White riot, 1920

08-17-1920 negro's home burned small
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 17, 1920

The East St. Louis Massacre of 1917, a series of riots triggered by white labor’s reaction to the employment of Black workers as strikebreakers, left dozens, if not hundreds, of Black residents dead and thousands homeless. But workplace-related racist violence continued in the region for years, albeit on a smaller scale.

On Friday, Aug. 13, 1920, the owners of a coal mine in Coulterville, Illinois, faced with a shortage of white workers, decided to make a Black worker, William Morrison, work in a pit hitherto reserved largely for whites. But the white miners refused to work with Morrison. And they again refused  on Saturday, Aug. 14.

On Monday, Aug. 16, the mine operators waited until the whites were underground before attempting to send Morrison below. But the operator of the cage declined to take Morrison down the shaft – and was promptly discharged. When word spread, the white miners quit working and within hours, they burned Morrison’s house down.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in a report on Aug. 17 by an unnamed staff correspondent, said Morrison and his family, as well as other Black residents, fled in the aftermath of the violence. Subsequent reports, primarily from the newspaper in Chester, the county seat of Randolph County, offered additional details. Three men — Walter Cairns, Elmer Dickinson and Jim Vickers — were charged on Aug. 20 in the connection with the arson; three others — Frank Smith, Tom (surname unreadable) and Charles Spiegel — were added later to the state’s case. But there were likely many more involved: An investigation found there were at least five vehicles present when the house burned.

On Oct. 7, 1920, the Chester Herald-Tribune reported that Morrison, who sued Randolph County, was awarded $950 by a jury for the loss of his house — a fraction of what the house was valued. The newspaper said evidence in the case showed it was worth at least $2,500, and “Morrison claimed his loss to have been over $3,000.” That Morrison was awarded anything was remarkable: During the trial, Randolph County State’s Attorney Alfred D. Riess — a Democrat who later served on the state appellate court — attempted to argue that Morrison “may have set fire to the house himself.” The jury clearly didn’t buy that argument.

When the arson case finally came before a grand jury in September 1921, Riess’s successor, Republican Logan F. Hachman, dropped it. No explanation was reported.

The thin coverage leaves many questions unanswered: Did Morrison actually collect his judgment? Was he compensated by his employer, the St. Louis-based West Virginia Coal Co. of Missouri? Did he leave town — and where did he go? In the 1920 Census, a William Morrison, 42, and his wife, Willa, 28, are listed as Coulterville residents — but a cursory search doesn’t find them in subsequent public records.

Coulterville’s population peaked in 1920 at 1,407. It’s currently estimated at less than 900. Like most of surrounding Randolph County, it is overwhelmingly white. (Originally published Aug. 18, 2020)

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