Bell that warned of approaching white mobs amid East St. Louis riots in 1917 to ring again

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EAST ST. LOUIS * Truelight Baptist Church has a newly paved and striped parking lot. A few weeks ago, workers installed a security system.

But it’s the old bell hanging high above the vestibule that has the congregation talking these days.

It has not gotten much use over the past several decades. However, on Sunday morning the bell will ring again. Just like it did 100 years ago to alert blacks that white mobs were coming.

A warning to flee. Or to take up arms.

The protracted ringing will ricochet across much of the city’s South End as a reminder of one of the worst race riots in U.S. history. And as a toll of defiance.

“It has to be much more than to commemorate, but also to say, ‘We’re still here,'” said the Rev. Timothy J. Chambers.

The church played a key role in saving lives during a 48-hour spate of violence. At least 300 homes and businesses were burned. The official death count landed at 48, although news accounts have the number as high as 250.

But Truelight’s role and other details of the riots are not widely known stories in this church or the wider community, a crucial part of the narrative that defines a city beset by problems.

“In school, little was said. It was never treated like a reality,” said Edna Patterson-Petty, 72, who lives in East St. Louis with her husband, Reginald, 81. “When you don’t acknowledge, there is very little room for healing. The past will be repeated over and over if you don’t address what happened.”

Patterson-Petty became more familiar with the dark chapter of her hometown’s history in 2004 when her husband led a group of volunteers in rescuing books left behind when a city library closed three years earlier. The 7,000 books included city directories, yearbooks and other publications detailing East St. Louis history.

Reginald Petty began piecing together the city’s past in hopes of ultimately forming a historical society for East St. Louis, efforts still not realized. But with a series of events planned to commemorate the race riots of July 1917, he hopes momentum will build to create an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the city’s history.

“Other cities have historical societies. There is no reason we shouldn’t,” Reginald Petty said.

Stitching history

For Patterson-Petty, a fabric artist, the books her husband helped rescue began serving as inspiration for her work, including a quilt she started in February 2014. A deeper dive into the city’s history made the project challenging.

“As I learned more, I cried a lot. It hurt my soul,” Patterson-Petty said. One account she read mentioned that a chicken had more value than a black person.

“A chicken?” she said, shaking her head. “When you are treated like nothing, you believe nothing and act like nothing.”

Shortly after she began the quilt, her husband suffered a stroke. She took her new creation to the hospital, using her work as a conversation topic for the couple, a coping mechanism for her.

During Petty’s recovery, the Rev. Joseph Brown, an East St. Louis native and professor of Africana studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, stopped by the house. He saw the quilt.

“Tears filled his eyes,” Patterson-Petty said. “He said: ‘We’ve got to do something with this. Do something big.'”

Brown petitioned then-Mayor Alvin Parks to form a commission charged with commemorating the riots. Seven months after starting the quilt, the commission was formed. Brown and the Pettys are among the members.

A family remembers

At least 7,000 blacks fled across the MacArthur and Eads bridges into St. Louis before whites blocked access. Among those unable to cross was Terry Kennedy’s grandmother and her nine children, including Kennedy’s father, Samuel, then 7.

“They had set fire to the house in the back. My grandmother took the children and went out a side door and hid in the tall weeds for hours until (the mob) disappeared,” said Kennedy, 62, a longtime St. Louis alderman. “The bridges were blocked so my grandmother built a raft.” In the dark of night, Katherine Horne Kennedy got her family to safety. But the young mother could not fight off pneumonia and died about a week later. She was 34.

Three of her children eventually returned to East St. Louis, including Terry Kennedy’s father. Other family members ended up in Kinloch, a town created by the displacement of residents in East St. Louis, Brooklyn and the Mill Creek area west of Union Station, a neighborhood demolished in the 1950s.

About 20 years ago, Kennedy and other family members began an annual tribute to their ancestors forced to flee East St. Louis. Every July 2, they go to the Mississippi River and release flowers.

This year will be no different. But this time they will be doing it while formal events commemorating the riots are going on around them. A procession from East St. Louis Higher Education Campus to the Eads Bridge begins at 6:30 p.m. A wreath will be placed in the river, followed by the release of flying lanterns.

