blackbirdonline journalFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2

1917 Suite Intro
(opens v17n1)
Claudia Emerson
Bernard Martin
Dan O'Brien

Bookmark and Share Share
1917 SUITE

The NAACP’s Silent Parade
Introduction & Table of Contents

The contents of reprinted texts have been represented faithfully though racial epithets have been partially redacted; paragraphing and layout have been adjusted for ease of reading. Minor typos have been corrected. —Blackbird editors


Our U.S.-centric look at the world one hundred years ago includes selections from the NAACP’s The Crisis, following our research into the Negro Silent Parade in New York City and the brutality against African Americans in Waco, Memphis, and East St. Louis that preceded it. The violent incidents in these three communities, overtly cited as reasons for the parade, are, we suspect, lesser known and lesser taught in American schools than, say, the histories of suffrage, the Great War, or the Russian Revolution.

Our intent to reprint an account of 1917’s Negro Silent Parade from The Crisis predated by many months the white supremacist march on Charlottesville, the beating of DeAndre Harris, and the blunt-force injury death of Heather Heyer, less than one hundred miles from Blackbird’s home city of Richmond, Virginia. A lesser rally by white supremacists, some weeks later—thankfully small and quickly over—occurred less than a mile from our journal’s offices.

As we present here accounts of the violence of Waco, Memphis, and East St. Louis, please be forewarned that the subject matter is brutal and the actions of the mobs against victims nearly unbearable to read—yet our witness to it remains entirely necessary.

We mean to bring the history forward to our readers while neither disrespecting or sensationalizing the victims. From the account of the East St. Louis Massacre, we have chosen to reprint portraits of two injured survivors of the violence. The lynching victims of Waco and Memphis are not pictured. Following a model demonstrated in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, we show only the images of perpetrators. The unedited images are widely available for readers if, or when, they are ready to engage them.

We open this suite with excerpts of a 1916 special supplement of The Crisis titled “The Waco Horror,” which details the lynching of seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington.

Following that is a March 1917 editorial in The Crisis, “Civilization in the South,” which asks of the South a question we might ask of the nation today:

What sort of a culture is it that cannot control itself in the most fundamental of human relations, that is given over to mobs, reactionary legislation and cruel practices?

“I tried to balance the sufferings of the miserable victim against the moral degradation of Memphis, and the truth flashed over me that in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America's body and white America's soul.”

—James Weldon Johnson
     on the lynching of Ell Persons


Next comes a May editorial from The Memphis Press. Even though the text unquestioningly assumes the guilt of Ell Persons, lynched by a Memphis mob, it raises the question of community responsibility and societal complicity.

Public opinion burned Ell Person[s]—the minister of the gospel, the lawyer, the doctor, the newspaper editor, the man who talks to others on the street corner or the street car—he shared in it, that is he did unless he protested and there were few protests.

Five brief editorials from the March issue of The Crisis touch on the world events of 1917, the Negro Silent Parade, and violence against African Americans, as well as their (largely unacknowledged) role in building the nation. One editorial reminds its 1917 readership

Wherever the American flag floats today, black hands have helped to plant it. American Religion, American Industry, American Literature, American Music and American Art are as much the gift of the American Negro as of the American white man.

All of this stands as foreground to our initial idea to republish an account of the July 28, 1917 protest by African Americans on the streets of New York: “The Negro Silent Parade” (The Crisis, September 1917) and brief newsreel footage of the event.

In silent protest against the recent killing of Negroes in race riots in Waco, Memphis and East St. Louis, 15,000 Negroes marched here yesterday afternoon. The parade formed in Fifth avenue and marched from Fifty-seventh street to Madison Square.

In each of the cities named above, “race riots” describe white mob violence against African American communities; lynchings and desecration of the bodies in Waco and Memphis, and widespread acts of terror, including the murder and injury of African American citizens of East St. Louis; many lost their homes and possessions to fire and were driven from the community.

The Negro Silent Parade

The Negro Silent Parade

James Weldon Johnson, on the NAACP’s planning of the Negro Silent Parade, published this account some sixteen years after the event.

