Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail answered critics who called him an “outside agitator” by comparing his mission to that of the Apostle Paul who “ … [L]eft his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world…”
The (Belleville) Daily News- Democrat (BND) reported that on May 16th, 1903 the Rev. Charles Thomas, pastor of Wilkerson Chapel AME, now one of Belleville’s oldest churches at 140 years of age, entered Baumgartner’s Barbershop in downtown Belleville seeking a shoeshine; he was refused. “The negro preacher stated that he was an American citizen and he had the same rights in the barber shop that other customers had.” He was “promptly ejected” from the establishment.
Rev. Thomas proceeded to file St. Clair County’s first legal action under an 1897 Illinois “Equal Rights Act” which prohibited discrimination in public places. Several white Belleville residents paid his filing fees and provided legal representation.
This generated several newspaper articles in Daily News-Democrat (DND) highly critical of the minister’s actions. In one piece President Theodore Roosevelt was blamed for his relatively liberal policies toward blacks. “Ten thousand negro preachers imagine themselves Booker Washingtons: a multitude of negro waiters, barbers and “politicians” fancy themselves *Dr. Crums: and every laundress is a postmistress. In a word Mr. Roosevelt’s doctrines have intoxicated with equality a vast element of the negro race.” (* Dr. W. D. Crum was an African- American whose appointment by President Roosevelt as Collector of Customs at Charleston, S.C., created a furor.)
On May 18th, 1903 The (Belleville) Daily News-Democrat published an article authored by Rev. Dr. Parkenherst in which he opined, “I have been informed that some of my critics have accused me of expressing regret that slavery days are over. That is no true. I have merely said that most niggers are unfit for citizenship. … The niggers will never be assimilated by this nation. They never will contribute in any part, toward forming the America of the future.”
Shocking thou these articles may have been, they were not uncommon for this era. The Seattle Republican noted, concerning opposition to Dr. Crum’s appointment, “…[I]t will be plainly seen that the daily papers are inclined to suppress the good inclinations of the Negro and prominently bring out his bad inclinations for the benefit of the reading public.”
Interest in Rev. Thomas’ lawsuit was high among white barbers in Belleville and East St. Louis who expressed fears that they would be forced to close shop if they “…were compelled to shave negroes or give them other tonsorial attention.” On May, 20th the lawsuit was tried before an all white jury. Mr. Baumgartner interposed the simple defense that if he served Rev. Thomas his white customers would cease patronizing his business. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Baumgartner in two minutes. Rev. Thomas announced his intent to appeal.
However, before Rev. Thomas’ appeal could be prosecuted David Wyatt, a black school teacher who had been denied renewal of his teaching certificate, shot the white Superintendent of Schools. Although the victim’s wounds were not fatal, a June 6th edition of the DND reported that an angry mob of two thousand assembled in front of the jail where Wyatt was being jailed crying “Lynch him!” “Hang him!” “Kill the black brute!” Among the mob which wanted to lynch Wyatt were some of the most prominent business men in the city.” The 6/9/1903 edition of the New York Herald reported, “It is doubtful if a lynching has ever been attended by such remarkable circumstances. …[The] crowd was made up of men of respectability, well dressed women-many leaning on the arms of escorts – and boys and girls. The sentiment of the crowd was as remarkable as its composition. It was as if all had turned out for a frolic. They gathered for a spectacle, and made merry over the prospect. Loud laughter greeted jokes with violent death as their theme. Demands for blood were cheered. Women were in front of the jail with baby carriages.
It was twenty minutes to twelve o’clock when the self- appointed announcers rushed to the windows and shouted gleefully, “We got him.” The crowd in the jail had broken into Wyatt’s cell. He had fought fiercely for his life. A blow from a sledge hammer felled him. A rope was tied around his neck. He was dragged … up to Main Street and to the center of the square.
A man riding a white horse led the way to an electric light pole in the square. The end of the rope was thrown over it. The body was drawn above the heads of the crowd, who cheered and waived hats. Men on the pole kicked Wyatt in the face. The swaying form was stabbed repeatedly. Mutilations followed. Kerosene was bought and poured over the body and it was set on fire, while the crowd cheered. The rope burned through and the body fell. More kerosene was poured on the body as the flames slowly consumed it.”
The East St. Louis Daily Journal 6/8/03 reported, “Still no mercy was shown. With clubs and stones the burning body was beaten into a shapeless mass. Within a hour after the terrible deed not enough was left of the body to tell that it had ever born human form.”
This all occurred “…in view of hundreds, including all of the city and county officials ….” Although the perpetrators operated without mask, a hastily called corner’s jury on 6/9/03 ruled that, “Cause of his death at the hands of parties unknown to the Jury.”
