Relief Efforts in East St. Louis
When one thinks about the Great Depression of the 1930s, one generally thinks of the many people out of work and Franklin Roosevelt's efforts to establish agencies such as the CCC, WPA, CWA, NYA, TVA, PWA, and many other government programs implemented to relieve the Depression. Because Roosevelt was such a dynamic leader, people have not concentrated as much on the relief activities that took place before he became president. This article looks at some of those activities in one locale.
With the stock market crash in the fall of 1929, people finally began to realize that the nation's economy was in bad condition. The warning signs had been present for months; however, little attention was paid, largely due to the continued rise of stock prices. After the crash, people realized the plight of the farmers and the unemployed urban workers.
In the beginning, actions taken to help the unemployed came not from the national government or the state but from the individual local communities, especially from local private groups. Outside of Chicago, one of Illinois' most industrialized areas was St. Clair County. Sixty-eight percent of the county's residents lived in urban areas while five thousand people were directly involved with farming. The largest urban area in the county was the city of East St. Louis with a population of 75,000.
During the first six months of the Depression, local government officials did not consider conditions to be as bad as the rest of the nation. In the spring of 1930, however, local officials began to change their minds because of increasing unemployment. In June 1930, more than two thousand people were unemployed in East St. Louis.
With the increasing number of unemployed people, local officials began to make efforts to organize projects to help those in need. While local officials talked about helping the unemployed, the actual work in the early months of the Depression was carried out by private agencies or committees of private citizens. It was only when these groups were not able to raise enough funds that local, state, and finally the federal government stepped in to help.
In East St. Louis, it was the children of the unemployed who were helped first. Mrs. W. D. Bethel, president of the local chapter of the Parents-Teachers Association, reported on the increasing number of children who were coming to school undernourished. It was believed that this affected the children's classwork. A hot soup program was started. Franklin School was selected to begin the program. It was patterned after the Granite City program. Meals were cooked at the school. Eventually sixteen East St. Louis schools were involved. Local bakers do-
Before the federal government organized relief programs, cities and counties worked futilely to help their citizens; eventually programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) gave people steady jobs with steady income. The CCC hired mostly young men and boys to "increase, preserve and restore the natural resources of the United States."
ILLINOIS HISTORY / MAY 1993
nated two hundred loaves of bread daily. The Community Chest Fund, which was to handle the relief program, was also given $175. Meat packers gave soup bones while local grocers donated fresh vegetables. PTA officials pointed out that the school lunch was the only meal of the day tor some children.
Sporting events seem to have been one of the favorite activities organized to raise funds. Businesses in East St. Louis organized baseball teams and played each other. A total of $137 was collected from a double-header. The money was given to the Community Fund Special Gift Campaign. That was exactly what President Herbert Hoover hoped would take place to help the needy. He called on every community in the United States to establish its own relief program.
In the fall of 1931, with the baseball season ending and the football season beginning, the gate receipts from football games were also used to raise funds. Former area football players organized into teams and played each other before an audience of 450 people. Each person was charged thirty-five cents. Twenty-five percent of the East St. Louis Senior High School home football game receipts were also donated. The sum of $835 was given to two women's charity organizations and to the Community Fund.
Music groups were also organized to help raise funds. On the night of March 31, 1931, the Lans-downe Improvement Association of East St. Louis sponsored an entertainment program at East St. Louis Senior High School. The Association asked that no money be given. Instead, a request was made for food, clothing, and other materials to help the needy. About one thousand people attended, and $300 in food items was donated. For those not interested in the musical entertainment, the program included two amateur boxing matches.
Another fundraising event involving music was a dance held by the East St. Louis Senior High School sororities. Two hundred people attended. One unusual thing about the dance was that there were no chairs. In order to emphasize the plight of the poor, wooden boxes substituted for seating.
Private business companies not only helped feed school children but they began to give donations to help all in need. Sanitary Milk Products, Inc., which consisted of 526 producers in twenty Illinois and Missouri counties, gave various communities 50,000 quarts of milk. East St. Louis received 1,500 to 4,000 quarts. Allotments were based on population. The producers also donated money as did employees for East St. Louis Kroger Grocery stores. With the money, eighteen hundred loaves of bread were passed out to needy families.
While private companies were doing their part to meet the needs of the unemployed, community organizations began to increase their efforts to help. The Good Fellows' major charitable event was to collect clothes. In the past, collection began near Christmas. However, with the increasing number of unemployed, the Good Fellows began in mid-October. Forty local drugstores became collection points, and area cleaners cleaned the clothes before they were given out. The goal was ten thousand items; the successful clothing drive yielded fourteen thousand items.