I attended a meeting of the executive committee of our Harlem branch. They were discussing plans to register a protest against the East St. Louis massacre; the plan most favored was a mass meeting at Carnegie Hall. Recalling Mr. Villard’s remarks at the Amenia Conference, I suggested a silent protest parade. It was agreed that the parade should not be made merely an affair of the Association and the Harlem branch, but of the colored citizens of all Greater New York. A large committee, including the pastors of the leading churches and other men and women of influence, was formed, and preparations were gone about with feverish enthusiasm. On Saturday, July 28, nine or ten thousand Negroes marched silently down Fifth Avenue to the sound only of muffled drums. The procession was headed by children, some of them not older than six, dressed in white. These were followed by women dressed in white, and bringing up the rear came the men in dark clothes. They carried banners; some of which read:

Mother, Do Lynchers Go to Heaven
Give Me a Chance to Live
Treat Us So That We May Love Our Country
Mr. President, Why Not Make America Safe for Democracy?

Just ahead of the man who carried the American Flag went a streamer that stretched half across the street and bore this inscription.

Your Hands Are Full of Blood

The streets of New York have witnessed many strange sights, but, I judge, never one stranger, than this; certainly, never one more impressive. The parade moved in silence and was watched in silence.

Blackbird's reprint of “The Negro Silent Parade” from The Crisis includes the text of fifty-nine signs carried in the protest. (Serendipitously, in our Gallery in this issue, we also feature work by Richmond-born, New York photographer LeRoy Henderson. His photographs from the Civil Rights Era to the present day include, in many instances, images of civil rights—and contemporary—protestors and their accompanying signs.)

Colored Men Lynched by Years, 1885-1916

From The Crisis, Special Supplement, “Memphis May 22, A.D., 1917.”

The Crisis published for many years a running talley of known lynchings in the United States; according to the table published in their account of the Waco lynching of Jesse Washington, the count as of July 1916 was thirty-one for the year, out of a total of 2843 documented lynchings since 1885.

So the Waco lynching of Jesse Washington, the Memphis lynching of Ell Persons, and the murders and violence of the East St. Louis massace are shocking—but not unexpected—instances of lawlessness and brutality against African American citizens. They yet stand as a fearful foundation for our present moment.

The Lynching of Jesse Washington | Waco, May 1916
Jesse Washington, a seventeen-year-old African American, was accused of murdering a white farmer’s wife named Lucy Fryer. Washington reportedly confessed to the murder and immediately after being convicted, was taken from the courthouse by a mob, chained by the neck, and physically brutalized, then burned alive. Prior to being doused with oil, the mob castrated him and cut off his fingers. Waco’s mayor, whose window overlooked the scene, reportedly expressed concern that the tree would be damaged.

Washington’s body was further desecrated after his death by souvenir hunters, including children, and a professional photographer who documented the event sold postcards with images of Washington's burned and disfigured body. Jesse Washington’s body was subsequently dragged through town, and then rehung on public display in nearby Robinson, Texas before being returned to the fire in Waco.

The mob at the lynching of Jesse Washington.

The mob at the lynching of Jesse Washington.
Washington’s body is deliberately obscured in our presentation.
Individuals pose for the cameras beside Jesse Washington’s body, which is cropped out of the photo left.

Individuals pose for the cameras beside Jesse Washington’s body, which is cropped out of the photo left.
The crowd in Robinson, Texas at the display of Jesse Washington's body

Jesse Washington’s body, after the lynching in Waco, was dragged to Robinson, Texas,
the hometown of Lucy Fryers, the woman he was convicted of killing. In this photograph, from  which we have removed Washington’s image, his burned and disfigured body, with a cloth tied around the waist, was hung from a utility pole outside the blacksmith shop.
Message on the back of a postcard that pictured the lynching of Jesse Washington.
  Back of a postcard that pictured the lynching of Jesse Washington.
“This is The Barbecue we had last night   My picture is to the left with a cross over it   your son [] Joe.”
15,000 Saw Negro Burn, headline of The Bryan Daily Eagle.

Adjacent to ads for fresh strawberries, and “Fresh, Staple, and Fancy Groceries," The Bryan Daily Eagle headlines the murder, by lynching, of Jesse Washington.

The Lynching of Ell Persons | Memphis, May 22, 1917
Ell Persons was accused of murdering, beheading, and sexually assulting a white sixteen-year-old girl, Antoinette Rappel. He was reported to have confessed, implicating two other men in the crime, and was lynched while still awaiting a trial.

James Weldon Johnson, in his 1933 autobiography, Along This Way, writes that he “rushed to Memphis to make an investigation of the burning alive of Ell Persons . . . ”

I was in Memphis ten days; I talked with the sheriff, with newspaper men, with a few white citizens, and many colored ones; I read through the Memphis papers covering the period; and nowhere could I find any positive evidence that Ell Persons was the man guilty of the crimes that had been committed. And, yet, without a trial, he was burned alive on the charge. I wrote out my findings, and they were published in a pamphlet that was widely circulated.

