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Never Been A Time

by Harper Barnes
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publishing date: 24/06/2008
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780802715753
  • ISBN: 0802715753

Synopsis

The dramatic and first popular account of one of the deadliest racial confrontations in the 20th century—in East St. Louis in the summer of 1917—which paved the way for the civil rights movement.

In the 1910s, half a million African Americans moved from the impoverished rural South to booming industrial cities of the North in search of jobs and freedom from Jim Crow laws. But Northern whites responded with rage, attacking blacks in the streets and laying waste to black neighborhoods in a horrific series of deadly race riots that broke out in dozens of cities across the nation, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Tulsa, Houston, and Washington, D.C. In East St. Louis, Illinois, corrupt city officials and industrialists had openly courted Southern blacks, luring them North to replace striking white laborers.  This tinderbox erupted on July 2, 1917 into what would become one of the bloodiest American riots of the World War era. Its impact was enormous. “There has never been a time when the riot was not alive in the oral tradition,” remarks Professor Eugene Redmond. Indeed, prominent blacks like W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Josephine Baker were forever influenced by it.

Celebrated St. Louis journalist Harper Barnes has written the first full account of this dramatic turning point in American history, decisively placing it in the continuum of racial tensions flowing from Reconstruction and as a catalyst of civil rights action in the decades to come. Drawing from accounts and sources never before utilized, Harper Barnes has crafted a compelling and definitive story that enshrines the riot as an historical rallying cry for all who deplore racial violence.

Harper Barnes is a longtime editor and cultural critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and has written for the Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone and the Washington Post. He is the author of Blue Monday and The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis. Barnes lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

In the 1910s, half a million African Americans moved from the impoverished rural South to booming industrial cities of the North in search of jobs and freedom from Jim Crow laws. But Northern whites responded with rage, attacking blacks in the streets and laying waste to black neighborhoods in a horrific series of deadly race riots that broke out in dozens of cities across the nation, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Tulsa, Houston, and Washington, D.C.

In East St. Louis, Illinois, corrupt city officials and industrialists had openly courted Southern blacks, luring them North to replace striking white laborers.  This tinderbox erupted on July 2, 1917 into what would become one of the bloodiest American riots of the World War era. Its impact was enormous. “There has never been a time when the riot was not alive in the oral tradition,” remarks Professor Eugene Redmond. Indeed, prominent blacks like W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Josephine Baker were forever influenced by it.

Celebrated St. Louis journalist Harper Barnes has written the first full account of this dramatic turning point in American history, decisively placing it in the continuum of racial tensions flowing from Reconstruction and as a catalyst of civil rights action in the decades to come. Drawing from accounts and sources never before utilized, Harper Barnes has crafted a compelling and definitive story that enshrines the riot as an historical rallying cry for all who deplore racial violence.

“There is a secret history of American race relations, things they never taught us in school—the wanton terrorism visited upon African-Americans by white mobs from the end of the civil war to the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Harper Barnes takes one of the very worst episodes—the East St. Louis race riot of 1917—and uses it to illuminate and exorcise a past that we need to confront. This is a very important book, heartbreaking and riveting, history that is as fresh as today’s news.”—Joe Klein, Time Magazine columnist

“You put Never Been a Time down and think, ‘How can I imagine myself an educated American and not know this?’ A terrifying account, by a masterful writer.”—Paul Solman, economics correspondent for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

Never Been a Time uncovers one of those buried chapters in our country’s defining narrative of race and vividly lays out the nexus of economic desperation, corporate ruthlessness and racial antagonism that resulted in what Gunnar Myrdal called this ‘mass lynching’ in the American heartland. Harper Barnes is a natural reporter and an extremely elegant writer.”—Diane McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home and A Dream of Freedom

