Amplifying History On sonic violence from East St. Louis to Ferguson, and making silences speak.

Silent protest parade in New York City against the East St. Louis riots, 1917. (Underwood & Underwood, Library of Congress)

Racial segregation does not happen by accident, and its enforcement relies on the constant threat as well as the periodic exercise of violence. In East St. Louis, Illinois, as in other American cities and towns, White mobs were a crucial instrument of both state-sanctioned and extralegal racialized violence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Violence is defined as behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill; or intimidation by the exhibition of such force. Physical force has a sonic dimension that is not incidental to or merely a byproduct of its exercise, but integral to its power to intimidate and harm its target. Indeed, today’s urban police department arsenals include military-grade sonic weaponry such as the Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), which has been deployed against antiracist protestors in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City, and elsewhere. Unlike bullets and clubs, sonic force leaves no visible trace on the human bodies subjected to it and it is therefore deployed as a means of non-lethal, non-kinetic (also known as “no-touch”) crowd control.

Sound, like a bullet, travels, and at sufficiently high decibels can penetrate the flesh of its target. The damage inflicted by sonic weaponry such as the LRAD is real and measurable, both physically and psychically, and its racialized genealogy can be traced back to anti-Black White mobs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in particular the World War I era. The United States experienced the largest number of “major inter-racial disturbances” in its history—eighteen out of thirty-three total—between 1900 and 1949, according to sociologist Allen D. Grimshaw.

Physical force has a sonic dimension that is not incidental to or merely a byproduct of its exercise, but integral to its power to intimidate and harm its target.

In this volume, St. Louis-based urban historian Michael R. Allen discusses so-called race riots of this period, such as the Fairground Park swimming pool riot of June 21, 1949, in which 200 White youth surrounded and began attacking 30 Black boys on the day they were legally allowed to access the pool for the first time. Over time, the state would come to assume many of the terrorizing functions of such White mobs; and impeding the movement of the Black body would become a foundation of municipal police power. “The rules of public space in St. Louis have remained inconsistent, often informal,” Allen writes, “but also usually enforced by the police power of the local state.” A major element of that police power today involves the use of sonic weapons, the highly concentrated, high-tech analog of sounds once embodied in the White mob.

While the actions of White perpetrators in East St. Louis on July 2, 1917, did include acts of extreme physical violence that left dozens dead and many more injured, this essay will specifically attend to sonic dimensions of this history and its legacy. The essay explores sonic violence in East St. Louis and its echoes in Ferguson; notes historical silences surrounding such violence; and describes creative attempts by African Americans to harness a different kind of sonic power for commemoration and transformation.


Sonic violence

Following the August 9, 2014, fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown by White police officer Darren Wilson, the community responded with immediate, sustained, and vocal demonstrations. These were countered by a massive show of force and an arsenal of sophisticated weaponry. As authorities moved against mostly Black protestors, White news reporter Mike Tobin, broadcasting live for the local Fox affiliate on the scene on August 18, commented on the ear-splitting noise of the LRAD: “It doesn’t have the effect of crippling people. It’s just loud, it’s annoying, it lets you know that something big and official is coming and that’s what’s going on right now.”

Sound, like a bullet, travels, and at sufficiently high decibels can penetrate the flesh of its target.

Tobin’s unscripted remarks uncritically absolve the police of enacting actual violence, yet unintentionally underscore the power of sound to mark something as “big” and “official.” Nearly a century earlier, on July 2, 1917, fifteen miles southwest of Ferguson, Whites advanced by the thousands into East St. Louis, Illinois. They did not do so in silence, but in a noisy, circus-like atmosphere featuring both actors and spectators. In this and all quotes that follow, the bold emphasis to amplify sounds is mine: “Although some newspapers reported that the mobs were composed of ‘10,000 blood-crazed Whites,’ in actuality the assaulting gangs were small, usually containing not more than 25 persons,” writes sociologist and historian Elliott M. Rudwick in Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917 (1982), his landmark work on the subject. “However, there was no doubt that they had the encouragement of thousands of spectators watching from the sidewalks.”