On the day I arrived in Memphis, Robert, R. Church drove me out to the place where the burning had taken place. A pile of ashes and pieces of charred wood still marked the spot. While the ashes were yet hot, the bones had been scrambled for as souvenirs by the mobs. I reassembled the picture in my mind: a lone Negro in the hands of his accusers, who for the time are no longer human; he is chained to a stake, wood is piled under and around him, and five thousand men and women, women with babies in their arms and women with babies in their wombs, look with pitiless anticipation, with sadistic satisfaction while he is baptized with gasoline and set afire. The move disperses, many of them complaining, “They burned him too fast.” I tried to balance the sufferings of the miserable victim against the moral degradation of Memphis, and the truth flashed over me that in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.

Further accounts of Persons’s death are given here through quotations selected from publications of the time.

The Covington Leader
The lynching was not surprising, in view of the fact that the authorities made no provision to protect him and the mob spirit has been defiant and arrogant from the time of his arrest.


Putnam County Herald
Negro Fiend Burned at Stake / Near Memphis, in Presence of 7000 people . . . Body Cut in Pieces.


McNairy County Independent
Ell Persons, the murderer of Antoinette Rappel, was burned at 9:30 Tuesday, near where the crime was committed. It was the people taking the place of twelve men, and was carefully and orderly carried out.


Columbus Commercial
Changing its mind, the mob then released Persons from the rope and chained him to a huge log lying on the ground near the pit of gasoline. Ten gallons of gasoline was then poured over his clothing and a match applied. While the fire, starting at his feet, crept slowly toward his face a 10-year-old negro boy was placed at the other end of the log.

“Take a good look, boy,” someone told him. “We want you to remember this the longest day you live. This is what happens to n—— who molest white women.”


The Memphis Press
We, clergymen of the City of Memphis, met in solemn assembly, do hereby resolve that we, as clergymen and citizens, confess our dereliction of duty in not having warned an inflamed public opinion against mob violence, when it was apparent to every reader of newspapers that preparations had been made for lynching the brute who had committed an unspeakable crime.


The Seattle Star
Women Cheer Negro Burning / Fiendish Slayer is Tortured / Two Other Negroes Who Helped in Murder of Little Girl Are to Be Burned at the Stake, Too

In the vast throng which burned Person were hundreds of women and girls. As the mob of 2,000 prepared the stake for the burning the women sang “John Brown's Body.”

As Person burned, the mother of the dead girl stood and cried:

“Let him suffer as he made my little girl suffer.”

After the lynching, the mob posted a card declaring, "We have avenged the death of a red-blooded daughter of the South, who died for a negro's fiendish desire."

One excited Negro chauffeur shouted: "We are thru; let us join the Germans." He was threatened by the crowd, but police rescued him and turned him over to the federal authorities.

Before Person was tied to the tree, his ears were cut off and his fingers torn from their sockets. He was otherwise mutilated.


Hickory Daily Record
Not a shot was fired. The mob worked quietly and apparently under able leadership. The mob worked quietly and there was no disorder. After the lynching the mob disappeared. It was rumored that the other men implicated by Persons would not be lynched.


The News Scimitar

Lynch Bulletins, a column detailing atrocities at the lynching of Ell Persons.

The East St. Louis Massacre | July 2, 1917
The September 1917 article in The Crisis, “The Massacre of East St. Louis,” opens with the following:

On the 2nd of July, 1917, the city of East St. Louis in Illinois added a foul and revolting page to the history of all the massacres of the world. On that day a mob of white men, women and children burned and destroyed at least $400,000 worth of property belonging to both whites and Negroes; drove 6,000 Negroes out of their homes; and deliberately murdered, by shooting, burning and hanging, between one and two hundred human beings who were black.

Such an outbreak could not have been instantaneous. There must have been something further reaching even than an immediate cause to provoke such a disaster. The immediate cause usually given is as follows: On the evening of July 1, white “joy riders” rode down a block in Market Street, which was inhabited by Negroes, and began to fire into the houses. The Negroes aroused by this armed themselves against further trouble. Presently a police automobile drove up containing detectives and stopped. The Negroes thinking that these were the “joy riders” returning opened up fire before this misunderstanding was removed, and two of the detectives were killed. Some of the policemen were in plain clothes.