“There is in St. Louis this unspoken thing about racial issues and not dealing with them head on. That’s part of the lasting effects and, to me, why East St. Louis never recovered,” said Kennedy. He serves the city’s 18th Ward, an aldermanic seat once held by his father – who now has a hearing room at City Hall and small city park named after him.

Maybe this increased awareness of horrific events that occurred 100 years ago will bring forth “a clearer and better vision that we need to work together to appreciate cultural and ethnic differences,” Kennedy said. “That’s the lesson we can learn from this.”

For Lillian Parks, a former superintendent for East St. Louis schools, putting the history of the city deeper into the curriculum should be a priority.

“I don’t think we do enough in our schools, any of our schools in this area,” said Parks, 84.

Children are growing up today, black and white, not knowing such historical figures as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Parks said.

Without that knowledge, a new generation is growing up not understanding why East St. Louis is like it is – black, poor, long abandoned by the white middle class, she said.

The city needs to work harder to promote itself as “City of Champions,” a title the locals like to use, referring to hometown Olympians such as Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Dawn Harper and the high school’s powerhouse football program. Otherwise, outsiders will continue to view East St. Louis as “That Terrible Place,” Parks said.

85 churches, no Walmart

Patterson-Petty wishes she had known more about her hometown at an earlier age.

She was reared in a house in the 1000 block of Trendley Avenue. Thirty years earlier, white rioters had done extensive damage just west of the block and were headed deeper into the South End of town, beyond 10th Street.

But the neighbors were organized and ready. Snipers were in place and, after firing a few shots, the rioters retreated.

“I was raised in a spot where all this happened and never knew it,” Patterson-Petty said. “This has been a reclaiming of a part of me I didn’t know I’d lost.”

The corner of 10th Street and Trendley Avenue is among 24 locations the commemoration commission has deemed a “sacred site.” Truelight Baptist is among them. A map and descriptions of each spot has been compiled for self-guided tours.

In “Against All the Odds,” a documentary on East St. Louis and the riots, filmmaker Sandra Pfeifer highlights that the city has 85 churches but not a Walmart. It goes to the economic vacuum that bogs down the city of about 27,000 residents and its reliance on congregations to keep East St. Louis afloat.

“I’m of the belief as it pertains to the church community that we spend too much time sitting on the sideline rather than getting involved with things going on in our city,” said the Rev. Chambers, with Truelight. “To a great extent, we are no better than anybody else” who abandoned the city.

“To me, it starts with the church. Imagine if every church adopted their street, then their block, then their neighborhood. Imagine how that would begin to transform and how that would look,” the pastor said. “With adoption, that makes it part or your family. We have to take ownership and hold the people elected responsible for taking care of our families.”

But Chambers knows such rhetoric has been said before.

“I’m 54 years old, and all my life I’ve heard: ‘When is East St. Louis coming back? When is East St. Louis coming back?’ Does it have to be after I die?”

Shirley Reid, 81, a member of Truelight, said the city’s past was never a focus when she was growing up. “We were too busy trying to survive, trying to take care of families,” Reid said.

And it’s hard to get back up from something that affected families for generations, said church member Etta Spencer, 88.

“It kept us down for a while,” she said.

Chambers said churches, including his, are filled with members who live elsewhere, coming to East St. Louis only for Sunday services. It will continue to be a challenge to get buy-in, he said, especially with so many active church members who are elderly.

Still, the city should not give up, he said.

“At the end of the day, God hasn’t quit, so we can’t quit.”

The Truelight Baptist Church bell will ring Sunday morning – something all church bells should do throughout the city, Chambers said. And not just to remember a horrific event 100 years ago. But every day, if need be. A persistent reminder that work remains. The past has been a challenge. The present, too. But there is a future.

“When you are placed in a position like mine, there is an expectation that you will ring the bell until somebody hears you and pays attention,” Chambers said. “I’m not saying that nobody has rung the bell. But if somebody is ringing it, they’re not ringing it loud enough.”