Victims were beaten, clubbed, kicked, hacked, stoned, shot, and lynched. Others were burned alive in their homes. It was an organized massacre aimed at terrorizing and permanently driving out Black residents, which is why scholars—and also the East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission—have come to refer to it as a pogrom.


A victim of the mob lying in Collinsville Avenue, East St. Louis. (Missouri Historical Society)


To capture a sense of the soundscape of that day, I have mined accounts from St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Carlos F. Hurd; journalist, civil rights pioneer, and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells; and Rudwick’s research.

“A large group of whites marched through the streets shouting that colored people should leave East St. Louis immediately and permanently…By the early afternoon, when several Negroes were beaten and lay bloodied in the street, mob leaders calmly shot and killed them. After victims were placed in an ambulance, ‘there was cheering and handclapping’,” writes Rudwick. The mob set Black homes on fire and made a game of flushing residents out like hunted prey, shooting them as they ran out: “Immediately revolvers by the score would be fired….There were deep shouts, intermingled with shrill feminine ones,” according to The St. Louis Republic newspaper report quoted by Rudwick.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch staff reporter Hurd’s eyewitness account, published on July 3, 1917, includes these sonic observations:


“Get a n——,” was the slogan, and it was varied by the recurrent cry, “Get another!” It was like nothing so much as the holiday crowd, with thumbs turned down, in the Roman Colosseum, except that here the shouters were their own gladiators, and their own wild beasts.


The sheds in the rear of Negroes’ houses, which were themselves in the rear of the main buildings on Fourth street, had been ignited to drive out the Negro occupants of the houses. And the slayers were waiting for them to come out.

It was stay in and be roasted, or come out and be slaughtered. A moment before I arrived, one Negro had taken the desperate chance of coming out, and the rattle of revolver shots, which I heard as I approached the corner, was followed by the cry, “They’ve got him!”


A half-block to the south, there was a hue and a cry at a railroad crossing, and a fusilade of shots were heard. More militiamen than I have seen elsewhere, up to that time, were standing on a platform and near a string of freight cars, trying to keep back men who had started to pursue Negroes along the track.

As I turned back toward Broadway, there was a shout at the alley, and a Negro ran out, apparently hoping to find protection. He paid no attention to missiles thrown from behind, none of which had hurt him much, but he was stopped in the middle of the street by a smashing blow in the jaw, struck by a man he had not seen.


“Don’t do that,” he appealed. “I haven’t hurt nobody.” The answer was a blow from one side, a piece of curbstone from the other side, and a push which sent him on the brick pavement. He did not rise again, and the battering and the kicking of his skull continued until he lay still, his blood flowing half way across the street. Before he had been booted to the opposite curb, another Negro appeared, and the same deeds were repeated. It was the last Negro I have mentioned who was apparently finished by the stone hurled upon his neck by the noticeably well-dressed young man.


Ida B. Wells, on behalf of the Negro League, traveled from Chicago to East St. Louis and collected individuals’ stories in the immediate aftermath of the violence. Based on her findings, she held the White mob responsible for “murdering over two hundred Negroes and destroying three million dollars worth of property.”

Mrs. Emma Ballard reported to Wells: “She and the children heard the first of the mob between 12 and 1 o’clock Monday night. Men and boys were in the street hollering, “Come out, n——s,” as they roamed up and down in the Negro district. They shot and beat every Negro found on the streets Monday night. She saw fourteen men beaten and two killed.”

William Lues “was on his way home from work, sitting between his employer and his employer’s son in the street car, when the mob grabbed him, shot him to pieces and then put a rope around his neck and dragged him in the streets.”