Since President Hoover had suggested that each individual community take care of its own relief efforts, in East St. Louis it became the responsibility
of the Community Chest (today's United Way) to collect the necessary funds. Once the money was collected it was given to the Queen's Daughters, Protestant Women's Welfare League, and the Black Old Folks Home. A relief station was established at 137 North Fourth Street. It was at this location in early January 1931, when 1,473 families or a total of 7,350 individuals were helped. In the beginning, $10,000 was given for the relief help. Officials of the Community Chest had to go to the public two more times to raise more money. The relief effort was helped by the continued advertising for money donations in the East St. Louis Journal. Relief station workers donated their time to work at the station and to investigate relief clients.
By 1932 the Depression began to show its effects on the amount of donations collected. Although a goal of $110,000 was set, only $75,000 was collected. Six of the cities' theaters held special programs. Tickets were printed free. Even this did not help. However, enough items were bought with the money to begin the relief project. With the funds, foodstuffs were bought at wholesale prices.
At the same time, the idea of relief work was introduced. While private citizens donated the money, the work relief carried out was intended to help the community. In East St. Louis, for example, forty men began to work clearing streets, alleys, and lots. East St. Louis officials copied that plan from the Grand Rapids, Michigan, program. The Salvation Army was the first to use that type of work relief in East St. Louis.
Yet another activity was started to help the needyŚcommunity gardens. The first community gardens in East St. Louis were planted in April 1931. In the first year, 2,960 pounds of seeds (radishes, onions, peas, and tomatoes) alone were planted in East St. Louis.
In 1932 the East St. Louis Chamber of Commerce was assigned the task of finding additional plots, with the hope that the relief gardens would produce surplus crops. Officials of the closed American Steel Foundry decided to allow the use of a two-acre area along Missouri Avenue, Gaty Avenue, and the Southern Railroad line as a community garden. The company plowed the land, and it was to be gardened by former steel workers. More than two hundred gardens were planted through the spring of 1932. International Harvester donated a tractor and other tools. Owners of the individual plots pledged to work a half day each week at the general community gardens. Community gardens continued to be planted throughout the Depression.
Canneries were another activity that started early in the Depression and continued throughout the 1930s. The major problem during the 1930s was not the lack of farm produce, but the lack of money to buy it. Many believed that if canneries could be started, food could be canned and used in the winter. The second floor of the former East St. Louis public library located on Broadway Avenue was to be used as the cannery. Samuel Ryebon, a state sociologist, said that he was happy to see East St. Louis take the steps to establish a cannery. He believed that canneries were important for the following reasons: to help conserve food which might be wasted, to address needs through the winter, and to allow unemployed people to work. This would help bolster self-respect.
As was hoped, many items were donated. For example, a Centralia fruit grower gave eighty bushels of peaches. The owners of the Weinberg Orchards allowed windfallen apples to be picked up for use at the cannery. As a result, 131 bushels of apples were collected. According to the plan, white relief clients would work one day while the black relief clients would work the next day. At the end of its first attempt. East St. Louis relief clients canned 7,100 quarts of peaches, 5,000 cans of apple butter and sauce, and several cans of tomatoes, string beans, grapes, and pears.
By the presidential election year 1932, in spite of efforts by private agencies to help the needy, economic conditions had not improved. Conditions actually worsened. Now local government took an increasing role. Work relief programs were started. It was believed that with work relief, people could maintain self-respect. Others saw work relief as a way to weed out those not deserving relief. Men were put to work cleaning vacant lots overgrown with weeds, as well as weeds along roadways. Lakes and ponds in the East St. Louis District were dredged. Workers were paid $3 per day.
As conditions worsened, local officials began to look to the state government for help. In 1932 the Illinois Emergency Relief Commission (IERC) was established with $20 million. The funds were used to carry out local work projects and continue community canneries and gardens. During 1933 the Ainad Shrine Temple became the major location for canning activities. However, even the funds given to the local governments by the state were not enough.
Eventually the federal government began to help. But help came slowly and the emphasis continued to be on local government relief. Unfortunately a complete recovery did not take place until the coming of World War II.Ś[From Belleville Daily Advocate, May 21 and July 6, 1932; Mar. 4, and Ap. 12, 1933; East St. Louis Daily Journal, Mar. 16, June 12, Nov. 29, and Dec. 12, 1930; Jan. 7, 22, 25, Feb. 9, Mar. 19, Ap. 10, 17, Aug. 16, 28, Sept. 6, 7, 13, 18, 23, Oct. 16, 18, 19, 20, Nov. 8, 16, 25, 27, Dec. 3, 6, and 14, 1931; Jan. 12, 13, 14, and 31, Feb. 7, Mar. 4, 15, Ap. 17, May 8, Aug. 10, 1932; and Mar. 19, June 11, Sept. 24, 1933; U.S. Statutes at Large, vol. 68; and U.S. Federal Civil Works Administration for Illinois, Reports by Administrators for the Following County, St. Clair.]