One naturally wonders why should the white “joy riders” fire in the first place. What was their quarrel with the Negroes? In answering that question we get down to the real story. It is here we meet with the facts that lay directly back of the massacre, a combination of the jealousy of white labor unions and prejudice.

The Crisis reported that there was already tension between the African American and white communities—African American workers took jobs vacated by deported white immigrants—when 4,500 workers went on strike from two packing plants in East St. Louis.

When the strike ended the Negroes were still employed and that many white men failed to regain their positions. The leaders of various labor unions realized that the supply of Negroes was practically inexhaustible and that they were receiving the same wages as their white predecessors and so evidently doing the same grade of work. Since it was increasingly possible then to call in as many black strike-breakers as necessary, the effectiveness of any strike was accordingly decreased. It was this realization that caused the small but indicative May riots. Evidently, the leaders of the labor unions thought something must be done, some measure sufficiently drastic must be taken to drive these interlopers away and to restore to these white Americans their privileges. The fact that the Negroes were also Americans meant nothing at such a time as this

Letter by Edward P. Mason calling on the Mayor and City Council of East St. Louis  to take action against the "growing menace" of African-American laborers.

One point in particular is emphasized, that of color: "The Southern Negro," writes Mr. Mason, "has come into our community. No less than ten thousand of undesirable Negroes,” he continues, “have poured in and are being used to the detriment of our white citizens.” There is the appeal direct to prejudice. It is not that foreigners—Czechs, Slovaks, Lithuanians—or whatever ethnic division is least indigenous to East St. Louis—it is not that they are ousting Americans of any color or hue, but the “Southern Negro,” the most American product there is, is being used “to the detriment of our white citizens.”

The Crisis reports an initial March 23 march on city hall by 600 union men who threatened to follow up with “mob law” should the authorities take no action.

What followed on July 2, 1917 is called “The East St. Louis Massacre,” or “The East St. Louis Riot,” or “Race War” depending on the source.

Riot a National Disgrace, headline in The East St. Louis Argus.

The East St. Louis Argus, Friday, July 6, 1917.
100 Negroes Shot, Burned, Clubbed to Death in E. St. Louis Race War, headling in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Friday, July 6, 1917.
Mineola McGee, shot by soldier and policman. Her arm had to be amputated.

The Crisis, “The Massacre of East St. Louis,” September 1917.
Narcis Gurly, 71 next birthday. Lived in her home 30 years. Afraid to come out till the blazing walls fell in.

The Crisis, “The Massacre of East St. Louis,” September 1917.
Some of the several hundred refugees of the East St. Louis Massacre who were “marched by the Eads Bridge route to this city [St. Louis]. Two militia companies served as their escort.”

Some of the several hundred refugees of the East St. Louis Massacre who were “marched by the Eads Bridge route to this city [St. Louis]. Two militia companies served as their escort.”
St. Louis Star, July 3, 1917.

The acts of violence, detailed in The Crisis from various sources, are too many to reproduce here. The following by Martha Gruening, one of two investigators sent to East St. Louis by The Crisis following the massacre, is one such account.

One girl was standing at a window of a white woman’s house in which she worked. Her arm was shot away. A policeman and a soldier, she said, did the shooting. An old woman, frightfully burned, dying in the hospital, was asked if the mob had done it and replied: “No, they jes’ set fire to my house and I burned myself trying to get out” . . . One of the St. Louis reporters said that he knew exactly how people felt who had seen atrocities abroad and were trying to “get them across” to the rest of the world, “although,” he added, “‘not even Belgium probably has anything quite as horrible to show” . . . About 10 blocks of Negro homes were burned, and the mobs stood outside and shot and stoned those who tried to escape . . . The mob seized a colored woman’s baby and threw it into the fire. The woman was then shot and thrown in.  bug

We hope to encourage readers to further explore this history on their own. The Modernist Journal Archive, where the whole of The Crisis from 1910–1922 can be found, is just one of many online archives that make access to accounts of this violence, as reported at the time, readily available to those with internet access.

At publication of v16n2, the 1917 Suite included only materials under the heading of The NAACP Silent Parade.” In v17n1, we added to the 1917 Suite an extensive look at protesting Suffragists, their imprisonment in Virginia’s Occoquan workhouse, and what became known as The Night of Terror. The suite’s contents spanning two issues is now introduced in v17n1 under the title “1917 Suite: A Month, a Year, a Term of Liberty” and is linked below.

   1917 Suite: A Month, a Year, a Term of Liberty
   Introduction & Cross-issue Table of Contents

return to top