Two decades before Kristallnacht, the 1938 Nazi-led pogrom in Europe so named for the broken glass left in the wake of attacks on Jewish communities, Mrs. Mary Lewis’s report to Wells brings similar sounds to mind: “While the house was still in sight, the mob had broken windows and set it on fire, shooting into it. Sister was in the house, but escaped, being shot, and was badly stoned. Husband, though shot, got up and ran about 40 feet before they finished him. Was heard to beg Mr. Warren not to let them kill him.”

Later in the evening of July 2, writes Rudwick, “over a hundred Negroes barricaded themselves in two houses near Sixth and Broadway, engaging in a gun battle with the white men outside.” And the sonic terror continued into the night: “With the flames illuminating the night sky, hundreds of tired, terrified refugees were brought by military escort to the City Hall auditorium. Some suffered from burns or beatings; many were separated from their families. The moaning and wailing of these people ‘raised a Bedlam that at times drowned out the bark of pistols and the crackling of fires.’ The lights suddenly went out in the building and ‘the Negroes screamed in terror, believing this was a new plan to murder them wholesale. In a moment, the lights returned; there had been a slight accident to the electrical machinery.’”

Rudwick raises the question of why Blacks did not come together in organized resistance, noting that some Blacks did possess arms but “fled from their homes leaving guns and ammunition behind—when the fires started there was a constant rattle of small explosions.” He ventures an explanation that hearkens back to sonic power: “The very cyclonic fury of the mobs frightened Negroes into terrified inactivity, and this reaction was probably intensified by most of them having lived in the South where repression conditioned a fearful, passive acceptance of periodic race violence.” He adds: “A few whites who attempted to protest against the violence were threatened; some were ‘hissed’ and ‘hushed’ by women carrying hatpins and pen knives as weapons.”


East St. Louis residents flee across the river to St. Louis in search of probably intensified during the riots in 1917. (Missouri Historical Society)


“A clang of awful accomplishment”

This terrifying/terrorizing soundscape was not entirely anomalous in East St. Louis which, in 1917, was a quintessential boomtown, with all the sonic force that word implies. Because the city was explicitly founded to serve industry, rather than a rapidly growing residential population, there were no nuisance laws to control noise, pollution, or stench. W.E.B. Du Bois’s description of East St. Louis, in his trenchant essay “Of Work and Wealth,” notably climaxes in a noisy metaphor. The city, he writes, “is dusty and hot beyond all dream—a feverish Pittsburgh in the Mississippi Valley—a great, ruthless, terrible thing! It is the sort that crushes man and invokes some living superman—a giant of things done, a clang of awful accomplishment.”

Twenty-seven railroads radiated from the city, which was home to vast stockyards, slaughterhouses, and meatpacking plants, and heavy industries including aluminum ore processing and iron foundries. Workers lived in overcrowded slum conditions, often no more than shacks. Day and night, residents were assaulted by the sound of steel on rails, the whistles of trains, and clamorous factories that ran twenty-four hours a day to maximize profit—among the loudest, the hog-killing operations.

This terrifying/terrorizing soundscape was not entirely anomalous in East St. Louis which, in 1917, was a quintessential boomtown, with all the sonic force that word implies.

As David A. Nibert describes in his book Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict (2013): “On the hog killing floor, the ear was constantly assaulted by the lamentations of dying pigs. ‘The uproar was appalling, perilous to the eardrums; one feared there was too much sound for the room to hold—that the walls might give way or the ceilings crack. There were high squeals and low squeals, grunts of wails and agony. There would be a momentary lull and then a fresh outburst, louder than ever, surging up to a deafening climax.’ In the midst of all this squealing, gears ground; carcasses slammed into one another; cleavers and axes split flesh and bone; and foremen and straw bosses shouted orders in half a dozen languages.”

Add to this industrial cacophony an all-night culture of saloons, gambling dens, and brothels, hundreds of them concentrated in what was known as “the Valley,” at the time the largest red-light district in the Midwest. With its “unchecked wassail of Saturday nights,” as Du Bois put it, East St. Louis was an always unquiet city.

