NEVER BEEN A TIME by Harper Barnes


The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement
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St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Barnes (Standing on a Volcano: The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis, 2001, etc.) recreates the deadliest racial melee in American history until the Rodney King riots.

The author deftly sets the stage with a brief history of racial tensions in the United States. His chronicle of the riot that gripped East St. Louis, Ill., on July 2, 1917, relies heavily upon the contemporaneous research of W.E.B. Du Bois, newspaper reports and court documents. East St. Louis was a transit hub for Southern African-Americans as they began their migration to the North in the wake of the Civil War, seeking economic opportunity and social freedom. Many opted to settle in the industrial city, heightening competition for jobs that led to several racial skirmishes early that spring. Total anarchy erupted on the morning of July 2 after the murder of a policeman. Bloodthirsty white mobs stormed black neighborhoods, seeking revenge as they burned, beat and shot indiscriminately. The bloodletting left at least 48 dead with hundreds more injured, thousands displaced and more than 300 businesses and homes consumed by fire. The incident drew unprecedented national outrage: A flood of activists arrived on the scene, while thousands descended upon New York to participate in The Silent Parade, the country’s first civil-rights march. Barnes’s straightforward prose delivers richly textured portraits of those caught up in the fracas, most notably in the chapter entitled “A Drama of Death,” which stitches together eyewitness accounts of the riots. A highly engaging subplot follows Post-Dispatch journalist Paul Y. Anderson, who landed on the battle’s front lines as he struggled to compile reports throughout the day. The final chapter, though an interesting profile of the city’s luminaries, seems an afterthought attempting to brighten an overwhelmingly dark period in East St. Louis’s past.

Authoritative account of a criminally overlooked incident in American history.

Pub Date: July 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8027-1575-3
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Walker
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2008


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