A century after one of the bloodiest events in US racial history, UMSL student investigates its causes and relevance for today

by | Jan 20, 2018

Mehnaz Ahmad's article “More Than Meets the Eye: The Layered Causes of the East St. Louis Race Riot” appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Gateway magazine.
UMSL grad student investigates causes of 1917 events in East St. Louis

In the spring and summer of 1917, white mobs assaulted hundreds of black men, women and children living in East St. Louis, killing many of them and destroying homes and businesses. Thousands of people were displaced by the violence, which has been a focus of Mehnaz Ahmad’s research the past two years. Her article “More Than Meets the Eye: The Layered Causes of the East St. Louis Race Riot” appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Gateway, the quarterly magazine of the Missouri Historical Society. (Image via The Crisis, September 1917)

Mehnaz Ahmad is no stranger to the St. Louis region’s history and geography. Even as a young child she had some awareness, for instance, of the divide between St. Louis City and St. Louis County.

“My street in Richmond Heights was half county, half city, and I would ride my tricycle and ask my dad, ‘What’s that sign there?’” remembers the University of Missouri–St. Louis history student, whose parents emigrated from India in the 1960s. “And he would say, ‘Well, that’s where the city starts.’”

At the time, her father’s growing car-dealership business also meant that Ahmad frequently tagged along during travels from one corner of the bi-state region to another.

“We could be in Granite City [Illinois] by day and Arnold [Missouri] by evening,” she says, adding that she developed an affinity for automobiles and for exploring all sorts of St. Louis neighborhoods along the way.

Mehnaz Ahmad, UMSL scholar

As she seeks a better understanding of why the massacre occurred 100 years ago, UMSL history scholar Mehnaz Ahmad also hopes her research can further illumine present-day challenges related to prejudice and collective violence. “These issues manifest themselves differently, and on the one hand we have to be positive and realize that we’ve come a long ways,” says the St. Louis native and mother of four, “but also question simultaneously how far we’ve really come.” (Photo by Evie Hemphill)

Many years later, Ahmad is now in the home stretch of a master’s degree program at UMSL, where she also earned a BA in history and a Pierre Laclede Honors College certificate in 2016.

And she’s still looking closely at the communities around her – particularly East St. Louis.

“I’ve always been interested in urban issues as it is, and St. Louis has been a favorite topic of mine,” says Ahmad, who raised four children, practiced real estate and attended St. Louis Community College part time before enrolling as a junior at UMSL in 2014. “Then my first semester here, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. And that whole year, this idea of ‘riots,’ per se, was part of the conversation. All of these interests combined for me.”

One of her professors, Fred Fausz, was the first person to suggest that a close look at what the East St. Louis community endured in the spring and summer of 1917 might work well as a research project.

She already had some sense of what had occurred in the then-growing city just across the river from downtown St. Louis: White mobs assaulted hundreds of black men, women and children, killing many of them and displacing thousands. But Ahmad was eager to dig deeper.

Her initial 30-page annotated bibliography eventually grew into a seminar paper – and, more recently, a presentation at the 2017 Missouri Conference on History plus a published article in Gateway, the quarterly magazine of the Missouri Historical Society, titled “More Than Meets the Eye: The Layered Causes of the East St. Louis Race Riot.”

“I wanted to talk about why this happened,” Ahmad says of her focus. “And I thought, ‘There’s got to be more than labor issues, because labor issues were not unique to the region.’ And my understanding was that this was one of the bloodiest riots, if not the bloodiest riot, that had ever occurred in the nation.

“The other notion was this idea of, ‘Well, that happened in Illinois’ – that separation, that this isn’t St. Louis. But to my mind it’s very much part of the St. Louis area and history, and it often seemed like no one wanted to talk about these issues. On the one hand I love the St. Louis region – it’s wonderful. But there are more conversations to be had.”

During her research the past two years, first as an undergraduate and now as a graduate student at UMSL, Ahmad was struck by the common misconception that few African Americans lived in the area prior to the Great Migration.

“I started to realize that the black population in East St. Louis really had always had a presence,” Ahmad says. “They had long been a part of East St. Louis, but they were now becoming a force to be reckoned with politically and socially. And it was the year of an election, too.”

That empowerment – and white resentment of it –­ is one of three issues Ahmad’s recently published article explores in relation to what has been most commonly referred to as the East St. Louis race riot. She also discusses the role of media misinformation at the time and the idea of collective violence, which she describes as “the planned use of violence by a group in order to achieve a goal.”