That Blacks were forced into neighborhoods confronted by this ongoing sensory onslaught was not of concern to White city and business leaders. Historically, notes Karin Bijsterveld in Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century (2008), “social elites not only considered the lower classes to be insensitive to smell and bestial odors, but also portrayed them as being indifferent to noise.”


Historical silences

The archive holds what can literally be held—records, artifacts, and other traces. The archive registers presences, not absences, privileging the material and the visual over the immaterial and ephemeral. Sensory experience, while constituting the majority of lived human experience, including the extreme sensory experience inflicted by violence, leaves no archival trace.

Gustavus Swift, founder of the meatpacking empire Swift & Company, with huge operations in East St. Louis, extracted value from every part of the animal carcass, even portions that were once discarded. He famously bragged that his slaughterhouses used every part of the pig, except the squeal.

As the “squeal” is silenced in the marketplace of meat, the vocalizations of human butchery by its perpetrators, spectators, and victims, and belatedly by the authorities that finally took action against it, are silenced in the marketplace of history. Due not only to the literal absence of audio recordings of the violence of July 2, 1917, the “soundtrack” has been stripped away, leaving gaping aural silences in the archive of racial violence. We have no aural record of the victims’ screams, their cries, their desperate but futile pleas for mercy; the perpetrators’ shouts and cheers, their gunshots and blows delivered to Black bodies by hand and foot; the swift “shushing” and physical punishment of those who would protest; the moaning and wailing of terrified, grieving refugees.

In The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (2016), Jennifer Lynn Stoever examines the crucial importance of “the sonic details of Black history” and in particular the “silence” of images of lynching. “Lynching, in particular,” she writes, “was an act of terrorism that seemed deliberately stripped of a soundtrack as whites circulated its photographic traces in American mainstream culture.”

Day and night, residents were assaulted by the sound of steel on rails, the whistles of trains, and clamorous factories that ran twenty-four hours a day to maximize profit—among the loudest, the hog-killing operations.

In what St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Hurd called “the most sickening incident of the evening” of July 2, 1917, one that he personally witnessed, he describes the lynching of a Black man by seven or eight White men using a clothesline to hang him from a telephone pole. When the rope broke under the weight of the victim’s badly injured, nearly dead body, a new piece of rope was substituted and we hear the chilling words of one of the men pulling it: “To put the [new] rope around the negro’s neck, one of the lynchers stuck his fingers inside the gaping scalp and lifted the negro’s head by it, literally bathing his hand in the man’s blood. ‘Get hold, and pull for East St. Louis,’ called the man as he seized the other end of the rope. The negro was lifted to a height of about seven feet and the body left hanging there for hours.”

By 1917, White mobs carrying out lynchings and other violent and sadistic actions against Black citizens were widespread. As federal, state, and local authorities abdicated the protection of Black lives after the Reconstruction Era, the death toll mounted. Lynching in America, a landmark 2015 report by the Equal Justice Initiative, documents more than 4,000 Black people publicly murdered in the United Sates between 1877 and 1950.

A lurid combination of festive recreation and racialized ritual, lynch mobs functioned in part as sonic theater creating the “illusion of omnipresence.” As Stoever writes: “[W]hites Other blackness as ‘noise’—in order to better identify, isolate, and eradicate black people—while black people remain vulnerable to random intrusions of whiteness’s ferocious noises, sounds that create an illusion of omnipresence and all-encompassing power. The ‘soundtrack’ of lynching spoke audible truths about the institutional causes and intimate effects of racial violence and showed how dividing black sound from visual blackness enabled whites to hail black people as ‘to-be-lynched’ bodies to surveil, condemn, and consume.”


