Race Riot Relic
“You’re gonna get shot!”
Such was the general reaction of my friends when I told them that East Saint Louis of the proud state of Illinois was my next destination. For those unfamiliar with the city, it is one of the highest-crime areas (some say highest) in the whole of the U. S., boasting a murder rate of 84 per 100,000 persons per year. For perspective, Gary, Indiana has a bad reputation with only half East Saint Louis’ murder rate: 48 per 100,000. The national average is 7.
“But,” I reasonably retorted to my skeptical comrades, “You shouldn’t avoid history on account of its hiding spot!”
East St. Louis is for the Lovers
Armour Packing Plant is infamous to ruin-lovers for its particular vastness, signature rubble and iconic smokestacks. It’s better known for being abandoned than ever being active, maybe because nobody remembers the times when thousands of voiceless, subjugated workers stomped these floors smooth. Probably, though, no one wants to talk about that era—the long lost, more manual one. Like after a bad day, when you just want to sleep and forget, to not be bothered with the minutia of a long slog.
Enter the self-proclaimed “Hog Capital of the Nation.”
A twisted reputation foremost on their minds, a van, two cars and a truck exit from Missouri into a nondescript industrial district, barely taking note of the abandoned cars off the side of the street while, on the horizon two smoke stacks slowly spear the blue sky.
Gallery: The Stacks
Which End of the Hog Ya Ate
Exasperated ruin, poverty, and smiles all ‘round. This place had a story to tell, but all I had was a camera and writer’s mind; stepping through the woods and torn fence line I felt driven to apologize to the mass of brick, pipes and intangibles; I had to look back to see forward.
East Saint Louis has long held a flavor of industry, beginning as one of the earlier western railroad connections, an impressive 12 rail lines in 1882 more than doubled by 1900, mostly constructed to serve ‘National City,’ a giant industrial park. National City, in order to attract new business, had a very low tax rate; this had already brought in two packing plants in the 1870s, which soon gave the area the reputation as a blemished place that one would not venture within a mile of without good cause.
Construction & Authenticity
Armour Packing Plant broke ground in 1900 and by 1902 production had gone into full swing, pausing only for a short while in the autumn when a catastrophic flood overtook the area, washing away property and livestock in the Mississippi. After a couple successive expansions the plant employed upwards of 5,000 people, mostly constituted by a mix of Blacks and immigrants; the packing industry being as much a stimulant for the racial tension as any other factor in East Saint Louis at the time.
Initially, white workers were the privileged class to work in Armour Packing, where a system called ‘vertical integration’ led cattle, sheep and hogs up a series of twisted concrete and brick ramps (think of a city parking ramp layout) into the top floor of the plant to be slaughtered. As they were cleaned and dressed they would work their way down the successive floors. Business was good—between 1894 and 1904, National City Stockyard’s receipts jumped 70% for hogs and 135% for sheep—a lot of which can be owed to Armour Packing’s new plant, which only gleaned about 59 cents from each head for profit.
In Favor of Labor
The labor was closely negotiated for by the local union, the American Federation of Labor, or AFL, which banned blacks. Prevailing racism in the 1910s held that white workers required better (less brutal) positions in the plant because they had families to support. This feeling was so institutionalized that one Armour manager noted that, when it came to race, Armour always, “Gave the white man preference when hiring labor.” However, East Saint Louis’ population was exploding as train loads of Southern Blacks escaped the joblessness and bigotry of states like Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama for the promise of work.
However, the incoming African-American labor, freshly arrived under the smog of the packing plant smoke stacks and choking on the deathly stink of mass slaughter were not welcomed into their new jobs as equals.
Armour appeased its racist white union organizer’s demands of past strikes and had long segregated its washrooms, dressing rooms and canteens to limit cross-race social contact. Of course, as Marx would point out, this stratification of the working class greatly limited the effectiveness of said unions, a fact demonstrated as Black workers became more prized for the fact they didn’t strike when the white labor force did… a reality that focused a laser beam on the racial tension.
Race & Riots
By 1917, as the river flushed away the blood of millions of animals, the streets became stains under the violence of large-scale race riots. I don’t wish to go into detail beyond the significance of the riots on Armour specifically; the subject of these conflicts has thousands of pages written on it and to paraphrase here would not to justice to the truly ‘American’ cause of freedom.
During the riots, many companies (although I can’t confirm Armour was among the list) allowed African-American workers to leave their shifts early so to get back to their homes, often hand-built wooden shack: Blacks on the streets of after dark were likely to be beaten, shot, or lynched… and this happened at the same time that a smallpox outbreak spread through the Black workforce at Armour. It was a bad time to be in East Saint Louis.
Rusted, Busted History, Misery
When those accused of racial murders stood trial later in 1917, Blacks refused to work; the impact of which was represented in a nearly 50% drop in productivity at Armour Packing.
However, a pervasive theme forms from the foggy, sometimes bloody past: progress rules all.
Every job, industry and occupation will one day be usurped with technological advancements. As railroads were replaced by planes and trucks, plants moved where the labor was and not where the trains ran. So, although World War II sustained the packing industry in East Saint Louis for a short time Armour Packing Plant finally closed in 1959, terminating 1,400 jobs, a relative skeleton staff compared to mere decades prior.
Stepping over tree trunks, makeshift road blocks intended to repel curious inquirers like myself, I found myself in a crossroads between a building and a ruin—the intersection of cultural memory and industrial history.