders who held hands with Al Fields played that game. They included Sen. Hall and Oliver Hendricks, chairman of the board of aldermen. The No. 1 Fields apprentice was the late Monitor publisher Clyde Jordan, who had hundreds indebted to him.
Mayor Carl Officer still hasn't learned the lesson. That's why some feel the city lacks leadership prospects now, and say the city hasn't had a strong leader since Jordan died. Jordan could get what he wanted from others, including the political party. Which party? Both parties. He distributed political funds to precinct commiteemen of both parties! He supported Republicans for governor. Officer flips off the committeemen and the professional politicians (and a lot of others) at all levels. He says he doesn't need them. Maybe he doesn't ' but maybe the city does.
Tax rates have gone up and up, and have hit $20 per $100 assessed valuation, the highest in the state. The figure is unreal, almost impossible to accept. Fairview Heights replaced Collinsville Avenue as the shopping center, and city sales tax revenue plunged. Attempts to provide patronage jobs in the school district and City Hall shoved both deeper into debt. Police ran radar to arrest motorists and collect fines for the city instead of solving crimes - and sometimes still went unpaid. Taxes for judgment funding bonds all go to principal and interest on the bonds; there is no operating money.
With an estimated 14,000 residents living in public housing, the tax burden is shifted to the remaining 26,000 - if the census figures are correct. Unemployment figures are meaningless: a study years ago showed less than half the households had a regularly employed member; there is reason to believe that the figure today is worse. Forty per cent of the residents draw public aid. True unemployment may approach 60 to 75 percent. As the photographs have shown, there are many fine homes, and if the residents pay fair share taxes, they are making huge tax payments. It costs a lot of money to live in a poor city! The blacks who can are fleeing the city, too.
East St. Louis critically needs jobs and taxpayers -taxpaying business, industry and workers. It has a reputation for crime, poor schools, poor city services and high taxes that frightens away business, industry and workers.
The school district has been working with the state to learn to live within a budget that depends on money from the "temporary" state income tax increase. It is doing well. It has as superintendent Lillian Parks, a home-grown educator with knowledge, a strong will and a high sense of values. The situation is promising.
Gov. Jim Thompson appointed special committees to investigate the plight of East St. Louis, which proposed the $34 million loan program - inaccurately called a bailout - which is in place now. The plan has a watchdog element in a special committee to oversee the use of the state funds headed by SIU-E President Dr. Earl Lazerson. He is a no-nonsense administrator. The committee is expected to introduce a new level of financial responsibility in city government. But the city must also develop an "income stream" to pay off the debt, provide services and prevent a recurrence of the bankruptcy of the city.
As you have read, State's Atty. John Baricevic points out quite accurately that neither Mayor Carl Officer or anyone else can operate a city without funds, and it cannot increase taxes already the highest in the state. That is the problem in East St. Louis at this instant. What now?