Crowd stopping streetcars at Collinsville Avenue and Broadway by what remains of the sparse during the East St. Louis race riots. (Missouri Historical Society)


As in the history of lynching, it is the disturbing but largely visual descriptions provided by 1917’s storytellers and by what remains of the sparse photographic record that endure in historical consciousness—for example, newspaper photographs of the mob pulling people off East St. Louis streetcars and, later, in Du Bois’s magazine The Crisis, a portrait of Mineola McGee, whose arm was shot and required amputation. No photograph exists of the woman whose tongue was shot off, as reported to Ida B. Wells by Mrs. Josie Nixon, nor of the vast majority of victims.



The history of 1917 is not taught in schools, not even in the schools of East St. Louis. Why are some histories preserved and passed on to future generations? Why are others silenced? How do absences—both material and archival—contribute to historical erasure? What kinds of strategies can be deployed to recover, amplify, and transmit silenced histories?

The archive holds what can literally be held—records, artifacts, and other traces.… Sensory experience, while constituting the majority of lived human experience, including the extreme sensory experience inflicted by violence, leaves no archival trace.

In partnership with the East St. Louis 1917 Centennial Commission and Cultural Initiative, contemporary local artists and educators collaborated on a video project to recuperate and “re-sound” individual survivors’ stories of 1917 in East St. Louis. The video centers on the recitation of Black survivors’ testimonials drawn from the U.S. Congressional hearings, these recitations staged in the very locations where the violence they describe took place. The project demanded a complex negotiation with history in an effort to meaningfully commemorate the centennial without reifying the trauma or in any way suggesting that it is East St. Louis’s only story or its most important one.

The video, titled “Recitation”¹ and running 32 minutes, is the work of four principal collaborators: poet, educator, and small business owner Treasure Shields Redmond, PhD; history teacher Carolyn Kribs at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) East St. Louis Charter High School (CHS); and two faculty members in the Sam Fox School of Art at Washington University in St. Louis, filmmaker Denise Ward-Brown and artist/geographer Jesse Vogler.

The recuperation of space and voice motivated many decisions in the making of the video. Six teenage students, all female and all participants in an after-school poetry program at CHS, perform their recitations at sites where specific incidents of violence took place. Andrew J. Theising, PhD, author of Made in USA: East St. Louis and chair of political science at SIUE, worked with the team to map the six “sacred site” locations. (In the course of his work on the 1917 commemoration, Theising mapped a total of twenty-four locations where historical markers would later be erected on site, funded by a women’s philanthropic organization, the Meridian Society.)

In each scene, the camera frames a lone young woman against a largely static backdrop—including a vacant dirt road framed between two highway overpasses, the front stairway of a civic building, an overgrown front yard of a boarded-up house—first in extreme close-up, just her face, then zoomed out wide. The close-ups, 45 seconds long and silent except for the ambient sounds in a given location (traffic, freight trains, wind, the random voices or footsteps of passersby) challenge both the orator and the viewer to continue looking at each other, well past the usual duration given to images in today’s short-attention-span culture. The tight framing insists on the individuality of each speaker before moving to the next, much wider shot in which she recedes into the environmental context. This shift creates a deliberate tension between the immediacy of the present-day body and the distance of historical memory. “My hope was that there was a sort of flicker that allowed the two to misregister at times,” says Vogler.



Left, Mineola McGee, victim of the violence in East St. Louis, July 2, 1917. The caption accompanying this full-page photograph in The Crisis (Sept. 1917 issue, p. 234) reads, in all caps: “MINEOLA McGEE. SHOT BY SOLDIER AND POLICEMAN. HER ARM HAD TO BE AMPUTATED.” Right, video still from “Recitation” in which East St. Louis high school student Lore’al Perkins reads aloud the testimonial of Mineola McGee as given during the 1917 U.S. Congressional hearings.