“America’s worst race riots are pivotal moments in the nation’s history with a great deal to teach us. Barnes skillfully places this shocking and important story in its full historical context and conveys a powerful sense of place: the dangerous streets and vice dens of East St. Louis, the foul winds from the smokestacks and slaughterhouses, and the city’s toxic stew of greed, corruption, labor competition, and racism. Never Been a Time vividly recounts a horrifying massacre, but it is also a testament to human resilience, a celebration of a city that against all odds has produced so many famous cultural figures and drawn them back home to fight for its survival and its children’s future.”—Barnet Schecter, author of The Devil’s Own Work

“Harper Barnes has written a brilliant account of a tragic event in the American experience.  He places the bloody East St. Louis Race Riot in its historical national context—demonstrating that it was more than an explosion of local pressures, but also a violent intersection of larger societal forces.  He does a fine job synthesizing existing scholarly literature and the latest academic analyses alongside his own primary work.  This well-researched and cogently-written book makes a meaningful contribution to the understanding of the infamous 1917 riot as well as race relations generally, and deserves the attention of scholars and citizens alike.”—Andrew J. Theising, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Urban Research, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and author of Made in USA:  East St. Louis

“Barnes, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writes of the truly senseless race riots that took place in East St. Louis, IL, in the summer of 1917, resulting in the deaths of nearly 100 people and the burning of over 200 buildings. The riots were the tragic legacy of slavery, Reconstruction, and its aftermath—compounded by circumstances of organized labor, strikes, business competition, and municipal corruption. Rioting white union members focused not on those circumstances but singled out victims on the basis of skin color. Mobs of African Americans reacted violently in self-defense. Judicial inquires in the aftermath placed blame on local businesses and union agitation. Local police and the Illinois militia were complicit and were shown to have actually spurred on violence toward those they were charged to protect. The legacy of these events is evident in the city to this day, yet among much blight there are pockets of sustained rebuilding and a community not without hope. Malcolm McLaughlin's Power, Community, and Racial Killing in East St. Louis is a dryer, more scholarly treatment than Barnes's, with more tables, maps, and citations. Barnes offers an essentially populist account, crafted with an eye on newspaper reporting and municipal politics.”—Jim Hahn, Library Journal

“With this account of the East St. Louis, Ill., race riot, ‘the deadliest of a series of devastating racial battles that swept through American cities in the World War I era,’ Barnes chronicles one of the devastating assaults on African-American communities across the nation that culminated in the Red Summer of 1919. Barnes's account of the 1917 riot is a tale of labor unrest as blacks were used as strikebreakers, of the power of rumor, of corrupt local politics, of the ineffective (when not complicit) response of police power (local and military) and of sickening savagery. Barnes is attentive to the role of the press, citing both the national and black press, but he focuses most sharply upon two St. Louis Post-Dispatch figures, Paul Y. Anderson and Carlos Hurd. Between their dispatches and the ‘military and congressional hearings in the aftermath of the riot,’ Barnes offers a nearly block-by-block, minute-by-minute account, solid in reportage, pedestrian in the telling, useful to students of American and African-American history and accessible to the general reader.”—Publishers Weekly

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Barnes 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. Her 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 wh...


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  • The book was awesome!
    From Amazon

    This book conjured up feelings of disgust and shock that this could happen in the United States. It also helped us understand that the Civil Rights movement didn't just occur in the 1960's. Well done!