“It was pretty intriguing to see from a more scientific view how and why collective violence occurs,” Ahmad says. “And I think it’s so important for us to go back and analyze what prompts human violence. On the one hand as human beings we’re capable of such kindness and empathy, and yet there’s such brutality that occurs among fellow human beings.

“Whatever ethnicity or race or culture or religious background we’re from, I feel like there’s a common thread. I find the East St. Louis riot to be a microcosm of our region, our nation and us globally.”

Throughout her research, she also grappled with use of the word “riot” to describe what happened in 1917.

“Many of the black and African American researchers felt that it should be described as a massacre, not a riot,” Ahmad explains, “because the word ‘riot’ kind of automatically places a tone that this was instigated or caused by the black population.”

In late 2016, as her research project grew and with the 100-year commemoration of the violence of 1917 approaching, another UMSL faculty member, Peter Acsay, encouraged Ahmad to submit her timely work to last spring’s conference in Springfield, Missouri.

“Professor Acsay has been an amazing mentor since I started the master’s program, and he was really pushing me to do it,” says Ahmad, who did in fact get selected as a panelist. “I went to the conference, and I was a co-presenter, and the editor of Gateway was there.”

When the editor asked if she would be interested in adapting her work for the magazine, Ahmad seized the opportunity.

“I was a bit unsure if I could do it, but Professor Acsay’s encouragement gave me the motivation and confidence that as a rising or aspiring historian, these are the types of opportunities I should tackle, even or especially if it is out of my comfort zone,” she says.

Looking back at these scholarly experiences, Ahmad is grateful for what she’s learned in recent months about “what research can become” in addition to learning a lot more about East St. Louis itself.

“I appreciated so much seeing how to take something that was more intended for an academic audience and transform it for different audiences – great learning experience,” she says. “At the conference, I had to present it in a different way, and you only have about 15 minutes, so you have to be really concise.”

She also says she’s been learning more about the importance of consulting primary sources of all sorts.

Their impact on the way the 1917 events in East St. Louis are remembered is striking, the UMSL student adds.

“A Yale professor who gave a lecture I attended a couple months ago did a side-by-side comparison of Ida B. Wells’ findings of oral narratives by black citizens of East St. Louis versus the exact same incidents as described in testimony by white citizens and white law enforcement,” she says. “It was very fascinating to see the contrast within a single incident being described, and if you’re just reading the congressional hearings, you may only get a certain take.”

Most of all, Ahmad says, she’s found the research humbling, and her hope is that the conversation will continue – in the St. Louis region and beyond.

“We have such a rich history and heritage in this city, and a lot of it to be very proud of,” she explains. “But on the other hand, I think we shouldn’t brush things under the rug. And I feel like there are issues in our city and region where we don’t discuss or focus on why the violence occurs. The issues of 1917 are so relevant to the issues we face today.

“We sometimes say in history departments that if politicians studied history the way we do, perhaps we would have fewer problems in the world. I do think that a lot of those answers to problems that keep occurring throughout history and in present times and even in the future are screaming out at us.”

Ahmad’s historical interests are broad, and these days she’s balancing the responsibilities that come with her graduate assistantship alongside her own coursework and research. Just over the past few semesters she’s gained experience teaching everything from world history to U.S. history alongside supervising professors and fellow teaching assistants.

It’s a busy time, but Ahmad has clearly found her niche. She loves the classroom, loves the camaraderie she’s discovered among classmates and hopes to continue on in academia for years to come.

She credits Fausz and other mentors at UMSL with helping to instill that determination.

“He is the first one who truly explained to me what the profession of being a historian means,” Ahmad says of Fausz, “and it was his wealth of knowledge that galvanized my decision and resolve to continue for post-graduate studies in history. The East St. Louis research and writing came to fruition because of his guidance and training, and the way he and other faculty rigorously challenge us as students allows us to accomplish things we never thought we could.”

And in the meantime, she says, she’s come to truly love UMSL – particularly because of its diversity of people.

“It’s such a multi-age group, and you don’t find that broad, diverse group everywhere,” Ahmad explains. “I’m amazed at the opportunities, resources and networking that are available to me, and I’ve done most of this at no cost.”

Evie Hemphill

Evie Hemphill