The unusually slow pacing of the film is likewise intentional: There are lots of words but there is also lots of silence, says Vogler, to “invite a deeper listening.” The texts recited in the video are drawn from the U.S. Congressional hearings (comprising 6,000 total documents) initially undertaken by a House Select Committee for the purpose of investigating the ten-day “interference with interstate commerce” between Illinois and Missouri, not to investigate the violence itself, though harrowing testimony on the violence was collected from survivors and eyewitnesses in the course of the proceedings. These records were not made publicly available until the 1980s, some seven decades after the fact. While the accounts constitute a searing indictment against the White perpetrators and the structures that supported their violent actions, the Congressional report ultimately justifies the White mob violence, blaming Black residents as the source of the trouble. In the end virtually no one was convicted.

“The Congressional testimony is dominated by the voices of White actors,” notes Shields Redmond, who guided the curation of the texts. “And much of the questioning of Black victims and witnesses has an accusatory tone.” In “Recitation,” the young women read the words of White interrogators and of Black witnesses and victims verbatim from the transcripts. The undramatic, matter-of-fact tone of their delivery foregrounds the cold, legalistic framework through which the brutality of the historical subjects’ lived experience was forced into brevity by White interrogators—yet another form of extraction and erasure imposed upon East St. Louis.

Each of the video’s six passages concludes with a return to a close-up of the orator and these closing words spoken as herself: “A hundred years later and East St. Louis still stands. My name is _____ and I am proof.” This new generation of East St. Louis residents has, as it were, the last word, reclaiming the very sites of “cyclonic” White mob violence a century ago.

“I think it is particularly resonant that the orators bringing this testimony to life are among East St. Louis’s youngest residents,” says Shields Redmond. “The contrast of their hypermodern physical presentation, against the somewhat archaic and perfunctory language of the Congressional questioning, serves to highlight the performance aspect of those proceedings. In some ways, the students are re-performing an ‘act’ that was staged 100 years ago. The ‘act’ of collecting witness testimony and packaging that testimony in a commission’s report continues up until today—read: the Ferguson Commission report. It is largely a moot act. Further, the lived reality of young Black women is often a silenced and hyper-surveilled reality, and these young women’s performance is a way of ‘talking back’ to the silencing mechanism of misogynoir,” misogyny directed toward Black women.

Whether such a project can help heal such deep historical trauma remains an open question. But Shields Redmond believes that it can help transmit history, build community, and “affirm [the orators’] humanity as Black people.” She says, “This project is about acknowledging the trauma of having one’s home, the place where one is supposed to be most safe, forever associated with the deep horror of being hunted by one’s neighbors. This project also forces us to ask how long does trauma survive, and is it ever really forgotten or healed? The young orators who are bringing the voices of these ancestor witnesses to life represent the project’s greatest aspiration. Every adult working on the project is an artist and an educator, and we are keenly aware of the ways participating in this project and helping to shape it passes down historical knowledge, gives the students experience in collaborative project building, and does the important work of affirming their humanity as Black people, especially within the context of East St. Louis’s still troubled present-day reality.”


The power of silence

On July 28, 1917, three and a half weeks after the massacre in East St. Louis, W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP, with church and community leaders, organized the Silent Negro Protest March down Fifth Avenue in New York City—one of the first-ever mass protests against racial violence. Some 10,000 marchers strong, it was explicitly conceived and carried out as a silent protest, embodying the very opposite of a violent White mob. Marchers were disciplined and formally dressed, women and children wearing white, men wearing black. They spoke no words but carried neatly lettered signs conveying pointed messages, including “Thou shalt not kill” and “Pray for the Lady MacBeths of East St. Louis.” The only sound was that of drummers, men in suits, who led the procession.

Silent Negro Protest March (The Crisis, Sept.1917)

Among the silent protesters was James Weldon Johnson, the Harlem Renaissance writer and composer who wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Negro National Anthem.

A century later, the United States national anthem, written by slave-owner and anti-abolitionist Francis Scott Key, would become the focal point of another powerful act of  “silent protest” when African-American professional football player Colin Kaepernick, in 2016, refused to stand while the anthem was played before the start of games. At his team’s games (the San Francisco 49ers), critics booed but a growing number of allies joined him in “taking a knee” to call attention to racial violence. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said. “There are bodies in the street and people…getting away with murder.”