“Reporter F. A. Behymer of the St. Louis Post Dispatch in his article on the lynching, in Monday evening’s edition of the paper said:
“Not a single shot was fired. The authorities took no stand. The crowd was not ordered to disperse at any time. No attempt was made to disperse the people. The men making the disorder seemed to understand that they would be met with no determined opposition.”
Following the lynching the DND ran a series of incendiary articles in support of the lynching of Wyatt and of mob action and lynching of blacks in general.
Although the incident instigating the Wyatt lynching was an altercation between two men, the DND on 8/12/03 ran an article by John T. Graves who had lectured in Bellville at the Lyceum which appealed to the most pervasive racist sentiment.
“..[A]s a sheer, cold patent fact, the mob stands to-day as the highest and strongest and most potent bulwark between the women of the South and such a carnival of crime as would infuriate the world and precipitate the annihilation of the negro race. … The mob that shoots in Mississippi is answered by the mob that slays in Danville, Ill. Akron, O.., storms a negro’s refuge in jail almost in sight of Canton, where sleeps the martyr President- the best beloved man who has occupied the White House since the Father of His Country. Pana and Carterville thrust their murderous Winchesters into the black faces of the workmen who come to delve in the mines of Illinois.
A mob in Chicago ready with rope, chases a negro through the streets. ”
In an 8/26/03 DND article the author Rev. Harry Tucker, formerly of Murphysboro, IL wrote, “Brethren, there is a plague lowering like a storm- cloud over us that is more heinous and atrocious than the endemic lynching. It is pandemic divorce that is alienating affection, prostituting virtue, blighting hope and murdering more than any epidemic in the category of crime.”
In a 6/29/03 article the DND carried an article on a sermon by Rev. Dr. W. A. Bartlett headlined, “ EXCUSES LYNCHING, Rev. Bartlett of Chicago delivers sermon in defense of mobs, says the violators and not the mobs are the criminals.
Very soon attention turned to Rev. Thomas, perhaps resulting from a 6/6/03 DND article describing him as, “A vicious negro agitator” who “… has been busy in Belleville under the equal rights act.” He was threatened with same treatment as Mr. Wyatt unless he left town. He appealed for protection to the same law enforcement and public officials, who had stood by and watched Wyatt lynched, to no avail. He left Belleville after a desperate last resort plea to his fellow ministers and their unsympathetic sarcastic reply that “The Apostle Paul fled Damascus from the mob, and you are certainly no better than Paul.” The 6/9/1903 edition of The DND reported with great relishment that, “Rev. Charles Thomas, the nigger preacher of “equal rights” fame …has “flew the coop and left for parts unknown. … The course pursued by the “equal rights’ nigger who wanted to take the place and enjoy the privileges of a white man, may in part be attributed to the work of the people Saturday night.”
On June 10th, 1903 East St. Louis flooded and large numbers of displaced persons, black and white, fled to Belleville. The initial response was an outpouring of charity. Shelters were set up and calls went out for donations of clothing. This benevolence subsided with realization of the prospect that the temporary residents would become permanent. Of particular concern was the presence of new blacks in the community who “didn’t know their place.”
The disastrous 1903 Food changed the political landscape of St. Clair County. The creation of the East Side Levy and Sanitation District and its control would usher in Democratic Party dominance in St. Clair Count. Also, when the waters subsided enterprising but unscrupulous persons purchased abandoned homes in the low lying area in sight of East St. Louis City Hall and established the internationally notorious prostitution district known as “The Valley.” It operated with impunity until Scott Field (Scott Air Force Base), out of concern for the health of its service men, intervened and caused its shut down during WWII.
Rev. Thomas’ lawsuit would prove significant beyond the barbershop dispute. Defending the case for Baumgartner would be Herbert Schaumleffel, who would go on to become state’s attorney and prosecute the black defendants falsely charged with causing the infamous East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917.
The callous disregard for law and order exhibited in the Wyatt lynching would prove a precursor for the 1917 Riot in which the festival of violence of the Belleville lynching would be repeated on a much grander scale. The major black defendant Dr. Bundy, falsely charged with inciting the riot, in part because of the lynching of Wyatt, would seek a change of his murder trial from Belleville to a less hostile venue. Ironically his sensational trial, which would attract international news coverage, was transferred to the small-white- farming community of Waterloo. IL.
By Judge Milton S. Wharton
The Honorable Judge Milton S. Wharton is a retired Associate Judge from the Twentieth Judicial Circuit of Illinois and a life long resident of East St. Louis, Illinois. The photograph used and the title of the article was by this blogger and used for the purpose of the blog. The article (unchanged and not edited) appears as written. I would recommend your reading of the “About” section of the blog site and “strongly recommend the book, The Warmth Of Other Suns, The Epic Story Of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.