  • Solid Work on an Important Part of US History
    From Amazon

    Despite growing up just 60 miles away in mostly white Southern Illinois, I had never heard of the 1917 race riot in East St. Louis until this past year when I read Dennis Lehane's historically detailed story of the 1919 Boston police strike, The Given Day: A Novel. White resentment and fear against thousands of recent black migrants from the Deep South exploded into a two-day riot as whites reacted to the shooting of two police officers by killing blacks and burning down a large part of the black area of the city. The police and National Guard were at best criminally negligent and inept and at worst, actively supported the rioters. The riots were ended only when a new officer took charge of the guard. The riot took place in one of the most corrupt and wide open cities in America. Corrupt politicians ruled the streets in cahoots with corrupt businessmen and directed a corrupt police force. White-run corporations encouraged the migration of blacks specifically to East St. Louis with false promises of easy jobs at good wages. Instead, the black workers were used as strikeworkers to break several strikes. East St. Louis also had an undue number of low-life violent, thugs, drunks, and pimps who were among the leaders in the riot. At least 100 blacks (possibly many more) and nine whites died. Harper Barnes, a veteran writer and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is not a professional historian and at times it shows. Barnes's personal knowledge and commitment to the area is a strength of the book. Barnes's demonstrates his devotion to his fellow journalists by giving several reporters deservedly key roles in telling the story. Barnes gives his book solid structure and comprehensive scope in just 240 pages or so. He develops the national historic context of the East St. Louis race riot by detailing racially-motivated violence against blacks throughout the country's history. He works in the contrasting views of W.EB. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. He explores the migration of blacks from the South to the North. His presentation of the riot is measured and detailed. He does not force the facts to be clearer than he knows them to be. Barnes follows a chapter on the aftermath of the riots in the courts with one examining the psychology of the white rioters. He ends with a retrospective chapter on East St. Louis through the voices of its residents, including many notables like Miles Davis (Bags' Groove) and Katherine Dunham (Katherine Dunham: DANCING A LIFE). Barnes only briefly examines the subtitle's premise that the riot `sparked the civil rights movement'. While the book is somewhat uneven, I highly recommend it for its thorough look at an important event in US racial history, a riot that has been almost totally ignored at least in the history books.

  • Required reading for every Midwesterer
    From Amazon

    I wish this history had been taught in schools when I was growing up, it should be required reading. Kudos to Harper Barnes for bringing it to a wide audience.

  • Excellent read
    From Amazon

    Harper Barnes has crafted an outstanding account of this largely forgotten, but historically significant race riot. He leaves emotion out of it, going at it like an old school reporter. And that's another one of the joys of this book - Barnes exposes us to a pair of newspaper men who were right there on the front lines, and it's a fascinating look into what real newspapermen were like. I highly recommend this book.

  • good, though limited, work
    From Amazon

    This is a well-done, workmanlike monograph on the East St. Louis riots of 1919. If there weren't already a couple out there (American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics (Law Society & Politics in the Midwest) and Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917 (Blacks in the New World)), I might have given this one higher marks, as the riot was a real turning point in American race relations. (I'm afraid I haven't read the others, so really can't compare this one to them.) Though this a monograph, Barnes does an excellent job of putting this event in context. In fact, he really doesn't talk about East St. Louis in any detail until about 50 pages in. For someone like me, who's read a ton of this stuff, this made it pretty slow going at first, but it should be very helpful for readers with more of a local interest. I'm not sure I'd recommend it to readers who are new to the whole subject however. What was lacking, for me, is the emotion that's typically involved in anything that touches on subjects like this. The incidents he relates are truly horrible, but I always felt I was seeing it all at one remove. I found that impossible to do in other books like The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America, and At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (Modern Library Paperbacks). Part of that may have had to do with Barnes' reliance on limited sources - in particular, on two local journalists, Anderson and Hurd. Unsurprisingly, they (and Barnes) focus on the story of the large personalities (the mayor, the commander of the National Guard, the local political "bosses"), most of whom are white. Another thing that might have played a role is Barnes' constant attention to the causes of this particular incident, focusing specifically on labor relations (Black were often used as strike-breakers) and on local corruption. Though this is useful for a more local approach, it really detracts from the larger idea that the history of American race relations is very dark indeed, approaching that of Jews in Nazi Germany or apartheid in South Africa. There is something much bigger going on here than scabs and corrupt politicians. Still, I'd recommend any book that sheds light on these foul instances of American race relations. I'm particularly happy to see the monographs that have come out recently, including The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, Riot and Remembrance: America's Worst Race Riot and Its Legacy, and even a movie - Rosewood. If you have only a general interest in this topic, though, I'd probably recommend those books above this one.

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