The 1917 Centennial Commemoration

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the murders and destruction in East St. Louis, a day of events blending solemnity and celebration took place on July 2, 2017, including a silent march. More than 200 people traced the route taken by the thousands of African-American East St. Louis residents who fled for their lives on foot, crossing the Mississippi River to St. Louis via Eads Bridge. Accompanied by a cadre of drummers, many in traditional West African attire, and their tireless beats on djembe, conga, and snare, the one-and-a-half-mile procession weaved alongside abandoned lots, through littered underpasses and busy intersections, past the Casino Queen’s sprawling parking lot, up Riverpark Road and onto Eads Bridge. A single police car blocked the bridge’s usual traffic, and an officer waved the marchers on. One young man held a Pan-African flag aloft, waving red, black, and green; someone else carried a Black Lives Matter placard.

The Silent Negro Protest March down Fifth Avenue in New York City—one of the first-ever mass protests against racial violence…was explicitly conceived and carried out as a silent protest, embodying the very opposite of a violent White mob.

The largest contingent comprised Black Masons and members of Black sororities and fraternities, women in white dresses and sashes indicating their affiliation, men in black suits, bow ties, and white gloves, and the embroidered ceremonial aprons of their Masonic temples. A vintage fire engine rolled alongside, its silent presence a reminder of the fires that raged in East St. Louis as Black homes and businesses burned to the ground in 1917, one more example of the willfully neglectful response of authorities, including police and National Guard, to the unfolding violence.

At the halfway point of the bridge’s 6,442-foot span, the march stopped. Now taking seats or standing, participants faced south toward the river and the Gateway Arch for final speeches and a closing ceremony. As a solo saxophone played, descendants of the survivors of the East St. Louis pogrom, together with public officials, lifted an enormous wreath up and over the bridge’s railing, letting it drop to the river far below, its splash inaudible.


Coda: A sonic power reversal

Koach Baruch Frazier (author photo)

In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in 2014, the streets of Ferguson erupted in anger and mourning. Koach Baruch Frazier, an African-American racial justice activist, doctor of audiology, and percussionist, was a daily presence among the protesters, a sonic healer of sorts. In a crowd whose grief and outrage were sometimes on the verge of spilling into violence, Frazier became a drum leader who used sound as a way, he says, to “manage energy.” Beating a cadence on his djembe drum helped unite and direct the crowd’s energy into chants and peaceful marching in the face of chaotic police confrontations. He recalls heavily-armed SWAT teams that “had their rifles trained on us from on top of a tank,” and the presence of barking police dogs. There were deafening explosions as tear gas canisters were launched, shotgun-like blasts of rubber bullets, loud sirens and whistles, and the menacing, ever-present LRAD, a weapon of advanced sonic warfare.

A vintage fire engine rolled alongside, its silent presence a reminder of the fires that raged in East St. Louis as homes and businesses burned to the ground in 1917….

A new round of mass protests in St. Louis was sparked in 2016 by the not-guilty verdict in yet another fatal shooting of an unarmed Black teenager (Anthony Lamar Smith) by a White police officer ( Jason Stockley). Once again joining the street demonstrations with his drum, Frazier noticed a new trend, entirely unexpected—subtle but hopeful evidence of sonic force, reversed. “We’d be out there [drumming] and all of a sudden I’d see a police officer tapping their foot. And I’d think, Maybe this rhythm, this energy that is coming through your foot will come up to your heart and change it.”

¹ Recitation” premiered at the East St. Louis 1917 Pogrom Academic Conference, May 26–28, 2017, at the East St. Louis Higher Education Campus, located at the site of the July 1917 violence. The video is now available online. The project was produced without dedicated funding but was the product of many volunteer hours by collaborating participants, emblematic of the nature of so much Black community history, collective acts of caring, creativity, and generosity.